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Is this the end of email marketing?

Christopher Marriott
Is this the end of email marketing? Christopher Marriott

"The End of History and the Last Man" is a 1992 book by Francis Fukuyama, which expanded on his 1989 essay, "The End of History?" In the book, Fukuyama advances his theory that the expansion of Western liberal democracy might signal the end point of "mankind's ideological evolution." He writes:

"What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government."

By now, you're thinking, "What on Earth does this have to do with email?" No, this isn't another article about how email is supposedly dead. I think we're all a little tired of that concept, as email is alive and well. Social and mobile didn't kill the email star. And the "next big thing," whatever that might be, won't kill it either.

What I am really referring to is whether we are all witnesses to the end of email marketing evolution. A couple of articles ago, I argued that we needed to re-think how we look at email marketing. I was hoping to ignite a discussion. But that didn't happen. A look at the plethora of articles appearing monthly reveals a depressing sameness about them:

  • Welcome campaigns and preference centers are good things to have

  • Maintaining and improving your reputation with ISPs

  • Making your emails mobile-friendly

  • Cart abandonment triggered emails will improve you sales

  • How to grow your list

  • How to re-engage subscribers

  • Best practices

You get the picture. Those of us who regularly write about email continue to revisit the same topics over and over again -- because what else is there to write about?  I'll admit, I've been guilty of that as well. After all, after 12 columns a year, year in and year out, you begin to run out of new things to write about.

Fukuyama's point was that mankind had reached the pinnacle of government in Western liberal democracy, and while history would continue, the evolution of government had ended. The question I'm raising here is whether we've reached the end of the evolutionary path for email marketing. Sure, there are more devices on which email can be viewed, but it's still an email. Sure, we can integrate it with other channels, but it's still an email. Nobody is fundamentally re-thinking what an email can do. We all know it keeps customers engaged and informed. It's a create tool for generating sales. It can help you get new customers. We've known all of this for years, and that's that.

So I did a little research. I entered the phrase "how email marketing can improve your display advertising" into Google. Zero results relating to that question. Then I typed "how email marketing can improve your search marketing." I got one hit that was the reverse -- "How SEO can improve your email marketing." I did it again with social, and got one result that addressed the issue. Most of the others were how social can improve your email marketing.

Maybe there are people who are addressing these issues head on and not much is being published. Maybe the answer is simply, "There's nothing email can do to help other channels." 

I don't happen to think it's the latter. Retargeting display ads to people on your list who click on an email is a very interesting tactic, and it might be just one example of how email can improve display campaigns. Most of what is published around this tactic is from the sell side. And it's not a lot.

In my own experience, I've seen clients' search results spike in the days following an email campaign. I don't believe in coincidences, and I doubt I'm the only one who has noticed this -- and yet I don't see the industry talking about it. And is there a benefit to being able to link a marketer's Facebook fans to their email addresses? I happen to think there are a number of benefits, yet no one is talking about it as far as I can tell. Would that be easy to do? Probably not. But we don't even know if it's worth the effort because we're not exploring the value of that linkage.

If we are to prove that we haven't reached the end of email marketing and that it can continue to evolve, it's going to take the collective efforts of the providers and the marketers together. We're going to need to tear down the silos that exist in too many marketing organizations. As my good friend and former boss Tim Suther likes to say, "Silos are good for farmers, but bad for marketers." On the provider side, we're going to need to work more closely with social and mobile and display providers to find ways to integrate technologies and databases, and stop trying to increase our revenue at the expense of each other.

It's not going to be easy, but I'm pretty sure it will be worth it. There is a connection between display, social, search, and email. It's not the single exposure alone that gets consumers to act, but rather the context of all the marketing that preceded it. We have been channel focused for too long. Channels and touch points are tools, not the outcome. Marketers need to demonstrate email's role in creating long-term value both for customers and prospects and the marketing function as a whole.

Let's get started.

Chris Marriott is a data-driven digital marketing consultant.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

"Concept internet security" image via Shutterstock.


to leave comments.

Commenter: Alexandre DE CHAVAGNAC

2012, May 19

There is a solution for improving your display ads through email. Tedemis has launched a email media retargeting platform available in France only for the time being. Someone exposed to a display ad on a media site can be retargeted through an email sent to him. This is very efficient!

This is an extension of the PRM email retargeting platform which allows web merchants to retarget by email people not in their lists.

Commenter: Chris Marriott

2012, May 17

Excellent points, Scott!

Commenter: Scott Hardigree

2012, May 16

Email, as a marketing channel, is fairly mature and certainly lucrative so perhaps evolution will only happen if a cataclysmic event occurs, such as across-the-board drops in ROI.

As you suggest, it may be silos which are hindering evolution or perhaps it is because the incremental lifts afforded by radical evolution are not worth the effort? I don't know but I suspect the later.

My point is that evolution tends to progress slowly when systems are working well. If and while that's true, it's a great vote of confidence for email but it also relegates the industry to a future of micro-innovations.

Commenter: Chris Marriott

2012, May 15

@Nick and Janet--thank you for taking the time to weigh in with your thoughts. @Janet--I agree with you regarding the gulf, but that gulf has been there for years. And I believe that is because at many organizations, the email marketing assignment is a bus stop on the ride to more "interesting and important" marketing roles. So success is often defined my maintaining a program's past performance while simultaneously cutting costs. Which leads to what @Nick describes below.

Commenter: Nick Stamoulis

2012, May 15

I definitely agree with you about the silos. Evolution is still possible, but it is going to take a few brave souls that are willing to fail to take that next step forward. People are afraid to invest in the untested; everyone is looking for guaranteed ROI. Until someone is will to crash and burn I don't know how much will change.

Commenter: Janet Roberts

2012, May 14

I think email has a long way to evolve, mainly because there's such a gulf between the ones who are doing it right (targeting, triggering, multi-channel, etc. etc.) and the ones who are still batch-and-blasting. But I see that gulf closing, bit by but, especially as the lower-end ESPs begin offering the tools that were once the province of the big guys.

I think this evolution will hit the gas when companies begin to see what email can do outside the marketing department, for ecommerce, customer service, investor relations and PR just to name a few. But marketing has to be the department to make that case.