E-mail basics meet new tricks

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Integrating e-mail messages with social media is one of the ideas generating the most interest among e-mail marketers right now, but so is a return to basics — old standbys like relevant messaging. E-mail marketers are combining these old and new tricks to stand out in the ever-crowded inbox.

Roberta Borst, director of integrated marketing communications with insurance company, Allstate, said “leveraging e-mail in the social media world,” is the next big thing.

“Some marketers are encouraging sharing e-mails, often with compelling offers, with an individual's network,” she says.

Embedding video in e-mails, Borst adds, is also growing in interest, though that is still a tricky process: “The emergence of rich video in e-mails will happen when marketers fully understand e-mail clients, their preferences and relevance. Videos in e-mails are also tricky to deliver and sometimes tricky to view depending on the device being used.”

Steve Wages, e-mail marketing manager at outdoor apparel retailer Patagonia, says his company would love to put videos in its e-mail messages, but instead settles for animated GIFs “to give a sense of motion,” or a picture of a video that links to an actual player. Putting actual video files in the e-mail is still too bulky, he says, and often lands a marketer in the spam filter.

Instead, like a lot of marketers, Patagonia is focusing on relevance. This is something it has struggled with in the past, because each of its e-mails center on a “story” with limited space where customizable information can be inserted.

“There is probably some downside to not having that level of customization in terms of open rates,” he said. “We've seen for a long time that relevance is what's driving open and click-through rates.”

Patagonia is also moving forward with social networking capabilities. “We've started adding links to Twitter and Facebook,” Wages says.

Jenni Fox, e-mail publications manager at Miles Media, a publisher of electronic newsletters for tourism companies, relies heavily on the medium for business and is always looking for ways to extend the reach of e-mail messages. When e-mail service provider Silverpop told her in October about a new product called Share-to-Social that would allow recipients to post the contents of an e-mail message directly to their social network of choice, the timing was perfect.

“We actually had just started to explore social media and what we could do with it,” says Fox.

In the next edition of its Visit Florida e-mail, Miles Media included a small line that read, “Share this on: Facebook,
MySpace, Digg, Twitter.” The results were not great at first glance — out of 174,000 recipients, 46 clicked on one of the four options. But even that minuscule success rate (.002%) hinted at huge, untapped potential.

“It's a very small number, but many more people are seeing it from there,” she says, referring to the Facebook friends and Twitter followers of the 46 people who used the share-to-social option.

Less than a year later, Fox adds, Share-to-Social has become a regular feature of its e-mail campaigns, and for every e-mail message that goes out, the share rate is increasing dramatically.

Extending the reach of e-mail messages is an intriguing idea to nearly all marketers these days, and not just because they are curious about the potential of social media as a marketing tool. As the economic downturn enters its second year, e-mail marketing remains on a significant upswing as marketers seek to do more with less. It's an affordable, highly targeted channel with almost no start-up costs, and it hits consumers where they spend most of their time online: right in the inbox.

“We're seeing many more marketers rallying around the channel as opposed to direct mail and some of the other offline media channels,” says David Daniels, an analyst with Forrester Research. “It's one of those tools that for a marketing channel is rather resilient in good times and bad. E-mail is still the number one reason consumers connect to the Internet every day.”

Spending on e-mail marketing will come in at $1.2 billion in 2009, and nearly double in five years, hitting $2 billion by 2014, according to a June report from Forrester Research. Over that time, the amount of marketing mail in the average consumers' inbox — already nothing to sneeze at — will increase at a compounded average growth rate of 4%, reaching 9 million annual messages by 2014.

Like Patagonia and Allstate, most e-mail marketers today focus on standing out in crowded inboxes rather than adopting fancy new tools. That means sending relevant messages that customers want to see when they log into their e-mail.

“We want customers to feel that the message they are receiving was specifically composed for them,” says Allstate's Borst. “The more personalized the information contained within, the more the e-mail will speak to the recipient and enhance his or his receptivity to our message and ultimately our brand.”

Paying close attention to data, cleaning lists constantly, and taking advantage of increasingly sophisticated list segmentation tools are crucial steps toward achieving this goal. “Marketers definitely have to get more relevant” if they want to be noticed, notes Daniels. 

Sensing this trend, Vertical Response, which offers e-mail marketing services to small businesses, recently launched a list segmentation tool that allows e-mailers to divide their lists by more than 250 categories, including everything from ZIP code to last purchase to click-through behavior to ensure they are getting an e-mail that will appeal to them.

“As small businesses are wading into e-mail marketing, they want more features like this,” says Vertical Response CEO Janine Popick.

Relevance is also an essential ingredient to avoiding spam filters. Other keys include authentication — a service now offered by a number of vendors that lets your customers and Internet service providers know that your e-mail messages are coming from your company — list management, and not overwhelming your recipients with messages, even if they asked for them.

Stephanie Miller, VP of market development at e-mail services company Return Path, estimates that 20% of legitimate marketing e-mail never reaches the inbox.

“Spammers are constantly changing their tactics, so ISPs are constantly changing their filters,” she says. “You have to be expert at looking at your data so you can understand the root causes of the problem. Sign up for feedback loops, track your actual inbox deliverability and always consider relevancy.”

If you do find yourself ending up in spam filters too often, perhaps you need to ask yourself one simple question: Am I sending too much?

“Sometimes consumers get irritated, and say, ‘Look, you've sent me 15 offers this week that just aren't interesting to me,'” said Miller. “‘So you're spam.'”


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