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6 email marketing myths debunked

Loren McDonald
6 email marketing myths debunked Loren McDonald

Email marketing has gone through a sea change since it first became a viable marketing channel in the 1990s. Much of it has been for the good, but a few bad practices persist from those wild early days.

The good: Marketers are designing more relevant, targeted messages that can be read on any platform, browser or email client, and are giving subscribers more control over the messages they get.

The not-good: Some marketers haven't poked their heads out of their cubicles long enough to see that time has marched on and left their opt-out blast mentality in the dust. They're still laboring under the delusion that email is just digital direct mail.

What's holding them back? They're clinging to a few myths about email marketing that I'd like to dispel here and now.

Reality: This myth is beginning to fade, but many U.S. executives and marketers still use CAN-SPAM as an excuse to avoid getting explicit permission before emailing. They haven't learned that CAN-SPAM is just a start. Permission, in fact, is the foundation of customer relevance and trust.

True, CAN-SPAM does not mandate opt-in. However, if you don't have "affirmative consent," the Act also requires you to include a statement in your emails such as "This is an advertisement." I can probably count on one hand the number of unsolicited emails I've received with this notice in the message.

Also, affirmative consent means your subscribers must actively request your emails. Un-checking a pre-checked box does not count.

More importantly, however, is customer control. Most recipients today recognize the difference between unsolicited and requested emails. Unexpected and unwanted email annoys them -- a lot. They'll let you know of their displeasure, not by clicking the unsubscribe button, but by hitting the spam-complaint button.

Various studies point to email marketing delivering the highest ROI of any marketing channel. But look more closely. You'll see that one of the major differences between email and other channels is the high permission level. Permission is not required, but if you want superior results, it is not optional.

Reality: In the early days of email, the open rate was a valued metric because it captured who opened and, by inference, who then viewed or read the email. Direct marketers drooled over this new metric because it gave insight into the first stage of customer engagement and was not possible with direct mail.

Today, the preview pane and image blocking have turned the open metric into a tired, inaccurate and irrelevant metric that no longer measures what it was originally intended to.

  • It's inaccurate: Blocked images will prevent an open from being recorded when the tracking image fails to load on the hosting server. Text opens also cannot be tracked, and emails with images loaded and read in the preview pane are counted as opens even though the email is not actually opened. While no hard numbers exist, I estimate that open rates typically are under-reported by 10-30 percentage points.

  • It's irrelevant: The open rate is a process metric, which doesn't measure actual campaign performance against goals such as ROI, conversions or revenue. And its inaccuracy simply makes it unreliable as a process metric.

  • It's unsophisticated: The open rate doesn't distinguish between those who read the whole message and those who open and then trash it; or between viewing the email in the preview pane versus fully-opened.

In recent years, as more ISPs and email clients blocked images and offered preview panes by default, open rates began to fall. And now, more email users are reading messages on mobile devices, most of which don't render images.

Recent email studies estimate that both consumers and business email users view from a quarter to a half of their emails in a preview pane, and 50-60 percent block images by default.

Do marketers really want to base performance reports and marketing decisions on such a flawed and inconsistent metric?

The eec Measurement Accuracy Roundtable, of which I am co-chair, is working to redefine, rename and standardize the open rate. Unless some miracle technology emerges, though, it will remain a non-strategic metric.

So, use the open rate if you understand its limits and can derive lessons to improve your email program. Better yet, find the key output metrics that will enable you to gain a larger share of the marketing budget.

Reality: This is a common refrain for CFOs, heads of ecommerce and other executives who view email as a low-cost delivery channel rather than a strategic relationship conduit.

"Send it again!" they say when they see how well an email campaign performed. They treat email like the old direct-mail model of mailing: send and send until the cost of sending to a list no longer breaks even.

But email is different. Consumers and the ISPs control the ecosystem. Yes, increased frequency can often deliver short-term results. But it also increases list churn through higher spam complaints and unsubscribes and, subsequently, higher acquisition costs to replace the lost customers and revenue.

Instead of just pounding their lists with the same old offers, marketers can use email to drive more sales or conversions by moving to a more personalized and targeted approach. Lifecycle, drip, trigger- and behavioral-based approaches will reduce list churn and improve the ROI of your email program.

Reality: Marketers, particularly those new to email or who have transitioned from the offline world, are shocked at how the email ecosystem -- ISPs, corporate networks, spam filters and blacklists -- can control their email delivery and rendering.

Some even try to claim their First Amendment rights should permit their emails to be delivered without interference.

Wrong. ISPs are private companies whose first priority is protecting their subscribers/users, and companies work hard to keep unwanted emails out of their employees' inboxes. Recent court decisions have upheld the right of ISPs and corporations to determine which emails will and will not be delivered and in what shape.

So, marketers complain that these gatekeepers control their delivery destiny, and they can do nothing to affect it. Or, they believe that ESPs somehow magically drive their delivery rates.

In fact, while attaining 100 percent delivery may be difficult, routinely getting 95 to 98 percent of your emails delivered to the inbox is quite achievable.

There is, however, no magic pixie dust to sprinkle on the email list to get high delivery rates. It simply requires following well-publicized best practices, including:

  • Obtaining subscriber permission

  • Authenticating your emails

  • Performing regular list hygiene

  • Minimizing spam complaints

  • Actively monitoring and managing your sender reputation

  • Immediately removing hard bounces, unsubscribe requests and spam complaints

  • Eliminating coding errors

  • Checking for and removing spammy-looking content and design approaches (e.g., single large images) that may get your messages blocked or filtered.

Reality: People who move into email marketing from offline channels, especially direct mail, cling to this concept, where list size is directly related to revenue and ROI. There is often an incessant focus on list growth at all costs.

Again, email is different. Yes, growing your email database is important because you'll typically lose about one-third of your list annually through normal churn. Additionally, various studies suggest that one- to two-thirds or more of your list members are actually inactive (no opens or clicks for some extended time frame).

Therein lies both the challenge and opportunity. The reasons for that inactivity vary from list to list. However, we can trace some of it to any, or a combination, of these factors:

  • How the names were acquired

  • What was done (or not done) to engage new subscribers

  • The relevance and frequency of your emails

  • What was done (or not done) to reach out to subscribers who stopped opening, clicking or converting.

In fact, programs designed to engage new subscribers and convert existing list members into high-value, loyal customers pay off better than continually spending more money to attract new customers. So do efforts to reduce churn, such as letting subscribers choose format, frequency and content alternatives instead of just unsubscribing.

Email is the ideal channel for engaging subscribers through highly personalized and targeted approaches that continually delight and engage those hard-won customers. In the final "myth," we make the ROI case for moving to these more sophisticated email techniques.

Reality: No, it isn't. Advances in email marketing software now make sophisticated techniques such as lifecycle, trigger- and behavior-based email programs possible for marketers at all tiers.

Research also supports moving an email program from simple broadcasting to a more targeted approach. Conversions in clickstream-based emails outpaced untargeted broadcast emails 4 to 1, according to a 2006 JupiterResearch study.

And, while targeted or trigger-based campaigns can cost more to produce (according to salary requirements), they also generate far more revenue, the study said.

Triggered campaigns on average bring in 171 percent more revenue than broadcast campaigns; lifecycle campaigns perform 389 percent better and clickstream campaigns perform 781 better than broadcast, according to the JupiterResearch report.

Why, then, do marketers resist these techniques? The most common refrain I hear is that they don't have the time, resources or expertise to move their programs to this next level.


Yes, they probably don't have the budget and resources that they should have (or, maybe they are getting what they deserve?), but who controls their time and priorities?

Some might be intimidated at the prospect of overhauling an entire email program. That's not necessary. One change at a time can effect a gradual makeover.

  • Reallocate resources: Instead of sending two weekly "blast" messages, turn one into a trigger-based message. Pull some time from another project to create a lifecycle or trigger-based program. Once you do that, it can run virtually on autopilot thereafter.

  • Analyze: Do the math. Compare a broadcast campaign to a targeted one -- even one as simple as emailing the entire list versus previous buyers. Show your bosses how it can pay to give you more money in the budget for additional resources and more sophisticated technology.

  • Educate yourself: The "I dunno" excuse doesn't hold. In 2008 alone, marketers can avail themselves of any of several dozen email conferences, perhaps 100 webinars and new whitepapers and a thousand or more articles and blog posts on email marketing -- including dozens right here from the iMedia Connection site.

  • Give it a shot: The longest journey starts with a single step, so the saying goes. Nobody says you have to convert your email program into an industry leader with the next campaign.

  • Just do one thing differently with every message: For example, consider targeting recipients who clicked on a specific link in your last broadcast email, and test the results. That's all it takes to get started.

Loren McDonald is vice president of industry relations for Silverpop.


to leave comments.

Commenter: Robert Kay

2008, August 03

How much success have people seen from e-mail marketing campaigns? I have yet to see an effective e-mail marketing campaign. Most of my efforts are centered on affiliate marketing. Although, the product I'm pushing is not an easy sell, any advice?

Commenter: Fred Jorgensen

2008, July 30

Agree with other post re: Open Rate.

All of the problems associated with the open rate metric should be relative across all recipients. Accordingly, the open rate is still a comparative measure of "opportunity" and/or "interest" in the message derived from the sender name, subject line or combination of the two.

Commenter: Paul Whaley

2008, July 30

That's a great post - about the best overview of emailing good practice I've come across. It's the kind of thing executives should be forced at gunpoint to read and remember...

The only point on which I would disagree is the value of open rates. Although they aren't accurate for the reasons you give, and therefore cannot actually tell you anything about the open rate of a particular send, opening behaviour is fairly consistent - and can therefore be used to indicate trends.

Again this isn't going to be precise, but if your open rates on the same list are declining send-on-send, you could be pretty sure you have a problem. Maintaining and improving open rates is positive, and having open rates in excess of your industry benchmark is also good.

So I don't think open rates are dead - it's just that the open rates data has to be taken with the proper health warnings.