To take the pulse of the industry, BtoB East Coast Bureau Chief Christopher Hosford conducted a virtual roundtable of experts to solicit their views on email marketing trends, and the pressures on them from rapidly emerging channels such as social media and mobile. Participating in the virtual roundtable were Mike Hotz, associate director-strategic services at Responsys Inc.; Judy Loschen, VP-digital analytics at Aspen Marketing Services, a division of Epsilon; Ryan Phelan, VP-strategic services at BlueHornet; and Dela Quist, CEO of Alchemy Worx.
BtoB: Email marketing, while an important channel at most companies, seems to have an identity crisis—it is almost eclipsed by developments in search, social, mobile and other channels. Is email dying?
Quist: That perception of email marketing isn't borne out by the facts. Let me put it this way: Do you know of another channel that spends so much time calling itself crap, beating itself up about what it is? Most email experts say things like: “email must integrate with social to grow” or “must be a part of multichannel marketing,” and so forth. What other channel does that?
It's not sexy or exciting, but every organization in the world will never dispute the fact that email is the cheapest way of getting to market. Also, email actually is the engine that drives all e-commerce online, OK? It generates roughly half of all online traffic.
Hotz: Yes, there are all the new social channels out there, but I agree, email is that channel that brings them all together. For example, with social if you're getting noticed you'll be notified by email that somebody has posted to your wall.
Phelan: Email definitely isn't dead, but as marketers, we have become comfortable with massive volumes of email. This cadence of email can become almost overwhelming to the recipients. What we're seeing is a switch to less is better, more engagement is better. If you look at social media, it's a very engaging medium, a conversation. That's what email must strive for. Marketers with the higher ROI are the ones who have a conversation with the email recipient.
Loschen: Social right now is the big shiny object. But if you look at customer behaviors, the most engaged social consumers also are the most highly engaged email consumers. If you look at social and email synergy, high social and email engagement go together.
The good thing about email is it's a push channel, something to get in front of customers and direct them to a website. When you ask marketers about the ROI of their various channels, nobody has a grasp on their social initiatives, but there is a significant ROI through email.
BtoB: But email must be integrated with other channels, correct?
Phelan: What we're seeing with social media is, because of its conversational nature, it's reinforcing the [email] conversation. To be effective, email must be both a sales channel and a conversation. You can't just broadcast an offer of $20 off and free shipping. There is a population that enjoys that, but a larger group likes to have that conversation.
In addition, email and social can have a symbiotic relationship. A client of ours is KFC. This year they did a campaign about the new Double Down sandwich. The company chose to use email to introduce the sandwich into the marketplace, but the call to action was to share the news on social. There was no coupon or even store location in the email. But it generated a huge buzz. Social got a win because of the huge exposure that resulted, and email won because of everyone who clicked on those sharing buttons. In addition, the company can now segment its email recipients according to how they shared the email and market to them in different ways.
Hotz: Social can have a great impact on email. If you're monitoring a social community and see comments about you or a competitor not making great stuff, this is an opportunity to adjust your email with appropriate messages to take advantage of that, or correct it. And if somebody is raving about your product, you can and should use it in your emails.
Loschen: We work with some clients that have an email team siloed from their mobile and social teams. There is no conversation across channels. In the future, the winners will be those companies that start to align their organizations, to focus on the customer experience and all the channels they play in.
There is nothing that drags behavior from me better than an email with a specific ad targeted to my team; or when I'm on the Web and see a banner ad with that same message. And then I get a text message from that company, and the integration of messages reinforces the campaign.
Quist: The Direct Marketing Association here in the U.K. inserted a new question into its annual survey this year: "“hen you send an email to your entire list do you see an impact on other channels?” Marketers reported yes—a spike in search, in visits, in calls to stores. So email not only is impacting direct clicks but all other channels.
For every company, including social sites, email is the No. 1 driver. Only the people with no life spend all day on Facebook. Most of us go there only when we get a prompt, which is via email. Amazon emails us two or three times a week, but it doesn't bother us because you can unsubscribe. In fact, email is the only channel where consumers have a right to stop companies from harassing them. When you walk through Times Square you can't unsubscribe from seeing all those billboards, can you?
BtoB: Mobile marketing seems to have the potential of changing how email operates. What is your view?
Hotz: First of all, mobile impacts on frequency. Frequency means being smart about what you're mailing, because on mobile, your message will interact with recipients wherever they are.
Another thing to remember is to make sure users have a good mobile website experience. For many, mobile landing pages are hard to look at on a smart phone and even harder for people to make a purchase. In the early days, a great offer via email always dropped the visitor on the home page and he had to figure out how to find that offer—it's similar now with the mobile process. If you drop the visitor on a non-optimized landing page he'll go away.
Loschen: There's been a lot of analysis over the last few years, saying that including the sender's real name is more important than the subject line in prompting the recipient to open the message. It may be more important in mobile email. When I look at how my own mobile device renders in email, the “from” name is in bold blue and prominent, and the subject line is in a smaller font. Marketers must understand the experience of what the recipient is seeing when determining how to optimize for mobile email.
Phelan: What happened the last time you pulled up an email on a mobile device and it looked bad? What did you do with it? [You] probably deleted it. Or if the brand didn't make any sense to you, you'd delete it, or perhaps save it to look at later on your desktop computer; but that situation only applies if you really like the brand or are engrossed with the product.
Marketers have to realize that mobile email messages are different. You can't have robust text, for example. The mouse is now your finger, so you have to have buttons to accommodate that. And you have to provide an experience that's set for mobile. We don't know when people are checking their email on mobile, whether they're bored at a meeting or just rolled out of bed. As a result, day-parting is becoming less important. Now, marketers who want to focus on time of day aren't focusing on the message.
BtoB: Email was hit hard this year with phishing scams that compromised hundreds of millions of contacts in company databases. What's the future of email privacy and security?
Hotz: First, marketers need to [understand] how their data is being handled, and if there are processes in place for security. After the phishing storm blew over this year it made us at Responsys even stronger—everything now is encrypted, and codes are required before accessing the system.
Also, make sure your customers know you're dedicated to security right on the email signup page. If you put a link to your privacy policies right there you'll get a greater rate of signups.
Quist: Regarding criminality, email expert Ken Magill said this brilliantly. It's like the little old ladies in Detroit who lunch together, talking about crime downtown and how to stop it. But they have a police force for that. Spammers and phishers are criminals. To think you should do something yourself is pointless. Also, the majority of good brand emailers aren't responsible for these crimes.
If there is fear and loathing among email marketers, the reason is spam. Just the perception of being called a spammer is so upsetting to people that email marketers hate themselves for what they do. They begin to act unnaturally. How? By cutting the frequency of their emailing.
BtoB: What is the state of personalization and relevance in email marketing?
Quist: Only consultants worry about one-to-one marketing. It's important from a media perspective to make money. And if you can make more money by sending another email, that's a good thing to do. Why doesn't Amazon personalize their emails? Because it doesn't work; putting the recipient's name in the subject line takes away an opportunity to put another proposition in the subject line.
Yes, there is such a thing as too much frequency, but segmentation is the key. I would prefer to have a list of 1 million people, all of whom want what I sell, versus 1 million people who want various things. What business are you in? The business of getting people to buy whatever they want whenever they want? Or are you in the business of creating a market?
BtoB: What is email marketing today, and how is it developing?
Quist: Email is a media channel, not a direct-response channel. It has direct-response capabilities, which is fantastic, but it's really all about its presence in the inbox. Every email from Amazon tells you what Amazon does. Subconsciously you may remember subject lines about a certain product, and then you'll go to Amazon. That's branding, and email is a powerful branding tool.
Hotz: The next sure thing is in thinking about how to change the experience of the recipient, thinking less and less about broadcasting and more about buy cycles, based on some kind of action. The next thing is about providing a relevant experience on the website, with site content based on where the user came from.
Phelan: Both marketers and email have to get smarter. We've let the low cost of email get in the way of marketing. So marketers have gone from that direct-mail mentality with complex segmentation based on modeling and scoring and pieces that cost $2 apiece, to where we send lots of messages just because they don't cost anything. We need to regain the benefit statement of email. You can see that in how well triggers and lead-nurturing programs work.
Loschen: We're working with clients today to identify social amplifiers—what people are saying about you and your competitors—and bring that back into the CRM database. That way, when there is a product launch, they can see discussions under a given hash tag.
We'll see rich media and email integration more and more. A good example is integrating YouTube videos into email, pulling from a YouTube library. The preference for email on the one hand, or social on the other, won't go away. What will remain most important is how you design your campaigns to enhance that customer experience through whatever channel they're interacting with at the time.