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Email marketing's most controversial subject -- ever

Christopher Marriott
Email marketing's most controversial subject -- ever Christopher Marriott

I'm not going to lie to you. When I wrote last month's column, I knew I was touching the third rail of email marketing -- advocating for the use of email in customer acquisition. I did so for two reasons: First, I revised my thinking and now believe that email is a good channel for acquiring new customers, particularly if you are in B2B marketing. And second, we in the email marketing community need to have our beliefs challenged from time to time so that we don't become so set in our ways that we stagnate. And there is no belief held more sacred than "Thou shall not email without permission."

So I did want to start a discussion -- and I succeeded beyond my own expectations. In an all-time classic article headline, Ken Magill of The Magill Report called the premise of my last column the "Worst. Idea. Ever." The discussion (or should I say the criticism) spilled over into the email list from Only Influencers (an online community for email marketers). None of this criticism was personal in nature, and I welcomed the feedback and debate. Ken was gracious enough to allow me to rebut his initial column, which went on to generate even more discussion.

I am going to draw upon my rebuttal to address in this column exactly why using email to acquire new customers is the third rail of email marketing. First, a little history: In the earliest days of email marketing, it was primarily used to acquire new customers. Email addresses could easily be harvested from the major ISPs (i.e., [email protected]), making it simple to assemble lists and to send email to these folks. However, like marketing in all channels, consumers didn't appreciate receiving marketing messages they didn't ask for and that held no interest for them. So, as with the "do not call" registry, consumers pushed Congress to do something about it. And this led to the passage in 2003 of the CAN-SPAM Act. (Without "junk" mail, the U.S. Postal Service would be losing billions more than it already is and would likely go out of business once and for all. So that's here to stay).

After the law was passed, it became conventional wisdom in the email industry that email was now and forever a retention vehicle. Current customers signed up (opted in) to receive product news, special offers, and account information. (Gee, that sounds just like what companies say you'll get when you "like" a company on Facebook.)

This is known as permission-based marketing. Is this an effective use of the email channel? You bet it is! It's the most powerful and cost-effective channel in the universe. Why worry about using email to acquire new customers when the industry became so adept at using it to get current customers to buy more, more often? That became the general attitude of the industry.

But let's remember something very important: CAN-SPAM does not make it illegal to email someone without his or her permission. You can absolutely do so. It does require that you provide a clear mechanism for that recipient to opt out of receiving further emails from you, and that you honor that opt out. But again, I do not need your permission to send you that first email.

The real issue with people in the email marketing community is that, while they know that fact in their heads, they don't believe it in their hearts. As an industry, we tend to label any email sent without an opt-in as "spam." This is why I touched the proverbial third rail when I supported using cookies to get a site visitor's email address for a follow-up email.

Why does the email industry have a broader definition of spam that the law itself? I touched upon this in my rebuttal in The Magill Report. I believe that it is the result of an inferiority complex that pervades the email marketing community. As I wrote:

The uneasy feeling many of us have that the industry is looked down on as disreputable (spammers) and nothing more than digital stamp lickers has resulted in our community being more intolerant than anyone else in the universe (well except maybe Spamhaus) of anything that has the faintest whiff of spam. The sentiment for double opt-in is greater in the email marketing community than it is anywhere else. The condemnation of any email than is sent without prior permission is louder. And the denial that email is good for anything other than remarketing to existing customers is stronger.

I don't feel badly if prospects receive an email from a client of mine that they didn't ask to receive. This certainly results is transactions that otherwise would not have happened. And if that wasn't the case, then every intrusive marketing message received by consumers would be wasted money and effort. This, of course, is not the case. In addition, the acquisition tactics I advocate involve using email addresses of people who have opted in to receive offers from partners of the list owner. So in reality, there is an opt-in somewhere -- just not one specifically for email from my clients.

If you are a client-side marketer who happens to be in charge of customer acquisition, you've probably found that your in-house email marketing team isn't really interested in working with you. That's because they've been convinced by your ESP and the industry in general that email isn't an acquisition channel, and if you use it as one, really bad things are going to happen. But in reality, if you approach it correctly, it's just another advertising channel that can generate awareness and interest and (one hopes) will eventually lead to a conversion. And next month, I'm going to tell you exactly how you execute such a program!

This is my last column of 2012, so I'll leave you with my hope that you and yours have a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Chris Marriott is a data-driven digital marketing consultant.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.


to leave comments.

Commenter: Chris Marriott

2012, December 11

Thanks for the feedback, Steve. Your clients are certainly benefiting from your work on their behalf! Is a Christmas cake like a fruitcake?

Commenter: Steve Henderson

2012, December 10

I am the Compliance Officer for a UK-based ESP. UK permission and data protection laws are generally more strict than those in the US; but even here it is possible to run email acquisition campaigns. As Christopher says, if you approach it correctly it can work.

In fact, on my desk today is a Christmas cake - a thank you from a client of mine who I helped run a successful email marketing acquisition campaign. My role in this was to help source the right data and to advice on the approach for the first campaigns to the new data.

Unfortunately, in my role as Compliance Officer my experience is that 8 or 9 out of 10 acquisition or third-party data campaigns fail to meet expectations or cause long-term delivery problems.