Frameworks have been used to structure thinking, people and process effectively in many different industries. I created the email hierarchy of needs framework to help breakdown email marketing into distinct key elements and have found it helpful when working with clients on their email marketing programmes.

It’s inspired in part by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The concept is simple. Starting at the bottom of the pyramid each layer builds on the previous one. Each layer must be in place to advance to the next layer. For example, until you have email permission nothing else matters, then when you have permission you need to actually reach the inbox and so on through each layer.

I’ll summarise each of the layers, starting from the bottom and working up before going into how to apply it to deliver a coherent and well executed email programme.

Permission and profile management

Getting permission is an obvious first need in email marketing. This gives rise to questions. Where is permission being requested? Is it being requested effectively? How is the list being grown? Even once you’ve got it you need to keep it and manage it. Are the right people being emailed? Are you legal? What other customer profile data are you collecting and how is that managed? How are different sources of data integrated, what is the approach to CRM? Unfortunately you will sometimes lose permission, so have you got a rescue process in place? How are you learning about the reasons why permission is lost?


Reaching the inbox is always on the email marketers mind. How are you monitoring and checking your deliverability? Using a good ESP will ensure criteria such as whitelisting, DNS, authentication protocols and feedback loops are in place. What pre-send and spam checks are used? Beyond this a good reputation is needed. This is increasingly based on what your customers think of your emails. In short, low spam complaints, high opens and clicks build a good reputation. So doing a good job of the rest of the layers in the pyramid will do most of the work needed for deliverability.


Once the inbox has been reached the email has to display correctly. A message that can’t be read won’t get you very far. Does your email display as you intended in email clients, web browsers and on mobile devices? How will it look with images on and images off? Do images have ALT tags?

Email is much more than a printed flyer. Are functional elements of the email working? It’s sadly too often that emails are sent with links that go to the wrong place or personalisation that is not working. How about ensuring images are of small byte size so they load quickly? This is especially important with the trend to read emails on smartphones, where data connection speeds are lower. Processes such as recommend a friend, share to social or unsubscribe need not only to be present in the email but work when you click through. Have the processes changed or stopped working, when was the last time they were tested? Often they are added to a template and assumed they can never go wrong.


This is more than just how it looks, but is everything about how the email connects and carries your message to the customer. It’s much more than just creative design: what it says and how it says it, the copy and tone; the subject line and the consistency of message from subject through the body; choice of from name and calls to action copy; how the images fit and carry the emotion of the messaging. How is split testing being used to optimisation this layer? Testing can really tune the presentation and improve bottom line results.


Is the email appropriate to the customer? What is the customer expecting and wanting from your emails? Do they match those desires? How about the impact of timing and frequency? When and how frequently should the customer be contacted and about what? Sending too little or too much email? What of the balance between frequency and accuracy of targeting. A higher frequency of emails will be more acceptable if they are well targeted. This layer is all about using customer insight to drive content.


Answer the ‘what’s in it for me’ question. You may have negotiated your way through all the layers and messaged about a fabulous pair of shoes to the ideal shoe fanatic. However, if the shoes are poor value then it was all in vain. Value doesn’t have to mean a low price or one of free, win and save. Value can also be about providing a better service level, a more generous guarantee, providing valuable information, offering exclusivity or simply being entertaining.

Using the email hierarchy of needs

First be clear about your business goals and marketing objectives. Then review each layer of the email hierarchy of needs and consider these questions.

* Who owns and manages this layer?

* How is strategy mapped into this layer?

* What people skills are required?

* What processes are needed?

* What resources, tools and solutions are needed?

* What testing and refinement is used for continuous improvement?

* What metrics and KPIs should be used? How will overall ROI be measured?

Tim Watson

Tim Watson


Tim Watson is UK Operations Director at  Emailvision.