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Email's new role in digital marketing

Email's new role in digital marketing Simms Jenkins

Old is new again, and boring is the new sexy. At least, that is what we're seeing with regard to email marketing's renewed role as a central digital communications hub during this rough-and-tumble economic time. A recent StrongMail study showed that more than half (51 percent) of the nearly 1,000 global business leaders polled plan to increase their marketing budgets in 2009 to focus on programs that yield a higher return on investment, such as email marketing and search. On the other hand, many plan to decrease spending on costly, less targeted programs like advertising and trade shows.

This is a rare opportunity for all digital marketers -- not just email marketers -- to thrive in a difficult and challenging environment. Not using this opportunity to greatly improve your email marketing program for the sake of your broader digital efforts would be short-sighted and foolish.

That said, where should you focus such efforts this year? In this article, I will discuss five ongoing shifts in the fundamentals of email marketing, as well as how these changes should influence your campaigns.

Email is increasingly a marriage of data and advertising.
At its best, email marketing blends art and science, and an email marketing star can wear both hats equally. True permission email marketing success occurs when a marketer delivers a relevant message on target with the audience's needs. So what does that mean?

The relevance side has to do with creating a message that speaks to what your subscribers signed up for and what they expect and want. No, a recycled offer of your newspaper ad or a cut-and-paste job of your direct mail piece in HTML form does not accomplish this. As I have said many times, most email marketing campaigns are based on a company's marketing goals, rather than what subscribers want and need. So create a list of the following:

  • Business goals of the campaign

  • Other marketing tactics and their approaches (how will they complement email and vice versa)

  • Your past campaigns' success areas (what subscribers clicked, what they didn't)

  • Key message/value proposition (try summarizing in one bullet)

  • The call to action/specific value for the subscriber

  • How the creative will accomplish your goal (include rendering and user experience here)

  • How you will measure and define success

  • What's next after this campaign?

The data side is what separates email marketing from its marketing brethren. So use it. So how do you leverage the data you have, even for databases that only capture minimal aspects of the subscribers? Compile a list of answers to these questions:

  • What aspects of your campaign do you want to test (subject line, message, creative, offer)?

  • How do you want to segment your campaign based on your database (gender, ZIP code, customer versus non customer)?

  • How do you plan to treat your email subscribers based on their "performance" (users who clicked, users who didn't open, users who signed up in the past 30 days, etc.)?

  • How will you follow up based on their "performance" (send follow-up message to those who clicked on the call-to-action but didn't convert, users who did not open or click, etc.)?

  • How will you measure success?

  • What's next after this campaign?

If you read closely, you will notice that determining success and performing post-campaign "autopsies" are a common thread in these two lists. These elements are among the most important -- as well as the most ignored -- aspects of any email campaign. Ensure these are on your lists; it's worth the time. If more evidence is needed, several of our clients have done this with great success. Check some case studies here.

Targeted messaging now requires email, mobile, and social networks.
Email marketing can no longer operate in a silo. Whether you are an email marketing manager, VP of sales and marketing, CEO, or agency- or ESP-side executive, keeping email isolated does none of us any long-term good. So where do we go from here?

While traditional advertising still serves a need for most companies, the ability to deliver and track specific custom messages to users' preferred points of receipt is what separates the potential of some digital channels from that of offline tactics. Email marketing's ability to accomplish this is well documented. So we must now address the question of how to complement email's capabilities, rather than view email marketing as an island that is ready to get overtaken by these other channels.

Mobile and social networks are the perfect complementary tools for most companies looking to offer a truly targeted messaging solution. Mobile or SMS messaging takes the email marketing concept and strips it down to achieve the same kind of messaging goals in a different format. Yes, you must take some of the creative (and some of the branding impact) out of the equation, and you must have a different call to action. But the upside in doing so it is that you can deliver the message to opt-in users who prefer another communication channel, thereby potentially targeting them one step closer to the point of sale, whatever that may be.

Social networks provide a new set of rules and options for digital marketers. Therefore, be prepared to sink or swim. However, there are many targeted opportunities to communicate with these entrenched users at their preferred point of online engagement. Don't miss out and just go with a passive branding play in these venues. If you develop the right messaging strategy, this can be equally powerful in terms of taking your message to these folks.

The best marketing campaigns are ones combining all three elements discussed here -- email, mobile, and social networks. Such campaigns enable your customers and prospects to pick and choose, taking your marketing a step further, on their terms.

The consumer's preferred inbox is changing.
You may not agree that you need a messaging strategy outside of email marketing, but you must adapt to the reality that how consumers get their content, promotions, and updates has changed. Most online users don't just rely on their work and home email address for these communications anymore.

As discussed earlier, some consumers prefer to get special offers via SMS messaging, while others may ignore their Hotmail or Gmail accounts and head right to Facebook for all of their communications -- whether from their old college girlfriends or their favorite restaurants.

You may be fortunate to build what amounts to subscriber communication preference segments based on all of these, whether you know you are doing so or not. Most companies won't thrive if the only way of opting in with the company is through a website-based email signup form that captures only an email address. Establishing ways to capture preferences and points of communication is crucial as your customers' habits evolve and migrate to other digital channels. This leads us to the next item.

2009 is the year of the preference center.
With this sea change happening in front of us, companies that fail to offer their customers more choices will be in trouble. So this fundamental digital principle -- offering the user more choices -- is the right place to focus in 2009.

Over the years, companies have offered an email signup page and/or website registration form (albeit sometimes mutually exclusive of each other) to capture consumers' opt-ins, which are arguably one of the most valuable commodities in the digital world. Remember, these are customers and would-be customers raising their hands to say, "Yes, please market to me." That doesn't happen in all media and marketing, so elevate the value of these opt-ins within your marketing strategy.

In 2009, marketers need to offer a clear and seamless user experience through which interested parties can sign up for communications (B2C newsletters, B2B whitepapers, special offers, breaking news, etc.) You may be saying, "Yeah, we've got that." But do you provide the following?

  • Ability to receive communications in multiple platforms (email, mobile, Facebook, Twitter, etc.)

  • Ability to change preferences, formats, devices, languages, etc.

  • Ability to choose frequency of updates

  • Ability to choose types of communications and adjust as you go, as opposed to unsubscribing from all

  • Ability to get a sneak peak of any offered communications

  • Ability to understand how data will be treated and information on other privacy issues

  • Ability to remove oneself with ease from any or all communications

Email is an increasingly specialized form of marketing -- now treat it as such.
Hopefully, you now see email marketing as part of a bigger digital beast. But wait, it's really its own animal. Or is it?

The email marketing landscape seems to change just as fast as email offers can pile up in your inbox. How do you keep up with these changing best practices, consumer preferences, CAN-SPAM provisions, and the 82 daily tips you can find from helpful writers, bloggers, and executives?

This speaks to a larger organizational issue for most companies in terms of where email programs and teams live within the organization. We can't expect email to succeed in the long term when most of us can't properly address what role email plays in the big picture, or what email wants to be when it grows up. All good email marketers have to keep their eyes on the ball, which can be hard if you are given a minuscule budget, insufficient team, and vague goals. So how do you redefine your email marketing role and program? Start here:

  • Create a mission statement and strategic brief for your vision of your email marketing program.

  • Create a set of goals and a scorecard for your email marketing success measurements.

  • Document what you do on a day-to-day basis and at a broader strategic level.

  • Share this information with your broader organization and related stakeholders.

  • Draw up what you would need (in terms of budget, resources, partners, and anything else under the sun) to accomplish your goals and the company's goals, assuming there were no barriers in these areas.

  • Revaluate your partners based on where you are, where you want to be, and where you need to be.

  • Set up debriefing meetings to continually update others on how your email program is doing in terms of success.

  • Define success in business terms -- not clicks, opens, and bounces.

Where I want email marketing to go is a passionate topic for me, and I have a lot of opinions -- enough that I could write a book on the topic. (Oh, wait, I did.)

Ask yourself a few more questions with regard to your email program: Does email marketing really still deserve a miniscule percentage of your overall marketing budget in this economic crunch? If email marketing is the workhorse of your marketing platforms and generating much of the revenue, do you penalize it because of its high ROI? Why not devote more to it and generate more sales, get more leads, and speak directly with your most attractive audience?

Also, think about where the majority of your budget goes: Is it in sending the email or in making the campaign better? Does most of your email marketing budget go directly to the technology infrastructure or to areas that can be optimized to improve the results and stretch your dollar and impact? If, for example, more than half of your email marketing budget goes to your ESP, you are limiting the results of what you can do with the hand you have been dealt. Most ESPs have great distribution platforms but limited services and abilities to improve your ROI. In fact, they make their money on volume, so you probably won't be told you are sending too many emails even if you helped achieve the new email volume record over the 2008 holidays. (This is a dubious accomplishment, in case you were wondering.)

So take your budget to where you can make an impact and raise the level of your specialized program through added strategic expertise. Testing, new creative, strategic assessments, and optimizing other areas of your program (like transactional emails) deserve more of your budget than the commodity-driven send button.

Every January, I return from the holidays to find hope, inspiration, and great people with excellent ideas -- all within this little email marketing community in which we live and work. We need to raise it up a notch, and now is our opportunity. If anything, test some of these ideas (or your own creative solutions). The email marketing world is far from perfect, but we can advance it one message at a time with the right approach.

G. Simms Jenkins is founder and CEO of BrightWave Marketing.

Simms Jenkins is Chief Executive Officer of BrightWave Marketing, an award-winning agency specializing in the strategic optimization of email marketing and digital targeted messaging programs. He has extensive relationship and interactive marketing...

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to leave comments.

Commenter: Duncan Gledhill

2009, February 05

It is a similar picture in the UK - we have been trading from North Yorkshire since 2003 and have seen the ups and downs of email over the years. Recently however it really is a "zero to hero" story and since November we have seen a dramatic increase in site traffic compared to the same period last year. I especially enjoyed reading Jeff Meuzalaar's comment regarding $100 per 10 million email addresses - companies selling these types of files - (we like to call them "fleemailers" because they normally flee after having sold you the emails) might present us with our biggest challenge yet!

Commenter: Brent Marcus

2009, February 04

A great overview. The questions posed are fantastic guidelines.

Commenter: Robert Paltos

2009, February 04

It is in the nature of the media beast...the "82 daily tips" and "Can-Spam" safeguards, among various other marketing speed-bumps, that Simms' message relates well. Looking at the primary field of choices...email, mobile, social and traditional online display...the common access thread to your most relevant audience taken to a one-on-one level, remains email...!

The article nicely outlines AND remninds us of the marketing relevancy for this "old tool." Thank you!

Robert Paltos
US Sales Director
Irish Central, LLC

Commenter: Lori Jones

2009, February 04

A quick survey among friends reveal what I already assumed, e-mail like junk mail is deleted/tossed without even a glance.

Commenter: Jay Baer

2009, February 04

Excellent piece. You nailed it. Ultimately, mobile, social, and email are all the same thing - lifecycle marketing. The preference center is the key to giving consumers what they want, when they want it, via the vehicle they prefer.

Commenter: Jeff Meuzelaar

2009, February 04

Great writeup. As a fellow online marketing, our firm has seen an influx of email marketing requests. However, they all expect email marketing to be the magic bullet. They all seem to have the misconception that email addresses can be purchased (rented) for the cost of $100 per 10 million email addresses. They also fail to realize the level of planning and effort it takes - design, html, testing, landing pages, calls to action, subject line, tracking, etc. After the pass through cost of a credible email list and five hours of billable time from our agency - many of the customers are blown away at the actual cost.

However, we are huge advocates of in-house email lists! If done correctly, this can be a very very very effective medium for small businesses to ultimately maintain and acquire new customers...all within their budget.

Commenter: Tom Wright

2009, February 04

Just wanted to echo your point about ESPs. A lot of companies base their negotiations around achieving the lowest possible cost per email, which perversely acts an incentive to overmail.

I'm looking to pay more to a provider who can give me real intelligence - like who never clicks on my email.