If "Lost" were about interactive marketing, Kate would be display: glowingly attractive but highly unpredictable. Sawyer would be social media: sexy and dangerous. And stalwart, competent, true-blue Juliet? She'd be email marketing.
"All these new technologies are very sexy and get a lot of press," says Jeanne S. Jennings, an interactive marketing strategy and product development consultant. "But email is still the workhorse of the online marketing world."
To get a sense of email's relative clout, take a look at Forrester Research's U.S. Interactive Advertising Forecast: In 2010, Forrester expects email marketing to come in a distant third, garnering $1.355 billion marketing dollars. Search marketing ranks first, with a $17.765 billion price tag, followed by online display ad spending at $8.395 billion. (Social media spending is expected to surpass email spending in 2013.)
Its relative inexpensiveness may be part of email's charm. Aficionados say that email is the most cost-efficient medium, with the best ROI. But in these changing times, the channel faces new challenges, while a couple of the familiar ones have a new look.
Email marketers, get ready to leap over these hurdles.
1. Deliverability keeps getting worse
I emailed Forrester analyst Julie Katz to ask her about challenges to email marketing -- and her company's servers bounced back my email. At least the bounce let me know she hadn't received it, so I knew I should call her.
"Deliverability, especially to business addresses, is a challenge," Katz says. "Consumers aren't necessarily checking their spam folders. It requires marketers' constant attention."
That's because the volume of spam continues to break previous records. According to Google's Postini data, in the first quarter of 2009, spam volume grew approximately 1.2 percent per day.
The financial motivation for spammers to outwit ISPs may be greater than the incentive for ISPs to keep up with them, according to George Schlossnagle, president and CEO of Message Systems, a vendor of message management services for email service providers. "A fundamental problem is that email, for most service providers, is a cost center. As the economy gets hard, it's difficult for people to justify putting more money into making those systems aggressively better," he says.
The result is more false positives -- more marketers' emails stuck in spam folders -- and more consumer reluctance to open branded emails. "For email to feel useful, people need for it to be reliable and relatively noise-free," Schlossnagle says.
He advises email marketers to jump through all the hoops to get on ISPs' white lists. "Make sure your DNS works correctly, and they know the mail is coming from you." Email marketers should understand every ISP's both published and unpublished criteria, in order to set up appropriate throttles and rate limits. In this spam-strangled environment, Schlossnagle says, "View email as a living process. It's not set up once, go away, and forget it."
2. Email is for old people
Those early adopters who were so cool because they used email are now in their 40s -- or 50s, or 60s, or even 80s! As every parent knows, if you want to reach your kid, email is not the answer.
Yes, the population of email users is aging. But the situation isn't quite as bad as it seems, according to Forrester Research. Forrester data from Q3 2008 shows that 92 percent of online adults (those 18 or older) in the U.S. use email daily. In the 12- to 17-year-old set, however, less than 50 percent check their inboxes at least once a day.
"As young people age, their email habits start to look a little more like those of adults," says Forrester analyst Julie Katz. She thinks this is partly because email is so entrenched in workplace culture.
OK, but even if office workers learn to "live in Outlook," are they opting in to marketers' messages on the work email? Probably not -- or, at least, only for B2B offers. As today's teenagers enter the workforce in a few years, Katz warns, "We'll see a shift to social media -- and marketers will need to find a different way to reach this population."
3. Social media want to eat email's lunch
Already, there's plenty of trash-talking from the social media side of the industry. "I think it's kind of a dying business," says Chris Cunningham, CEO of Appssavvy. "People are getting information, content, leads, and offers through widgets, applications, and desktops, while email is being used more as a communications platform."
Cunningham may be biased: Appssavvy's business is to connect social media applications with brands and agencies. But social media platforms do represent a break with the traditional communication channels. For example, Appssavvy brings advertisers to Circle of Moms, a community of 2 million-plus users that is accessible through its website or Facebook. "There's not an email marketing opportunity there because the women there are so satisfied with the community boards and chat rooms," Cunningham says. "They have no need to get these offers anywhere else."
Social media usage has taken off -- even among the tragically unhip. In fact, women over 55 are the fastest-growing segment of Facebook users. But as fast as its growth is, social media is just halfway there in terms of penetration.
The Harris Poll found that 51 percent of Americans are without a social media presence. The survey showed that 48 percent of adults have either a MySpace or Facebook page, but only 16 percent update their pages at least once a day. And a paltry 5 percent use Twitter -- the vast majority of them probably being marketers or the media.
In fact, email may get a boost from social media, says Sarah Benner, senior marketing manager for self-service email marketing provider VerticalResponse. "You can link to specific newsletters or post stuff on your Facebook page that ties back to your email marketing," she says. For example, Tablet Hotels, a boutique hotel-finder, posts last-minute deals to its Twitter feed, along with a link to its opt-in newsletter.
Maureen Streett, search and social media strategist for What's Up Interactive, an agency that provides web, email, and social media marketing, points out that smart email marketers include ways to share messages via social media with one click. "It's a hybrid model that makes email part of a multi-touch campaign," she says.
Sure, advertisers should dabble in social media -- but email is a proven performer, says interactive marketing consultant Jeanne S. Jennings. "We have a history and knowledge about what works," she notes. "If you're looking for ROI and bang for the buck, email should be getting the bulk of the online marketing budget."
4. Moving targets are hard to reach
Reading email on mobile phones is cumbersome enough. Add in the images and links so prevalent in email marketing, and they can become unreadable. Even on smartphones, a single link can take up several lines, causing people to hit the delete key.
However, Forrester's Katz thinks that mobile email usage will actually increase as smartphones become standard. Email marketers need to work with service providers to understand how their messages will look on different devices, she says.
Benner of VerticalResponse advises email marketers to use alternative text whenever possible, in case mobile recipients have images turned off. "Make sure the important links go at the top, and include a link to view the message on the website," she says.
5. Email is too complicated and not snazzy enough
Consumers respond strongly to rich media, and online video came into its own in 2008. Zenith OptiMedia's global ad spend forecast, released in April, predicts 29.8 percent growth in internet video and rich media spending in the U.S. The pressure for email marketers to up the glitz collides with the deliverability and mobility issues we've already examined.
Of course, email service providers are constantly adding new bells and whistles. In April, Goodmail Systems released CertifiedVideo, a service that lets marketers embed streaming video in their emails. In the press release, the company promised, "Consumers can now watch videos within their email inbox without having to click to an external website."
Jennings points out that video in email has been around since 2000. "The problem back then was bandwidth. You had to do as many as eight different versions, depending on how fast the computer was, etc." With the profusion of email devices and clients, the challenge is just as great. Nevertheless, she thinks video emails will come sooner rather than later -- at least, it won't take another nine years.
That said, she advises marketers to remember that it's all about effectiveness, not glamour. "You have to have a good reason to use this technology."
Susan Kuchinskas is a freelance writer who has written for Adweek, Business 2.0, M-Business and internetnews.com.