What's next for email?

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To take the pulse of email trends and best practices, BtoB East Coast Bureau Chief Christopher Hosford recently conducted a virtual roundtable discussion with email marketing executives. Participating were Christopher M. Litster, senior VP-sales and marketing, Constant Contact; Bonnie Malone, director-response consulting, Return Path; Pamela McAtee, senior VP-digital solutions, Epsilon; Jon Miller, VP-marketing and strategy, Marketo Inc.; and Dela Quist, CEO, Alchemy Worx. BtoB: Marketing has moved quickly in the past few years, with a number of new channels and trends emerging. What impact does this have on email? Bonnie Malone: One factor in the deliverability of email is the recent changes in Gmail. Gmail has moved to a tabbed format and there is hubbub in the industry about what this means for opens and read rates. Actually, though, this is nothing new; it's just the next evolution of Google's efforts to engage with subscribers, to make the email experience more convenient and easier, and to say to the user, “This is not spam.” Jon Miller: Yes, it's all about engagement and trust. Now marketers' emails are going into Gmail's marketing tab, but with enough consistent clicks that email will start going into the priority box. So if you're sending engaging emails, your message will actually be more likely to get to the inbox. But to make this happen, the way marketers think about email needs to change. Email as a channel grew out of a direct marketing mindset 15 years ago, with incentives to get the right message to the right people. But for most marketers, batch-and-blast is the way they're doing email, and the targeting discipline has gotten a little sloppy. Many marketers aren't well built for real-time, behavior-based messages that are targeted off someone's recent Web or e-commerce activities. Pamela McAtee: I agree. The days of sending one piece of content to an entire list has evolved now to where many marketers are doing at a minimum segmented communications and more are striving to do true dynamic content; and, when possible, even real-time personalization based on what transactions the recipient is actually doing. I'm seeing this happening at a rapid rate—and in the b-to-b world, not just retail. Dela Quist: When I'm looking at trends in email, I'm focusing on how people will manage human needs. Your email address is actually your unique identifier. If you don't have an email address, it's the digital equivalent of being homeless. You're just not commercially viable. You could argue that your cell phone number is possibly competitive with your email address as being the identification that people default to, but that hasn't happened. There's a good chance a marketer can get my email address, but zero chance he'll get my cell phone number. Christopher M. Litster: The impact has really been in the other direction—by email to these other channels—because it's at the core of all these other things. For example, with online event registration, the important thing is to get people to know it's going on; and invites are sent by email. And for Facebook campaigns, the best practice is to continue to amplify the campaign's life by sending notifications to your email list to drive them to Facebook. I think of email being the base, with all these other things being helped and amplified. However, one of the biggest things impacting the very nature of email is mobile. BtoB: What impact in particular is mobile having? Litster: Mobile is an incredible way to get messages to people simply because the smartphone is in everyone's hands. For example, our research tells us that 43% of email is now opened on a mobile device, versus 32% on a desktop and 25% in general Web mail. However, what we're also seeing is that mobile is a prioritization device, to note and flag email so when you get in front of a desktop or tablet you can dive deeper and consume the content. That doesn't mean if you have mobile-optimized email that people won't take action if it's readable, short and clear-cut, and has a strong call to action. McAtee: A lot of our clients are doing time-of-day testing, which ties into mobile use. What we're seeing is that people are opening email on their mobile device in the middle of the day and later on their desktops. And time-of-day analysis is helping marketers figure out where and when people are actually making transactions—and that's typically on a desktop. So make sure you're sending your email when someone is more likely to be on a desktop. That's especially important for b-to-b. The content on mobile devices still has to be readable, and in a format where prospects still can make a decision to delete or transact later. So designing for mobile is important. Quist: The mobile phone is only just broadening your ability to receive and interact with your emails. That's important, yes; but what does it mean? Nothing changes. You triage on your cell phone when you have nothing better to do—for example on the train. True, that moment constitutes very important branding; and, even if you delete the message, you've received the message. But if you see something you want to purchase (while reading email) on a cell phone, you'll wait until later in the day and make the transaction on a tablet or desktop. BtoB: But what about the impact of marketing automation platforms? That's surely having an impact on email, with behavioral targeting and triggers? Quist: Think about what's driving email. Is it segmenting your list five different ways? No, it's list size and frequency. A bad marketer with the best marketing automation tools is worse than a great marketer with no tools whatsoever. If you think marketing automation will change your life, it won't. In theory, if you have everyone on your list and you've worked out the perfect frequency and have all the perfect offers, maybe the only place left is to use marketing automation tools. But the point is, most marketers are far away from that stage. As for triggered emails, there are only three types of triggers: event-, time- and behavior-based. And behavior is a combination of event and time, so effectively you only have two. So should you send triggered emails? You're just second-guessing the prospect's intent. It works sometimes but not always, and it's not clever. BtoB: The last couple of years have seen severe security breaches of email databases. What's new on the security front? Malone: We're seeing phishing on a massive scale, with general email coming in to recipients along the lines of, “You've won the lottery in the U.K. Click here.” This may prompt you to open, click and allow the phisher to access your information. But the biggest concern here in the b-to-b world is “spear phishing.” This is where phishers are more focused and target individuals within a business. They might send an email instructing you, specifically and by name, that your specific email service has been reset and to log in to reset a password. The criminals are smart, and we have to be a step ahead. BtoB: What might be the ultimate impact of social on email marketing? Malone: I don't see it as a threat to email but more a complementary strategy where marketers are looking for social ... to drive sign-ups for email. Email is still the dominant focus of small-to-midsize companies in particular, for a continuous conversational experience with subscribers. Miller: I think many people thought social would overwhelm email. But you can't sign up for those social networks without an email address. And when a social network needs to communicate something important to you, such as a data breach, they send you an email. There are three ways social and email coordinate: with social connecting, sharing and promoting. Connecting is when you use an email list to build social awareness, such as putting a “follow us” link in the message. Sharing is when you try to have a subscriber share your email content on their social networks, to amplify the message. And social promoting is using a social network to drive email marketing—for example, putting out a tweet asking people to subscribe to your email list. BtoB: There has been much talk about the problem with email metrics and that those old standbys, opens and clicks, aren't sufficient. What are your thoughts about optimum email metrics? Miller: Marketers are going beyond opens and clicks and toward more strategic metrics, such as engagement and revenue impact. The problem with opens and clicks is, first, one email might have great opens, and a second email great clicks and a third great conversion rates. But which one was the most engaging? That makes it hard to manage what you want to manage, which is engagement and revenue. The CEO doesn't care about open rates but only which email drove the most revenue. E-commerce marketers have known that for years, but b-to-b marketers have had a harder time making that connection. McAtee: Opens and clicks are still important. If you're not getting people to open, they won't click or transact. That is why people do subject line testing, to get the opens. But for many b-to-b marketers, site visits or time on site is just as important as a conversion metric. That's especially true for those with longer sales cycles, getting prospects interested with content or to learn more about a product. BtoB: Email list-building is a popular topic of discussion among marketers. What influences are you seeing here? McAtee: B-to-b marketers looking for sources have to be cautious. While online publications ask for opt-ins for third-party communications—for example, after someone signs up for a piece of content—it's sometimes pretty inconspicuous to the subscriber. For b-to-b marketers who are going after executive-level contacts, it actually can have a negative impact. Marketers are getting smarter and realizing that list rentals and other types of name acquisitions might not have the same ROI as in the past, and they're looking for other methods for acquisition, such as display ads to promote a white paper or webinar. BtoB: What's on the horizon for email marketing? What significant issues will email marketers face in the coming years? Quist: Probably one of the most significant things that's happening to email is Google's new inbox ads that look like emails. The reason that's interesting is that, unless someone stops them, Google is circumventing the CAN-SPAM laws that relate to electronic messages. But if it doesn't get shut down, it's a huge opportunity to reach people who may have unsubscribed. If you send an ad that looks and acts like an email, and is treated like email and can stay in the inbox like an email, tell me that's not an email. This means something else as well. Most advertising is done by the media department. Email is an exception; it gets done by a combination of the IT and direct-response people. My feeling is that Google's new inbox ads will bring email to the media folks, and then you'll have a ton of people with no experience in email wondering how to optimize it. And it also allows Google to sell behavioral data by reading people's emails. I think once media gets involved in email, that's potentially transformative. Litster: The future is bright and expansive, because email builds on all these new ways of gaining engagement and marketing perspective. Email rounds the circle. It will always be there to reach people, regardless of their device, be it their watch or Google Glass. People live in their email inbox. Malone: We've seen email become more and more personal—consider that the spear phishing threat I mentioned before is a personal attack. But by the same token, lots of marketers are embracing engagement. This means making sure to send content to those who are engaging with it and in setting expectations about this content that it is compelling and interesting.
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