E-mail marketing at crossroads

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As e-mail inboxes become and more cluttered, marketers find themselves grappling with declining open and click-through rates—and perhaps the future of e-mail marketing itself. Concern about the future of e-mail marketing and how to cope with changing customer behavior was on display this month at the E-mail Evolution 2011 expo and conference in Miami, sponsored by the Direct Marketing Association. “I am firmly convinced that [no marketers] care about their customers enough,” said video blogger and entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk, a keynote speaker at the conference. (Vaynerchuk hosts the Wine Library TV blog and runs a large wine-retailing business.) The culprit, Vaynerchuk said, is an e-mail industry that is too self-referential, focusing on brands and promotional offers instead of the interpersonal, “more human” characteristics of social media. “All we're doing is pounding people's faces,” he said. “We're talking too much. In the ecosystem we live in now, based on word-of-mouth, the currency is trust, appreciation and humanization. But when something comes from the heart, it changes the entire relationship.” A new comScore report released last week quantified reasons for much of the concern. According to the company's “2010 U.S. Digital Year in Review,” total Web e-mail usage was down 8% overall in 2010. Teens—the decision-makers of tomorrow—seem to be abandoning the channel even faster, largely in favor of social messaging platforms. Last year, Web e-mail usage dropped 59% among this group, but it also fell 18% among the 25-to-34 age group, and an average of 10% among those 35 to 54. (ComScore's behavioral data, comparing December 2010 e-mail usage to the same period a year earlier, was drawn from its Media Metrics panel of 1 million U.S. e-mail users.) DMA CEO Larry Kimmel agreed that e-mail faces a number of challenges, including not being sufficiently integrated with social and mobile marketing. “But the core of all social networking sites is e-mail,” Kimmel said. “We love social, but very few people on the planet know how to quantify and monetize it. E-mail provides a wealth of answers for customers and marketers. As we get good at personalization, e-mail can cut through the clutter.” Many marketers are trying to do just that. As analytics automation and behavioral targeting become more precise and ubiquitous, savvy marketers will increasingly employ triggered e-mail messaging, according to conference presenters. Adrian X. Olivera, manager-global CRM and business development at computer manufacturer Dell Inc., presented a strong argument, based on his experience with a recent campaign targeting small-business owners, that triggered e-mail is appreciated by recipients. Using Web analytics solutions from SiteCatalyst, Dell identified registered small-business subscribers searching online for particular Dell products. Triggered e-mails were sent within one to two days, highlighting a variety of Dell products rather than the specific product searched for, and with no particular offer so as not to turn off recipients with a blatant marketing overture. The result: Open rates were twice that of untriggered messages, click-through rates were six times higher, and both revenue and margins were twice that of standard e-mails, Olivera said. “Be responsible and transparent with your messages,” he said, stressing the need for e-mail marketers, e-mail service providers and technology teams to work closely. “Challenge your e-mail service provider and other partners, and leverage your Web analytics team to integrate directly with the ESP.” Relevant but gentle triggered reminders also worked well for online travel company Travelocity, which used a dual-trigger campaign to convert active searchers. Travelocity, however, was more aggressive with offers. Jennifer Mueller, Travelocity global CRM technology manager, said the company tracks subscribers who search for certain city pairs, then sends a discount offer within 30 days or within seven days of indicated travel plans. The campaign, titled “It's a Good Day to Buy,” was handled in-house and produced two to three times better open and click rates, Mueller said. Technology also is doing its part to help keep e-mail relevant. Major Internet service providers are moving quickly to make e-mail look and behave like Web pages, a channel where seemingly everyone is comfortable. EEC11 offered previews of what e-mail can—and should—look like. New and emerging Web-like features include auto-play video within e-mails, automatic control over sending frequency, offers based on geo- location or time of day and social interactivity directly within an e-mail. Gmail, Hotmail and Yahoo Mail are implementing some of those new interactive features to enable marketers to target users with richer content, according to some EEC11 presenters. However commercial e-mail clients, such as Lotus Notes and Outlook, are not as active yet in this arena. One pending feature is expiring e-mails, where a message will self-delete from a recipient's inbox once a time-sensitive message or offer expires. Another is the increasing use of HTML5 coding instead of Flash, which promises to make video work right in an inbox without the recipient having to visit a corresponding website. And real-time serving of content enables e-mails to refresh messages each time they're opened and (with geo-location) where they're opened. “In a way, the rise of social media has caused the Internet service providers to wake up and to realize that they need to do things that make the user experience more attractive and profitable,” said Aaron Smith, VP-campaign services at e-mail marketing company Responsys Inc.
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