Email, social media: marriage or divorce?

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Rent the Runway integrates social media and email
Rent the Runway integrates social media and email

For an example of social media and email marketing making beautiful music together, look no further than Rent the Runway, an e-commerce company that rents out designer dresses. For the company, Facebook has proved a most effective way to acquire new customers. Members must enter their email addresses to use the site. The company

then captures emails through a Facebook tab signup page, as well as through Facebook contests and giveaways that direct potential customers back to the company's website.

“Facebook is a great tool for acquiring new customers, because people want to see what their friends are up to,” says Lara Crystal, VP of brand marketing at Rent the Runway. “Renting is organically social. No one is renting to stay at home. They are renting to go out and see friends and get complimented on how great they look.”

Are email marketing and social media marketing a partnership made in heaven, or will social media lead to email's demise? Last year, a MarketingSherpa survey found that nearly one-quarter of email marketers felt challenged by “competition with social media for a consumer's time and attention,” with 71% of those surveyed expecting social media to become even more of a force over time. Despite that concern, there is no sign that social media will lead to the death of email. If anything, it is helping make email stronger.

“To me, they are very complementary,” says Crystal. “While they are different, they can be used side by side. Social media enables us to showcase new products on the site and get people to join. We use email marketing as a way to direct them to these two-way conversations on our social media pages.”

While Facebook helps Rent the Runway grow its database list, the company is still driven by email. The company, which works with Experian CheetahMail for email, currently has 1.25 million email subscribers and about 40,000 Facebook fans. Crystal says that  Facebook helps the email list grow, and vice versa.

Rent the Runway's integration of email and social media is common across the industry. “Smart marketers use all of their social assets to gather emails, and they use their emails to encourage engagement via social media too,” says Shar VanBoskirk, VP and principal analyst at Forrester Research.

For most marketers, a social media following is only a fraction of the size of an email list. Brands' email subscribers outnumber Facebook “likes” by an average of 70-to-1, according to a Silverpop survey. This is true for Rent the Runway as well as American Airlines, which has 5 million email subscribers yet only a fraction of that number of Facebook fans.

In fact, American Airlines found that email was the best tool to help it build up its social media following. American wanted to get into social media to attract a younger audience.

In February and March of this year, the company ran an email campaign offering recipients the opportunity to earn a surprise number of miles in exchange for “liking” the AAdvantage Facebook page.

The “Mystery Miles” email campaign was effective. Within 10 minutes of its launch, the AAdvantage page had achieved 6,000 likes. A day after the email message went out, the AAdvantage Facebook page had attracted about 163,000 likes. Overall, the month-long  campaign generated more than 250,000 likes to the AAdvantage Facebook page and more than 7,500 followers on Twitter. In the first week of the campaign, American Airlines saw the acquisition of new AAdvantage members increase by 65%, since membership was required to participate.

“Email is a proven channel that we have at our disposal,” says Greg Schwendinger, manager of AAdvantage partner marketing strategy. “We used it to get the ball rolling with the hopes that we would create viral hooks that would allow it to snowball from there.”

Schwendinger says he's not concerned that social media will overtake email. Instead, he says, the two channels can work together to make for a stronger marketing platform. “Social has the amplification value, but email still provides that personal message, which is very important for Advantage members,” he says.

American Airlines worked on this campaign with its email marketing agency of record, e-Dialog. Dan McDermott, the agency's marketing communications manager, says that using email and social media in tandem helps build lists for both channels. “Subscriber acquisition has become more difficult these days, and integrating email and social media is a great way to address this issue,” he says. “When you have the engagement opportunity that social media provides with amplification and friend recommendations, it is a great way to draw people into an acquisition email.”

Adding social links to email messages has become a standard practice, according to Silverpop's 2011 Top 500 Retailers report. The company reported that 78% of top retailers do so.

Back in February, when Facebook began rolling out its email platform Facebook Messages, marketers got concerned. And rightfully so, according to Facebook. The purpose of the new “social inbox” is to reduce the number of marketing messages Facebook users receive.

But so far, it hasn't hurt the email channel. “It is not a matter of email replacing Facebook or Facebook Messages replacing email. It just expands the kind of communications that consumers have,” says VanBoskirk. “Now I have an additional inbox with a different kind of communication.”

Nicholas Einstein, VP of deliverability and strategic services at Datran Media, argues that email itself is a form of social media. “The operative word in social media is social, which needs to be woven across channels and fully integrated to be effective,” he says. “Integrating new media into an email program is key, but email is absolutely alive and well.”

Still, the integration is not without its challenges. One of the obstacles brands face is integrating the channels across departments. According to Econsultancy's Email Marketing Census 2011 report, email and social media activity are managed as separate channels at 45% of companies. For some marketers, social media is handled in a separate department than email, while for others they are handled by the same department, even by the same person.

At American Airlines, the channels are handled by different groups within the organization: social media by the emerging media marketing group and email by the traditional marketing department. “I'm not sure that will last forever,” says Schwendinger. “Once we get our arms around social media, it might come into the traditional marketing group.”

However, Schwendinger says that having the two channels separate doesn't create issues internally. “There is a bit of coordination internally, but it's not cumbersome. We just have to work together,” he says. “A lot of the language we get approved by partners for an email we can use in social media.”

This kind of coordination is strategic because brands have to make sure not to overwhelm the consumer, often receiving messages from both channels. Rent the Runway lets its members set their own email preferences so they can decide how much they hear from the brand via email. The company also coordinates email and social media posts so as not to over-message. “There is a fine balance between giving customers all the information

that they want and overwhelming them,” says Crystal. “We have some dedicated customers that want 10 emails a week, but others want much less.”

VanBoskirk says that there are not a lot of formal social media departments within organizations. “It tends to handled by PR or digital marketing, depending on which department has the bandwidth,” she says. “It doesn't always make sense to have social media managed by the email manager, but their efforts should be coordinated together.”

For Karmaloop, an e-commerce company that sells urban fashion, both email and social media are housed within the marketing department, which has a few staffers working on each. “Different people are working on them, but they always chime in on what is going on,” says Giovannah Chiu, marketing director at Karmaloop. “We work on developing promotions together.”

According to Forrester Research, spend for email and social media was exactly the same in 2010, but the research company predicts that social media spend will surpass email in 2011. That doesn't necessarily mean social media is more important than email; actually,

social spend encompasses a number of different executions. While email spend generally refers to email delivery, analytics and creative, social media encompasses everything from building a community and a listening platform to campaign-management tools.

“The challenge for email is that social media is much sexier in everyone's mind than in email,” says VanBoskirk. “There is competition because social is cooler and there are not a lot of innovations coming out of email. However, email is still a strong channel in terms of delivering results.”

But just because email isn't as trendy as social media doesn't mean that it isn't effective. According to Econsultancy's Email Marketing Census 2011 report, 72% of companies rate email as “excellent” or “good” for return on investment. “Email drives sales,” says Chiu. “At the end of the day, we are a retail company, and driving sales is our goal.”

Chiu explains that email, unlike social media, is driven by data, which is more effective in selling products. “We have customer intelligence based on past purchase behavior and we can gear emails directly to that customer,” she says.

Schwendinger explains that one of the big social media challenges at American Airlines is that it's difficult to target messaging. “With email we have the data, so we can target,” he says. “The two will have to continue to work together.”

Despite the fact that it doesn't have email's powerful data set, social intelligence is not without its merits. Brands get direct feedback from the customers on Facebook and Twitter pages, and this content can be turned into compelling email messaging. Karmaloop uses content from its Facebook users in email marketing. “We get comments and feedback on Facebook, and using this we can discern what kinds of things people

want to hear about from us,” says Chiu. “This helps us put together emails with fresh content.”

Rent the Runway does this as well. “We have a weekly style-sheet email that goes out on Friday, and it includes an overview of what is happening on our blog and on Facebook so that members can really participate in the conversations that are happening,” says Crystal.

With its power to amplify offers, build lists and connect brands to new audiences, social media is the perfect partner for email marketing, and that relationship isn't going to change anytime soon. “Email programs are made stronger with social content, and the awareness of social programs comes from email,” says VanBoskirk. “Smart marketers have some understanding of how these two channels work together.

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