Every day there's a new reason to panic about the future of email marketing, or so it seems. Perhaps it's a sign of how much companies have come to rely upon email to communicate with customers and drive sales that any change is pounced on as a sign that doomsday -- at least for email marketing -- is near.
To be sure, email marketing has become increasingly complex in recent years. Marketers have had to adjust to ever-evolving best practice standards. ISPs seem to change their requirements daily, then reverse themselves. Marketers fear they may be damaging their permission-based email program without realizing it.
But as alarmist as the media is, the "rules" of email marketing are not changing so rapidly or capriciously. Email marketers have much more control over their campaigns than they think.
Here are the top four fears and why they don't mean the end of email as we know it.
Fear #1: "Pay-to-play will make email too expensive"
AOL's recent announcement that it would limit Enhanced Whitelist status to those who pay for Goodmail certification has again raised "email tax" fears. If a company doesn't pay, their messages will be subject to the vicissitudes of the ISP's spam filters and likely blocked.
Marketers (and alas, spammers) have been attracted to email because of its extremely low costs-- generally, a fraction of a cent per recipient. But take heart: even if programs like Goodmail's doubled or tripled the cost per recipient, it's still far below the cost of just the postage for a direct mail campaign.
Given the uproar over AOL's announcement, it's unlikely such services could ever be required for email senders. After all, there are thousands of small companies and organizations that rely on email, and millions of recipients who have asked to receive them.
ISPs look to such policies to offset their spam filtering costs and to make their customers happy by reducing the amount of spam they receive. But their customers are also your customers. If your customers are unhappy because they don't receive your email, that means their customers are unhappy, too. It's in an ISP's interest to deliver email their customers want, or they'll abandon it for a service that does.
There's so much marketers can do to ensure delivery of their messages -- from using good marketing practices to sending clean messages -- that at least for now, accreditation is a "nice-to-have," not a "must-have." And just maybe the prospect of paying more will make email marketers less likely to "blast" their lists.
Fear #2: "ISPs will require senders to comply with increasingly complicated email authentication protocols."
Periodically, a major ISP announces that marketers must use a specified email authentication protocol such as SPF, SenderID or Domain Keys or risk finding their email bulked or blocked. A hue and cry is raised, the ISP removes the deadline but continues to press for its authentication protocol of choice.
Like certification, email authentication promises to make it easier for ISPs to distinguish spam from legitimate email. But no single protocol has been universally adopted; not even 800 pound gorillas like AOL, Yahoo or MSN have been able to strong-arm the entire internet community into using their preferred protocol. Slowly, senders have been adopting these protocols, but compliance is spotty at best-- except, reportedly, by spammers.
Talk to your IT department or your ASP about how to implement these protocols, but keep in mind that not using one does not automatically doom your mail to the spam folder.
Fear #3: "New technologies like RSS will drive email to the sidelines."
Frustrated by what they see as the constantly changing landscape for email, marketers are enticed by the prospect of a magic technology that bypasses ISP spam filters altogether and is guaranteed to reach interested readers.
But even as interest in RSS soars, it isn't a replacement for email, at least not yet. Although 27 percent of internet users read blogs, just 5 percent report using RSS aggregators or XML to follow news, according to a 2005 Pew Internet report; 62 percent didn't even know what a blog is. Compare to the use of email: in another study, 94 percent of women and 88 percent of men who use the Internet use email; it's the top use of the internet. Other technologies may be added to the online marketing mix, but email marketing promises to be a mainstay. By all means, start a blog on your site, but don't throw out your email list just yet.
Fear #4: "Spam will overwhelm legitimate email."
Two years ago, when CAN-SPAM was first implemented, it really did seem that spam would render email unusable, that at a certain point users would become so frustrated trying to find email they want to read they would chuck email altogether. At the same time, Microsoft's CEO Bill Gates was predicting that by this time, spam would be a thing of the past.
So which is it? Neither, just as you'd expect. The FCC recently reported to Congress that email users are receiving less spam and are less annoyed by the spam they are receiving, which it credits to better email practices and better spam-blocking technology.
By thoroughly testing your campaigns, you ensure that they not only look right, but if they have characteristics that will cause them to be filtered as spam.
So has doomsday arrived for email? Of course not. Email marketing has gotten a little trickier as marketers, customers and ISPs figure out "the rules." But rather than seeing these negotiations as the beginning of the end for email, they are signs that email marketing is maturing beyond its "load and blast" early days. We're not seeing the end of email marketing-- what we're really seeing is a glimpse of what its full potential will be.
Wendy Roth is the training manager for Lyris Technologies, a pioneer in email marketing solutions since 1994. She works closely with enterprise-level marketing and advertising professionals to help them achieve their email-related objectives, and collaborates with engineering teams to ensure Lyris' products continue to be based on marketers' changing needs.