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The new subtlety

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E-mail marketing, perhaps the most mature of the digital channels, continues to evolve in small but significant ways. The “batch and blast” model is giving way to more careful segmentation, a closer relationship with Web analytics and a tighter integration with other marketing channels. As part of that maturing process, e-mail also seems to have become the most subtle of direct-marketing channels, a kind of digital tap on the shoulder—not pushy enough to be push marketing and, as a pull strategy, little more than a gentle “ahem.” “Right now, we're targeting people who know who we are and the value we can bring,” said Tim Madel, senior manager-global e-customer at Kennametal Inc., which manufactures metalworking tools and mining and construction equipment. He said Kennametal uses e-mail essentially to support customer satisfaction and loyalty, and to strengthen those ties with an abundance of helpful information. “We're using e-mail to promote a lot of educational programs,” said Madel, who uses e-mail and other marketing services from Lyris Inc. “For example, we use e-mail to drive our educational offerings, both physical and online training. And we have marketing bulletins that will talk about a new tool, go over its benefits, then link back to the website for demonstrations.”  Madel said he eventually wants to do more on the lead-generation front with e-mail. Until then, the medium will serve Kennametal primarily as a subtle ice-breaker. “What has changed wildly over the past few years is customer behavior,” Tim Kopp, CMO of e-mail marketing company ExactTarget, said of this low-key use of e-mail. “Marketers need to find out how their customers want to be engaged with. We've looked at various ways people want to be notified about upcoming webinars, for example. Some might want e-mail, but others might want voice or text alerts. But all these are means to an end, finding the right way to communicate.” Bridget Scott, a consultant on communication and wellness with insurance broker Benefit Associates, has found that e-mail is an effective way to cement loyalty by providing helpful, timely information. Scott, who manages Benefit Associates' marketing outreach, estimates that she distributes some 200,000 e-mail messages a year, including newsletters, updates on various insurance carriers, invitations to sponsored events and white paper offers. She also sends out e-mail invitations to live workshops and webinars, such as a recent one on how companies can adhere to health care compliance regulations. And wellness-oriented newsletters go out to the employees of Benefit Associates' corporate customers to encourage healthy personal behavior. “We don't like giving sales pitches, quite honestly,” said Scott, who uses e-mail solutions from ExactTarget. “We'd prefer that people know we're here to help them. We take a consultative approach, give people what they need and in turn they stay with us. We don't lose a lot of business.” In its newfound subtlety, e-mail can be seen as a natural adjunct to the social media conversation, a kibitzer that might interject something of value, but only when appropriate. According to a new study by marketing research company Econsultancy, 60% of marketers this year plan to include “follow us” links in their commercial e-mails, compared with 34.9% that did so in 2009. The company's “E-mail Marketing Industry Census 2010,” which surveyed about 900 marketers in January and February, also found that 64.2% intend to add sign-up forms on Facebook fan pages, compared with 30.7% last year; 53.3% will place a link to each e-mail message on social media pages, versus 25% in 2009; and 47.2% will include share options in e-mails, compared with 25% last year. As part of this accelerating integration with e-mail, social media is fast becoming the prime e-mail list-growth tactic. According to ExactTarget, there was almost a fourfold increase in 2009 in the percentage of e-mail marketers using social media for list building. “Social media is like a trade show, where you have cool swag and the odds are that you'll get a list of people interested in the bouncy ball you're giving away,” said Eric Groves, senior VP-global marketing development at Constant Contact. “A subset of those folks will engage at much deeper levels because they're interested in what you have to offer.” Inevitably, industry observers say, e-mail has matured from a tactic to a strategic means of influencing conversation and ultimately (it is hoped) buying intent. “The role of e-mail marketing is being driven by people's behavior, indicating where they are in the buying cycle,” said Loren McDonald, VP-industry relations at Silverpop. “People are voting with their interests, based on e-mail openings, click-throughs, white paper downloads and more. Successful b-to-b marketers are using e-mail as a strategic tool to move people down the sales funnel.” ExactTarget's Kopp sees e-mail as having given up its previous reputation as a nettlesome hard sell. It's been compelled to, he said. “Subscribers rule, meaning you serve the individual, honor his preferences on how he wants to be communicated with and deliver timely, relevant content,” Kopp said. “And if you're not doing those three things as a marketer, I don't know what you are doing.” Originally published April 12, 2010
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