iMedia Connection

10 ways email marketing has fundamentally changed

Wendy Roth

At the start of a new decade, email remains a vital and valuable channel. But it's not the same channel it was in 2000. Important changes have transformed email from a one-to-one channel to one-to-many and back again. We know much more about what works and what doesn't, and we have the numbers to back it up.

Is email still cool? Sure. It's just not the same way it was when it was the shiny new toy that every marketer was scrambling to implement as the 1900s faded away.

The best email marketing messages are far more recipient-friendly, relevant, and useful. It's not about just spreading a company's message as far and wide as possible (and actually, it never was).

Instead, email today is about each individual recipient: how to gain and retain their trust, send them messages they find most valuable, and market to them where they are, regardless of browser, platform, device, or even channel. Email isn't just about email anymore, either.

Marketers who have recognized this fundamental shift and adapted to accommodate today's dynamic marketplace are the ones today who are reaping the greatest benefits from email: a high return and a loyal, engaged audience.

How has the email environment shifted over the last decade? Here are 10 valuable lessons we have learned that affect the success of email marketing.

Lessons 1 and 2

Acquisition is important, but retention is where the money is.

One lesson smart marketers have learned is that people view their email inboxes differently from their mailboxes. That led to the idea -- radical in 2000 but essential today -- that getting permission first helps a marketer reach the recipient's inner circle of trusted senders.

However, getting to a subscriber's inbox and staying there are two different matters. Subscribers are fast to disengage, whether by unsubscribing, clicking the spam button, or simply deleting without opening. Success no longer depends on having the biggest list but having the list with the most activity.

Welcoming new subscribers, nurturing current subscribers, and wooing back inactive ones keep a list strong, active, and productive.

Email is all about the conversation again.

Email began as a one-to-one medium, but when people began communicating en masse through forums and email discussion groups, early-adopter marketers quickly recognized email's value as a one-to-many model and began treating email messages as if they were just electronic catalogs and sales circulars.

Today, marketers are shifting to a one-to-some model, using personalization, targeting, and integrating web and CRM analytics to create highly targeted messages.

When a company invites subscribers to interact through opinion polls, profiles, reviews, and via social networks, the email messages becomes more of an invite to join the conversation. This technique works, not just because it's the right thing to do, but also because research shows recipients respond to personalized messages much better than to scattershot broadcast messages.

Lessons 3 and 4

The ISPs are not the enemy.

Back in 2000, ISPs and email marketers were adversaries. ISPs wanted to keep their channels clear of spammers and often caught permission email in their filtering nets. Marketers blamed ISPs for low deliverability rates. Then some marketers and ISPs sat down together to figure out how they could co-exist in peace.

It's still tempting to blast an ISP that blocks half or more of a company's mailing list, but the uncomfortable truth is that marketers control their own destinies in many respects. ISPs have become much more transparent in their blocking and filtering by explaining why an email is blocked, white-listing qualified senders, and being more willing to remove blocks for senders if they address the root cause of the block.

The tactics that keep marketers in good with the ISPs are the same tactics that will keep their mailing lists fresh: Use permission to acquire addresses, clean mailing lists regularly, monitor and act on spam complaints, respect preferences, and honor unsubscribes.

An email message is its own creation, not a repurposed web page.

HTML works differently on the web than it does in email. Having an email and web pages present a seamless experience is a worthy goal, but a company can't accomplish that by simply pasting web page code into the body of an email message. Instead, make sure an email points to the correct landing page or reflects the same value proposition.

Why doesn't web code always translate to a good email experience? Images don't render if the user blocks them from downloading automatically, or if the recipient views the message on a cellphone that doesn't render HTML correctly. The preview pane can also reduce an email's real estate to a fraction of its original size, so it is essential that it's designed bearing that in mind. Using left-hand navigation or a value proposition in the snippet or top line of copy will ensure the message is visible even if the images aren't. The advent of mobile email adds even more challenges (see next item).

Lessons 5 and 6

Email has broken free from the desktop.

Back in 2000, email on a handheld device (the phone or personal digital assistant) was a rudimentary affair -- text only, slow loading, and a last resort to reach an audience away from the desktop.

Today, mobile email use is rampant, thanks to smartphones like the iPhone and BlackBerry. Smartphones also have more sophisticated features, and people now check their email in the bathroom, the church pew and, well, other places people can't drag a desktop.

This trend has several implications:

"What's in it for me?" still rules.

Today, email subscribers are more comfortable with the mechanics of email, at least as far as subscribing, checking email, and opening messages. (We're still working on unsubscribing instead of clicking the spam button.)

But marketers can do everything right with an email program and still miss the boat if the "WIIFM?" rule is forgotten: "What's In It For Me?" Why should people want the email? What are people supposed to do with the email? Why should they do business with one company instead of another?

It begins on a website, where a company invites its audience to subscribe to its email program. It is important for a marketer to show the value that the company brings, as the inbox is already crowded.

Email messages should always make clear any call-to-action with a clear value statement that renders with or without images.

Lessons 7 and 8

One size does not fit all.

Since the beginning, one of email's great benefits has been the mountain of data it can generate, including subscriber details, what things people like or respond to best, what they're doing with email messages, how they are interacting with the website after engaging with the email, and, perhaps most importantly, how they differ in their responses.

Although broadcast email helped give email its great start, the time has come to take email to the next level. This means gathering up all the data available on subscribers, understanding email performance, and using it to figure out what works and what doesn't.

More email list software programs are providing at least rudimentary segmenting and targeting. More marketers are taking advantage of it, although surveys show that a quarter to a third of marketers still don't do it.

A marketer can't claim success until it's measured the right way.

If there is a mountain of data available, it is imperative to make sense of it. Using the right metrics, a marketer can slice and dice data and then refine, improve, and accelerate the success of an email marketing program.

It's one thing to collect the data, such as subscriptions, clicks, opens, conversions, and unsubscribes. Using them to draw useful conclusions is still a daunting task for some marketers.

For a while, once marketers learned they could use HTML messages to count how many times people opened their messages, the open rate became a leading success indicator. Image-blocking has reduced the open rate's effectiveness, but it was never the best indicator anyway -- unless the campaign's sole directive was to get recipients to read the message.

Engagement is a hot topic now, because a company's reputation among ISPs as a reliable sender can depend on how many of subscribers act on emails or ignore them. Counting opens is a start, but marketers must also include clicks, even on the unsubscribe link, and conversions.

Ultimately, email success must be measured not just by how people interact directly with a company's email, but by what they do as a result. Marketers are now analyzing their web traffic and how email visitors are using their websites to discover what is getting in the way of a conversion.

Lessons 9 and 10

Email can go social.

These days the hype over social media echoes the early heady days of email, when marketers began scrambling to learn all they could about the new electronic medium. Now the flood is flowing toward Facebook and Twitter and the myriad other social and bookmarking sites.

However, the lesson is still the same: A company has to offer something valuable to subscribers before expecting subscribers to become fans on its Facebook page or followers on Twitter. It begins by understanding how social channels can positively affect the company. Is the plan to collect fan comments that can be repurposed to email and the company's web page? Are there timely news bulletins and special offers that can't wait for the next newsletter?

Social channels also offer an opportunity to extend engagement, and once the possible opportunities are understood, it is easier for marketers to offer a valuable invitation to subscribers. "Follow us on Twitter" doesn't give them an incentive on its own, but "Follow us on Twitter for special offers and late-breaking news" does.

It's time to blow up the silo.

In Digital Marketing 1.0, the email marketers do one thing, the web people do something else, and broadcast or print folks are off doing who knows what.

Digital Marketing 2.0 eliminates those silos and looks for ways to integrate all the channels together, whether it's cross-channel promotion, coordinated campaign deployments that capitalize on each channel's strength, or a single campaign that builds on the messages sent through other channels.

Successful marketers today find ways to get everyone on the team working together, finding ways to make all the channels work together for the greatest impact and the best use of marketing resources.

Wendy Roth is the senior manager of training services for Lyris Technologies.

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