Why email newsletters are digital litter

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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.



Spencer Broome
Spencer Broome July 21, 2011 at 10:24 AM

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

Kevin Conway
Kevin Conway July 21, 2011 at 8:41 AM

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.