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Why email newsletters are digital litter

Why email newsletters are digital litter Chris Marriott

Back around the turn of the century (I just love saying that), I had a colleague who would collect every catalog or marketing magazine that came to him at the office. He accumulated a stack taller than he was -- around 6'2" -- by the end of summer. There was a measuring tape pinned to the wall and an office pool on how tall the stack would get before it fell over. No matter what the outcome or who won the cash, the fate of those catalogs was the same -- they were destined for the recycle bin without ever having been read or valued.

Now that email is the primary form of business communication, the email newsletter has taken the place of the average print catalog or marketing mailing. It's cheap, easy to put together, and even easier to blast out to your entire list with the push of the "send" button. Even marketers who have become more sophisticated with segmentation and targeting are still locked in the mindset of pushing one-way communications out to a group of customers hoping to get some opens and clicks to justify the effort. Because, of course, everyone is just dying to hear the latest news from you!

Is it us, or is it you?
I've speculated before in this forum about what the digital marketing world might look like if batch and blast email newsletters were to disappear entirely. I suggested that welcome communications, event-triggered engagement, and reactivation efforts could likely achieve the same -- if not more -- value to your customers than a newsletter that drops once or twice a month, regardless of the customer's state of mind or willingness to engage.

A perfect example of this came through my inbox last week. An apparel brand sent me this simple communication:

"We haven't heard from you in a year, and we would like to keep our database clean and relevant. Here is a coupon for our online store to welcome you back. If you're no longer interested, please either unsubscribe or do nothing and you will be removed within 30 days. Of course we would always love to have you back, so keep us in mind the next time you have a need for our products."

I was so impressed with this elegant means of recognizing that I was a customer the company didn't want to lose. But the company also understood if my needs no longer included its products. I was tempted to use the coupon just to reward the company for this strong marketing communication, but what I did instead was to acknowledge that it was right about my changed needs and write a nice note to customer service thanking the company for the offer. Should my needs change again, it will be right at the top of mind; I would re-engage in a heartbeat as well as recommend the company highly to others.

The key point about this example is that this marketer didn't continue to deluge me with newsletters I would never read. Instead the company sent a relevant (drink!) message that actually got my attention, and let the relationship end on a positive note.

The anti-social social media consumer
OK, so the newsletter may or may not be dead. So why not embrace social media as our newest form of push communications, you ask? Setting up a Facebook fan page allows you to have a 24/7 newsletter open to all your customers and prospects all the time. Better yet, you can use social channels to push short messages that drive to landing pages full of your latest news. However, simply reducing the number of characters in your message to less than 140 still misses the point.

You are still pushing your agenda at your convenience in your timeframe. Hoping for likes, retweets, and "thumbs up" still has the spray-and-pray element that newsletters do. And as an aside, the total number of "fans" you have is as meaningless a figure as the number of email addresses in your database. The vast majority of both are not engaging with you by either checking your Facebook page or reading your email newsletter for the latest information

IBM conducted a recent study about customers' use of social media to interact with brands. The findings were startling: Companies and customers had the complete opposite assumption as to what the most and least important reasons were for interacting with a brand's social media sites. The graphic below demonstrates that companies assume their customers want far more "soft" interactions with them than is actually true. These "soft" communications, such as new product information, reviews and rankings, etc., are often the same content that would go into a newsletter. However, IBM's study shows that customer needs are pragmatic and succinct: Give me deals and make it easy for me to purchase when I decide it's time.

The rise of marketing democracy
In fact, we are looking at a true revolution in customer behavior. No longer subject to the whims and dictates of a given brand's marketing agenda, the customer has his hand on the spigot and can turn the flow of interaction on and off depending on his level of interest in your product or service at any given moment.

I have dubbed this phenomenon the "marketing democracy," and believe me, these elections won't be won based on who sends the most newsletters or gets the most clicks. People engage with you only to get something of value in return. If you are still sending generic newsletters or even tweeting to all your followers that product X gets out stains like no other, you are out of touch with your constituents and likely to lose the next time they vote with their pocketbooks.

Preferences, expectations, needs -- these are all the most difficult things to gather and understand about customers. Even more difficult is the ability to act on that understanding once you have it. Lots of algorithms and software exist to help you get there, but if you think about my simple apparel example, that was nothing more than a bit of text with some common sense behind it.

If this description of the cold supply-demand, buy-sell reality of today's marketplace leaves you cold and you are still committed to providing that soft experience, there are still ways to do it well using a multi-channel approach.  One interesting example is Homemadesimple.com, by Procter & Gamble. The site incorporates the web, Facebook, and Oodle (Google's marketplace) to capitalize on the huge DIY trend and compete with the likes of Etsy and Real Simple in providing an experience that lets users get creative ideas, post their own creations for feedback, and even sell items directly on Facebook using the Oodle marketplace. Customers get a value-add multi-channel experience, and P&G gets to incorporate many of its brands into an editorial point of view that showcases their ongoing relevance.

Another example of newsletters done well comes from HP. HP's website contains a preference center where users can actually see their preferences come alive in a newsletter that is built in real time. The result is a highly relevant, tailored set of deals, usage hints, and personalized product recommendations that comes when you want it to, be it weekly or once every three months.

It is critical to give some deep thought as to why your customers engage with your brand, especially in today's environment of multi-tasking and short attention spans. Imagine ways in which your customers might value a fresh approach. A well-known automotive brand recently held a photo contest on Facebook to celebrate a significant anniversary of one of its models. Whoever submitted the most popular photo with their beloved car would be selected to take over the profile picture of the brand. Special tabs are created on the profile for topics that trend most strongly among user-contributors so that it is clear where to go to get the latest information. Updates from the brand are frequent, relevant, and clearly valued by the followers. Even more interesting is that when someone posts a complaint on the wall of that brand, other users are likely to step in and defend the brand before the company even has time to react.

Your customers don't have the time -- or the energy, to be honest -- to engage with your brand except for those exact moments in time when they have a need and seek to get it met. When they do have the need, they want to be listened to, and if that doesn't happen, they will quickly tune out. The communication needs to be two-way, not force-fed, and more importantly it needs to be remembered. The sooner you can realize this and tailor your communications accordingly, the more likely it will be that you will succeed.

Today, we can't simply point to a stack of catalogs and think of marketing as a game of chance. In a marketplace where everything can be measured and customers are extremely savvy, the brands that are flexible, open to feedback, and have the mechanisms in place to listen, learn, and act will be those that stay alive in the race.

Chris Marriott is vice president, agency services, at Axicom.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.


Chris is the President and Founder of Marketing Democracy, LLC. Marketing Democracy provides email marketers with a range of consulting services around vendor selection (RFPs), vendor migration, and email marketing optimization.  Clients...

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to leave comments.

Commenter: Spencer Broome

2011, July 21

Agree with Kevin. Permission and opting in is appropriate for a reason.

Commenter: Kevin Conway

2011, July 21

YOUR "Digital Litter" is digital litter because you are get emails that re NOT permission based. Double opt ins, opt in for a reason, they WANT to hear from you, they specifically have a strong interest/desire in your product. In your example above, that is NOT the case.