The Changing Face of Email Marketing

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Not your Grandpa's email
Not your Grandpa's email

Is email marketing dead? The question itself should be put out of its misery. Answered every which way by analysts, the consensus seems to be that email marketing isn't going anywhere, given its reach, its adaptability to mobile, and its remarkable ROI (4,300 percent is a figure generally attributed to the Direct Marketing Association). 

But if email marketing is to survive and thrive as the Instagram, Snapchat and Kik generation comes into its full purchasing power, it will only be because it's evolving into an indispensible, dynamic product.

The evolution has been happening all this time, and email, as a result, is so much better. Among all those drab, text-based communications, perhaps ornamented with a call-to-action button and a stock image, are emails that don't look--or act--like emails at all.

Email is becoming responsive and contextual

E-mail has continuously improved in the almost four decades since someone discovered that a mass email blast could successfully shift product (1978; Gary Thuerk; DEC Machines). Those changes have accelerated in the past couple of years as the targeting and location-based technology has improved. The most advanced emails of today are responsive to recipient behavior and the context in which they're opened (and re-opened). 

What do we mean by responsive? Over coffee recently, Noah Dinkin, CEO of New York based email creation platform Stensul, defined responsive email as "email that adapts any number of properties, based on the environment in which it's consumed." The basic environment, of course, is the device of choice.  "Personalization is already here today," he said. "But it's very dependent on data capabilities."  Also, "the level of functionality is important." In addition to screen size, functionality determines, for example, whether the reader can view images in a carousel or easily use a navigation bar.

But responsiveness goes way beyond mobile optimization. I met Daniel Incandela, SVP of Global Marketing at veteran email data solutions provider Return Path at Salesforce Connections in Atlanta last month.

Responsiveness, he said, "is enhancing email more and more. With information that hits [recipients] at the right time and right place--and is viable--you can reach customers you haven't been reaching for years." Responsiveness, said Incandela, "is everything from changing the subject line, to dynamic content based on browsing history, to responding to weather, based on location. It makes it a meaningful experience, which comes back to the story you're telling." More on that later.

Responsiveness means optimizing for device, for subject line and message, and for send time and frequency. Incandela described it thus: "Arriving in the right inbox at the right time, with the most competitive subject line, and with correctly displayed contents."

Vivek Sharma, co-founder and CEO of New York email software and services vendor Movable Ink goes further, to talk about contextual email, and distinguishes between historic context--"first party data, demographics, past purchase and browsing history"--and current context (and disposition)--"device, location, geography, weather." 

Smarter emails in action

What does responsive/contextual email look like in action? Take, as an example, an appointment-based company. Modern email technology means that a user can not only identify Lenscrafters locations, but can interact with a calendar embedded in the email to schedule an appointment at the nearest one. Not ready to book? When you re-open the email, the calendar will be updated.

It works for offers too. Laptop/PC vendor Lenovo uses Movable Ink API integration and web cropping to send a single email with special offers and a Twitter feed which each automatically update whenever the email is opened and re-opened. (Web cropping allows the current version of any webpage, including social media channels, to appear in emails and update when emails are opened.)

Responsive or contextual e-mail is also a godsend for events companies. Palace Sports & Entertainment is the Michigan-based owner of the Detroit Pistons and a string of local music and entertainment venues. 

The company's eMarketing Manager, Jason Scott, told me that what had been "traditionally very static" email marketing had become "very entertaining and engaging overall," using Movable Ink's toolkit. A stream of relevant messaging, which would in theory require sending multiple static e-mails, can now be achieved through one email which updates on opening and re-opening. Indeed, the Pistons report improved click-through rates, and significantly improved engagement time and mobile engagement. "We've been very impressed," said Scott, although "there was a bit of a learning curve for our internal team to understand how you would consume that content in an email." 

Essentially, the traditional pre-game email becomes a during and post-game email too. In addition to featuring key game information (match-up and player stats, clock and score), it helps users with ingress and egress through live traffic reports. I asked how new users knew to keep re-opening the email. That was an initial concern, Scott admitted, but "we soft-launched without telling people to re-open. We found that because it calls out live traffic, and has the game clock, these acted as [sufficient] visual cues." Palace is planning to deploy a similar strategy around its upcoming summer concert seasons.

Surely the Pistons, like any major sports franchise, can deliver a comparable experience via an app? "Not everyone is going to have the app," said Sharma. With an email inbox, there's no downloading, and there's no need to delete once you're done with content. "The reason [responsive/contextual email] is so successful is that it's lightweight. You don't have to retrain the user."

What about the future?

Despite success stories, you may have noticed that most of the emails you receive are still static. The team at eDataSource tracks many millions of campaign emails on a daily basis. They estimate the penetration of this kind of personalization (including things like current weather and countdown clocks) to maybe 5 percent of total business emails sent. 

They also told me, "The applications can create lift, but ESPs can usually better leverage that kind of investment with more powerful forms of dynamic personalization, based on customer status and behavior, rather than when the email is opened." The biggest uptake they've seen is for product recommendations. "Delivering those at point of open means that individual recommendations can be delivered into email campaigns without a data integration project." Think of the Lenovo example.

It's easy to see how emails which update on re-opening might play an ever larger role in eCommerce: for example, price optimization of offers based on limited inventories like hotel rooms or airline tickets; refreshed catalogs reflecting recent sales (of real estate, for example); or shipping offers based on date and time opened. 

Email will never be everything

The face of email marketing is incrementally changing, but it remains part of a broad omnichannel strategy. Dinkin of Stensul told me, "There are lots of interesting technical advances to bring functionality which didn't exist before. But just because it exists, doesn't mean you should use all of it. What should and shouldn't be in an email, versus at other properties?" Dinkin also observes that, "given the volume of campaigns and what's being asked of marketers, there's a level at which it becomes too much." That's a dilemma Stensul set out to tackle: how to help a non-technical marketer create an on-brand, responsive email in minutes. "Let marketers market, not code email."

When I asked Sharma is there were limits on what could be done through Movable Ink-style commercial emails, he was clear that there were. For one thing, not all email clients support it. For another, it's likely to remain limited in comparison to what can be done with websites and apps. But then again, "do you really want to jam an eCommerce experience into an inbox." Emails have milliseconds to capture a user's interest: they can then direct them to a more comprehensive website or app experience. On the other hand, Sharma says "it's not a giant leap to imagine contextual content being decoupled from the email channel and exported elsewhere."

In the meantime, the email experience is part of the overall customer journey feedback loop. "We already export a lot of our data" to internal BI and CRM programs. "Marketers with a long view can benefit from these insights," Sharma said.

Incandela's thoughts on the future of responsive email are consistent with this viewpoint. For him, it comes down to narrative. "Whether it's words on paper or on a screen doesn't matter. What I want from an email experience is for a story to come alive. It should be a meaningful experience." Ideally, he said, "I don't want to move it away from the personal touch," but that can't any longer be delivered manually at today's scale. The new technology offers "a more immersive experience, but email is lagging behind websites and apps."

Lagging, maybe.  But it's sure come a long way.

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