Marketers teach old email new tricks

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Credit: Illustration by Andrea Ucini

Vimeo, which hosts videos from more than 70 million people worldwide, provides its users with the newest tools to share their clips on YouTube, Facebook and its own mobile apps. But when it wants to connect with these users, it frequently turns to a technology from the 1970s: email.

The video-sharing platform not only sends emails highlighting staff picks, it has dozens of customized emails it can send to video creators based on their usage that alert them to related features they may not be aware are available.

"Literally, I think we have 80 different types—that's how granular we get," says Harris Beber, Vimeo's chief marketing officer. "We need to be able to communicate with them on a very individualized basis, and email has been a great platform for that."

It may surprise some to know that this relatively ancient tool is being embraced by a wide swath of marketers. A poll unveiled in June from business information service Manifest, for instance, found more than two-thirds of businesses surveyed still regularly use email for marketing purposes. Inbox-delivered newsletters are on the rise, new filtering tools are helping companies send emails to customers who might actually want to open them, and new technologies allow for interactivity, making emails, in theory, more attractive to consumers.

"Email [has] been beating out every other platform for years now," says email consultant Val Geisler. "Especially as algorithms start to take over the social media platforms, I don't see any of those rising to the top. I see email continuing to be the leader here."

Early days

Computer historians generally trace modern email back to 1971, when computer scientist Ray Tomlinson first sent a digital message from one computer to another. In 1978, a marketing manager at Digital Equipment Corp. is believed to have sent the first commercial email, unveiling DEC's newest computer to hundreds of techies on the internet precursor Arpanet. The email was widely condemned by those who received it—and helped sell tens of millions of dollars in computers.

Since then, laws like the 2003 U.S. Can-Spam Act and, most recently, the European Union's new General Data Protection Regulation aim to ensure that legitimate email marketers get people's permission before sending them messages. Many have also learned to resist the temptation to overwhelm their customers with too frequent blasts.

Still, industry prognosticators have being saying for years that email itself is old-fashioned. "Email—I can't imagine life without it—is probably going away," Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg told the crowd at a 2010 conference.

Where we are now

But eight years later, email is alive and kicking. Some marketers say it's among the most effective ways for companies to reach consumers, including millennials and younger teens. A 2016 survey from U.K. marketing tech firm Adestra showed that more than two-thirds of every generation surveyed, including those between ages 14 and 18, preferred using email to communicate with businesses.

Even media organizations fighting for divided attention spans are using email newsletters to reliably reach readers. Politico's Playbook is considered a Washington, D.C. must-read, and analyst Ben Thompson's paid email newsletter Stratechery plays a similar role in Silicon Valley. News startups like Axios—cofounded by Playbook creator Mike Allen—and millennial women's outlet theSkimm made its debut with newsletters before expanding into other media.

"We started with a newsletter because we knew checking email first thing in the morning was already a daily routine for this audience," theSkimm cofounders Carly Zakin and Danielle Weisberg wrote—in an email, of course.

Over the years, marketers have learned to craft emails people might actually want to read, or at least ones targeted to their interests. Helping them along have been increasingly powerful tools to send personalized messages to particular customers. They can filter customers based on their shopping habits, demographics and recent activity—including whether they've actually been opening and clicking on previous messages.

"Anytime we see even basic personalization, like gender or age group, we see lifts of sometimes [200 percent] and 300 percent on conversion," says Marc Shull, senior VP for social and disruptive marketing strategies at Chicago's Yes Lifecycle Marketing.

Custom product recommendations, items left in virtual shopping carts and even local weather reports can help decide which customers to message when and what to say to them.

"Anyone can automate someone's name into a piece of content, but the typical, jaded consumer of 2018 will seek out people and brands that develop content that not only feels true to brand, but also true to their unique needs," Jonathan Kateman, general manager of Boston-area online marketing provider Constant Contact, wrote in an email.

Today's email automation programs make it easier for marketers to target groups of consumers meeting certain criteria, like those who've spent more than $50 in the past month or recently signed up for a newsletter, without having to build complex spreadsheet formulas or database queries.

"Prior to implementation of the platform, a lot of our communications were manually triggered and sent, limiting the productivity of our teams," says Scott Baldt, senior director of omnichannel at Rack Room Shoes. "Automation has been the key component allowing us to achieve scale, making more of our data actionable."

The Charlotte, N.C., chain uses Marketing Cloud, from San Francisco customer relationship management giant Salesforce, to automatically cue up messages to shoppers with rewards discounts. The emails remind them at four preset intervals to use their coupons before they expire—and the system stops sending messages once customers cash in their rewards. Of course, some customers are likely to find four emails three too many and be turned off. But in an attempt to keep this from happening, savvy marketers carefully monitor email open and click rates, as well as unsubscribe numbers and complaints, to know when they're overdoing it.

In addition to getting more personalized, emails are looking sharper lately. Newer email programs support more elaborate style code, and savvy designers can build messages that consistently look good everywhere from aging office PCs to the latest iPhone. New York startup Rebel has even helped eBay, Home Depot and other companies build interactive features like quizzes and customer review forms directly into emails. Customers checking email on the run don't even have to wait for a new browser tab to open before using those features.

Other brands use similar tools to put games or animations into emails, giving customers an extra incentive to actually open them. At the moment, those advanced features tend to need some expert coding to get right, but for many businesses that's a worthwhile price to pay.

"If you are an edgy brand, you spend the money to kind of reinforce that with your recipients," says Justin Khoo, creator of email news site FreshInbox.

What's next

As interactive features become more standardized across email programs, they're likely to become accessible to more marketers. In February, Google announced plans to expand its Accelerated Mobile Pages system for simplified web code that loads quickly on smartphones to include interactive features for email, like fillable forms and rotating carousels of images. The next month, Salesforce announced an App Store-like program for developers to design customizable widgets such as timers, video players and weather feeds that advertisers could simply drag and drop into email campaigns.

"When email is so competitive and they need to be trying new things, it needs to be very easy," says Joanna Milliken, Salesforce senior VP for product management on the Marketing Cloud team.

Machine learning is also poised to make email targeting more precise than ever, which could mean fewer unsubscribe requests and higher response rates from customers. Salesforce recently launched what it calls Einstein Engagement Scoring, using customer data and machine learning to predict how likely customers are to open an email, click links within it and stay subscribed. Other email providers are also increasingly turning to artificial intelligence: Mailchimp can now generate product recommendations based on past purchase data for marketers to drop into email messages.

Email vendors are also helping brands coordinate email marketing with other forms of online advertising, including social posts and banner ads. That's partly to avoid overwhelming customers, who can be turned off or creeped out when ads follow them from their inboxes to their news feeds. It also helps to harness the strengths of each channel, using social media's location-based ads to reach new customers and email to cultivate returning shoppers.

Chris Bernard, director of e-commerce at Lou Lou Boutiques, says the Virginia-based accessories chain ran Facebook and Instagram ads soliciting email addresses in an area where a new store was opening. "By the time the store opened up, there were a whole ton of people who [had opted in]," he says.

Paid newsletters, where the email itself is the product, have also had success getting sign-ups through social. Substack, a San Francisco startup that helps disseminate newsletters on everything from Chinese politics to absurdist feminist humor, lets clients choose whether to keep individual messages behind a paywall or make them free for all to read. The free issues are optimized for search engines and shared on social media to help bring in new readers, says CEO Chris Best. But when it's time to deliver regular dispatches to paying subscribers, he says email's old-fashioned predictability means it's still likely to be key for the foreseeable future.

"Facebook is not a channel where you can reliably reach an audience, even once you've built up an audience of people who've liked your page," says Best. "There's no way that we could reliably deliver that to them in one of the social media apps they already use."

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