On Saturday, I took the kids to the Houston Museum of Natural History to see its exhibit of the famous Chinese Terracotta Army.
One of the things that I keep stressing to my kids as we have started homeschooling them is that history is all about the stories, not the names or places or the dates, but the stories. And this has it all: a megalomaniac emperor obsessed with provisions for the afterlife; a couple of assassination attempts (at least); pictures of people being shoved into pits by soldiers, buried up to their necks and then said necks receiving the axe; and, of course, this amazing army and royal court created to serve the emperor in the next life. Fascinating stuff.
The thing that shows the silliness of the emperor (Qin Shi Huang, if you care), is that about five years after his death a warlord broke in, took all of the terracotta army’s weapons, and then burned the wooden structure. It’s said that the fire lasted for three months, but what is absolutely known is that this fire caused the roof to cave in and shatter the army.
When the emperor was preparing all of this, I’m pretty sure that he did not envision several things:
that someone would break in and take the weapons
that the whole structure would catch fire
that his entire army would be shattered when the roof caved in.
This army was supposed to be the emperor’s invincible might! But today, some 35 years after his 6,000 man army was discovered, it is only about 1/6th reconstituted (and the Chinese are doing a superb job of it, by the by). They are being rebuilt like 6,000 3D jigsaw puzzles in a process that my back-of-the-envelope math says will take a bit more than 200 years to complete at its current rate.
Often people look at their ESP or delivery consultant as the emperor did his clay pot army: “They will be the invincible might that makes email flow past the evil demons of spam filters and postmasters and into the glorious inbox.” And like the terracotta army facing the warlord’s arms-stealing minions, they don’t get to do much when something bad happens to that mail.
Why is that?
Let me suggest that it has a lot to do with why the terracotta army fell: lack of proper planning, and unrealistic expectations on the part of the client.
Whoa! The client?!? What?
The terracotta army was a failure, not because the army was poorly designed, but because the emperor had unrealistic expectations. He wanted an army to serve him in the spirit world, but created a physical proxy army to meet that need. And because the threat that his army faced was not the threat that they designed to work against they met with failure.
The first point of failure in client expectations comes when the client creates the mistaken assumption that revenue possibilities equates relevance to the subscriber. They don’t care much if you make a single dollar, ruble, yen, or euro from your campaign. Your revenue is not the subscriber’s concern and sending them mail with only the goal of creating more revenue is a losing proposition for you. When you send mail that is relevant to you but not to the subscriber then you are setting your ESP or delivery consultant up to be a stone army that has to stand impotently by while someone steals all of their weapons. Why? Because your ESP or delivery consultant is not able to create relevance or mitigate the damage that a lack of relevance creates.
The second point of failure comes when the client refuses to listen to the right information gleaned from the tools that are given to them and thus fails to properly plan for the future. Qin Shi Huang, we were told at the museum, had several stories about what he would face in the afterlife, including stories of large, fearsome demons. His solution to that problem was to build pottery warriors that were a 12 to 18 inches taller than the average adult Chinese man of the period. (I’m pretty sure that the demons were amused by this: Imagine, if you would, the fear you would feel if you were told that someone was setting up a bunch of bowling pins in defensive positions around them to keep you at bay.) The answer to getting more revenue from mailings is not always to “send more mail.” In fact, I would hazard a guess that just sending more mail is rarely the answer. Sending more relevant mail is probably at the top of that list. But, if you are not listening to your subscribers then you won’t know that. An increase in unsubscribe rates may be due to normal churn, a lack of relevance, list fatigue, or some combination of those (or maybe something else entirely). If your only answer to “how do we get more revenue from a smaller list?” is simply to “send more mail” then you have set up your ESP or delivery consultant to have to stand impotently by while the building burns down around them.
Finally, if you think that the answer to all delivery issues is for your ESP or delivery consultant to “call Yahoo” or “call AOL” or “call Barracuda” with details about your business model to them so that they can see that you aren’t really spamming, no matter what their clients are telling them, and then everything will be all better 30 seconds after the call, then you are suffering from a severe case of unrealistic expectations. Many (but not all or even most) ESP ISP Relations people and delivery consultants do have contacts at Yahoo, AOL, and other such places. But, those contacts give out their information with certain expectations in mind. First among them is that things will be thoroughly investigated and all potential issues will be resolved before that phone call gets made. A close second to that is that they fully expect that normal modes of communication (creating tickets, filling out forms, whatever it is that they do) will be tried and will have failed before that phone call gets made. Bypassing either of those is a very fast way for those contacts to stop being contact-able. So, expecting that of your ESP or delivery consultant is putting them in a situation that tells them that you want to force them to just stand there and watch as the roof caves in on top of them, crushing them.
ESPs and delivery consultants aren’t really terracotta warriors. They can do great things. But, they really do depend more and more on you to do your part so that they don’t have to look like impotent pottery warriors.