Email trends: Spotlight on strengths, challenges

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Depending on whom you talk with, email is either yesterday's news or has never been more healthy and vital. As the current year comes rapidly to a conclusion, a succession of marketing studies reveal both email's vulnerabilities as well as its best uses in marketing.

One of the most eye-opening stats came in December from a study conducted by marketing company Epsilon along with the Direct Marketing Association. According to the companies' “Q3 2011 Email Trends and Benchmarks” report, email open rates increased by 7.8% in the third quarter compared with the year-earlier period, even as the average volume increased from the previous year by 14.9%.

The study was based on 5.7 billion emails sent by Epsilon clients in July, August and September.

“A nearly 8% rise in open rates year-to-year, even as volumes go up, is a big deal,” said Ali Swerdlow, director of DMA's Email Experience Council. “Email is a mature channel, so an improvement on that scale indicates better marketer practices for subject lines and preview panes.”

The strength of email is reflected further in marketing budgets. In a November online study by marketing technology company StrongMail, 60% of 939 respondents plan to increase email marketing budgets—that's higher than boosts in social media marketing (55%) and mobile and search (tied at 37%).

According to the company's “2012 Marketing Trends” survey, the top email marketing initiatives for 2012 are increasing subscriber engagement (48%), improving segmentation and targeting (44%) and growing opt-in email lists (32%).

But there are challenges to overcome and subtleties to account for to make email marketing as effective as it can be.

The StrongMail survey identified data integration as the primary email marketing challenge in 2012—marketers are still struggling with databases that are siloed and inaccurate. They're also challenged by keeping track of how recipients actually respond to the campaigns, which touches not only on data but also issues surrounding marketing automation.

"While email marketing leads the pack in terms of increased investment in 2012, the data also reveal that marketers need to overcome key challenges around data integration and resource constraints," said Christopher Marriott, VP-agency services at StrongMail. This negative could be turned on its head, he suggested.

"Whether managing and optimizing existing email marketing programs or enabling integration with social media and mobile, there is a real opportunity ... to get the most out of [marketers'] interactive marketing investments in 2012," he said.

Email marketers also face a problem of perception. Another new study by Epsilon, “The Formula for Success: Preference and Trust”, revealed that 65% of email recipients strongly agreed that they get too many emails, and 75% said they receive “a lot of emails I don't open.”

Further, direct mail is preferred over email, recipients said, when they are due to receive brand or product information in almost every category, including financial services (36% in favor of direct mail, 8% for email), insurance (36% to 9%) and travel (21% to 13%). The study was based on an online poll in August of 2,226 U.S. consumers.

This isn't necessarily a strike against email as it is a vote in favor of multidimensional marketing. With the rise of digital marketing, fewer commercial mail pieces are showing up in physical mailboxes; direct mail is unusual, and thus catches the eye.

“Consumers use and trust certain communications channels more than others,” said Warren Storey, VP-product marketing and insight at Epsilon Targeting, the company's data business. “This means that marketers need to understand which channels resonate most at various points in the consumer purchase cycle and incorporate a cross-channel strategy that leverages data and technology to communicate on a one-to-one basis.”

Last, mobile email consumption is coming on strong, and marketers ignore this channel to their peril. According to a report by email deliverability company Return Path, “Mobile, Webmail, Desktops: Where Are We Viewing Email Now?,” email opens on mobile devices grew by 34% in the six months between April and September 2011, versus the previous six months, and far above overall email open rates.

It may come as little surprise that email views on Apple's iPad have skyrocketed, increasing 73% in the same period. 

“Email is more relevant today than ever before as consumption continues to grow on more platforms,” said Matt Blumberg, Return Path chairman-CEO. “And while benchmark studies provide marketers with a view into shifting trends, they are no substitute for having real-time, specific data on subscribers. Marketers need to gather campaign data specific to their audience, figure out where their subscribers are viewing email and design a relevant and timely sending strategy.”

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