Trends to watch: Email en vogue

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Marketers share what's on their mind
Marketers share what's on their mind

Trendy marketing tactics may come and go, but marketers continue to rely on email as a communications staple. In fact, according to a recent study by Experian CheetahMail, email volumes have increased across all verticals included in the study; 10% overall in Q2 2012 over the same time last year. The travel industry's growth was the greatest, with a 41% year-over-year increase. Open rates are increasing, as well. The Q1 2012 North America Email Trends and Benchmarks report, by Epsilon and Direct Marketing Association's Email Experience Council, cites a 12.6% year-over-year increase in open rates for both triggered emails and business-as-usual emails.

While email remains popular and productive, standing out in a crowded inbox becomes increasingly difficult.

With that in mind, Direct Marketing News asked several industry insiders the following: What's the biggest or most important trend, issue, or challenge in email marketing right now, specifically as it relates to direct marketing? Here, they discuss what marketers should be paying attention to, as well as how to seize the opportunities that email marketing presents.

Dan Smith
SVP of marketing, ClickSquared

The biggest issue in email marketing today is being relevant to customers. It appears that many email marketers are responding to declining email response rates by simply sending more (and more frequent) one-size-fits-all emails, causing their most loyal customers to then ignore their outreaches altogether.

Email marketers need to reassess their targeting, timing, and relevancy. Has the customer shown prior interest in either the product(s) that I am marketing, or in the offers about what I want to sell? Does the customer usually buy trendy products, or does she respond to clearance sales? Does she tend to buy online, or visit my store—and when?

Relevancy builds trust, and translates to success. If your email solution doesn't support a full marketing database and data-driven dynamic content, you're not a direct marketer—you're a broadcast marketer using a direct channel.

Michael Della Penna
SVP of emerging channels, Responsys

Email and social are converging. Brands now have the ability to use permission-based social data—including profiles, sentiment, and social graph information—to create and execute more relevant email communications. And with the integration of data from multiple channels, marketers have the opportunity to add predictive and engagement targeting programs to their personalized communications and programs.

That said, most brands feel that they could be doing a better job within these emerging channels and, in particular, with the orchestration of messaging across multiple channels. In fact, despite the rapid rise and adoption of social media, many brands have yet to formalize their strategic road map and communications for social and mobile and are struggling to keep up with the growing number of accounts across social networks in particular.

Consequently, we've seen many brands implement numerous point solutions to address various tactical needs—whether it's campaign management, analytics, or listening. This has created data silos, integration woes, and an inconsistent customer experience. Over the next several years we'll see some solution consolidation and marketers will continue to work towards combining social, mobile, and email data into CRM systems so they can create a more consistent experience for each customer.

Kristin Hambelton
VP of marketing, Neolane Inc.

We've seen an uptick in using email-based transactional messaging. Brands are finding that one of the best ways to engage customers after the point-of-purchase is by giving them information they want, such as order confirmations, shipping notifications, and delivery confirmations. Because of their valuable, often time-sensitive content, transactional messages enjoy unbelievably high engagement rates. To unlock their revenue potential, though, marketers must do three things:

1. Take ownership of transactional messaging, managing it holistically within the customer experience;

2. Leverage a central hub that processes, enriches, and routes all transactional messages; and,

3. Embed personalized, contextually relevant offers, while respecting the sanctity of transactional content.

Email is the primary channel for transactional messages, but brands should have a cross-channel strategy so they can use SMS, push notifications, social media, etc., depending on customer preferences, message timeliness, or as an escalation path should emails bounce.

Ben Levitan
CEO, IMN

The connection between content and engagement can't be overlooked, especially for marketers measuring email response rates and deliverability. Content marketing is more than just a popular topic; data shows that the “right” content impacts customers' willingness to engage and drive revenue. The right content, for example, is personalized, informative, and entertaining, and it can take a variety of forms including text, videos, or static images. One of the best ways to develop a sustainable program leveraging the “right content” is to use digital behavioral cues that enable marketers to match communications to the buying cycle—identifying shoppers who are in the decision process, and finding creative ways to continue the conversation post-purchase. It's important to remember that the content that engages customers and prospects at each stage of their brand relationship is often very different; reinforcing that a one-size-fits-all content strategy simply won't work.

Bryan Harwood
Chief technology officer, Outsell

The most important trend right now in email marketing is message optimization. This is broken into two main areas: targeting through data analysis and leveraging multiple channels. Direct marketers need to get the right message to the right customer at the right time with relevance to the consumer. To do this, marketers must use data effectively to target consumers at the optimal time during the customer purchase lifecycle.

Marketers are also being asked how they can optimize messaging across various communication platforms. Consequently, marketers need to think about how they work with other channels, such as mobile and social, to make sure their message is relevant to the consumer and is consistently communicated across other channels to maximize outreach and increase opportunities to engage with their customers.

Bertrand Van Overschelde
VP of North America, Emailvision

Email marketers tend to be more reactive than proactive, often focusing on deliverability as their primary success metric. When their campaigns aren't delivering well, they'll seek guidance to improve deliverability without addressing another essential factor: engagement.

While deliverability is certainly important, campaign success is contingent on getting subscribers to open, click, and purchase; 100% deliverability means little if 50% of your list is inactive. Marketers should aim to more effectively segment their list, making sure that the right messages are sent to the right people. We recommend looking at what customers purchased in the past and using that information to create campaigns that will reengage inactive members and retain active ones.

One online shoe retailer, for example, sent repeated email blasts to all of its customers on newly discounted items. At first these blasts were successful, so the company increased its frequency. Ultimately, however, they experienced diminishing returns and deliverability rates. [Consequently,] they sent fewer, more targeted emails based primarily on purchase history and customers' shoe sizes and altered message frequency. As a result, the company has grown its business significantly, and multiplied its sales by seven times for considerable smaller and larger shoe sizes. Deliverability first, segmentation next: That's the growth path.

Jonathan Catley
Digital content manager, AG Salesworks

Marketers need to integrate email marketing and nurture campaigns into their marketing mix. This will generate relevant content and quality sales pipeline opportunities. Marketers are too quick to convert marketing leads to sales leads without qualifying the prospects, leading to a gap between sales and marketing departments. By developing a program to nurture marketing leads, marketers will see an increase in the ROI of their direct marketing campaigns.

Paul Turnbull
Product manager, Campaigner

The popularity of mobile devices worldwide is changing when and how people read and interact with emails on a daily basis. As an email marketer, this presents some new challenges and technological constraints, which can significantly impact the effectiveness of a company's email campaigns. Whether marketers are sending B2B or B2C campaigns, they should investigate mobile device usage among their subscribers and optimize their campaigns accordingly. I recommend the following:

  • Measure and analyze the email clients and devices customers use to help prioritize and focus mobile optimization efforts. Use tools from an email service provider to measure email technology usage. For example, of X emails sent over a specific time frame, what percentage were opened using a mobile device (smartphone or tablet), and of those, what percentage were Apple iOS devices?
  • Test emails and email templates on mobile devices. Use a third-party service to see how they render.
  • Optimize email layouts and content to be mobile friendly, avoiding usability challenges for customers. For example:
    • Use simpler, single column layouts and avoid wide table sizes
    • Provide large call-to-action buttons placed prominently above the fold
    • Use larger font sizes for legibility, and space out inline links
    • As a fallback, include a link to an online version that is mobile-friendly
    • Avoid excessive text and images used to avoid long or partial email downloads.

Stephanie Miller
VP of digital messaging solutions, Aprimo

The biggest challenge in email marketing today is in using data analysis to develop the most accurate view of a customer and then trigger a message that is most valuable in that moment. The connection is complex and the opportunity fleeting. To develop this full data view, marketers must capture and utilize data from all digital sources, like email, text messages, webstream, commerce, and social. The best campaigns tap these channels in near real time; connecting the dots to match the best offer with the right customer experience. Marketers can not only improve response and revenues, they can also optimize channel mix, media spend, and limit the discounts offered.

To increase revenue, don't just send more generic messages. Not all subscribers are created equal, so focus on the highest value customers and send more messages that are more customized. Once engagement starts, you can send more messages, through more channels, to address how customers interact with your brand across digital experiences and devices. Make a full loop: analyze, test, message across channels, analyze, optimize, test, message…. Most marketers have more data than they use; the trick is to focus on the digital data that tells the story of your customers' journey.

Steve Mertel
VP of business development, InfoGroup Targeting Solutions

The top challenge in terms of B2B email marketing is trying to find new ways to increase results. It's harder than ever to get in front of people. Back in the early days of email marketing, it was easy to get double digital results with little segmentation. With the proliferation of new marketing channels today, email has seen a decline in results.

How do you stay fresh today? Customer segmentation. Some marketers don't really know who their customers are. They have to analyze their lists. Once they have a better understanding of their customers, then they have to apply that insight to improve response rates: What segment is optimal, test that, then find like customers in a larger database. This will increase responses and opens and decrease acquisitions costs. It changes the way we look at performance. As marketers apply segmentation, it narrows who they market to, but increases their results.

Quinn Jalli
SVP, Strategic Initiatives Group, Epsilon

Mobile has changed email more than anything, so it's getting a lot of the attention right now. Email everywhere, on disparate devices, in multiple formats, has forced marketers to view email marketing from a third dimension. Prior to 2007, email existed in a two-dimensional universe where the only questions asked were to whom are we sending the email and at what domain. Now, with the mass adoption of smart phones, marketers really need to consider the third dimension—on what device.

In addition, changes at ISPs are influencing how marketers engage consumers over email, but the changes aren't getting nearly enough attention. ISPs are increasingly using reputation-based systems that focus on consumer engagement. If you're not driving interactions, opens, and clicks on a regular basis, then you're going to have deliverability problems. As a result, marketers have to be more effective at engaging consumers and keeping them active for as long as possible—but getting that engagement is the tricky part. In 2012 and beyond, marketers will need to stop treating customers as an audience, and they will need to find meaningful ways to treat them as individuals.

David Baker
VP of product/solutions multichannel marketing services, Acxiom

The most dramatic trend in email marketing stems from the shift in how and when people access email, many of whom are triaging email on the run or clicking through to accomplish valuable business interactions. The consumer hub for years has been the PC, with weekend email trends supporting retention, viewership, and conversion-oriented behaviors.

This has changed dramatically over the past year due to the proliferation of mobile devices. The point of intermediation—when a consumer makes a buying decision—is location and device driven today. The influence of email on buying decisions is requiring that email marketers make programmatic decisions, use dynamic content, and optimize performance at a much faster rate. This also has forced marketers to focus on content experiences optimal to the device, as well as build in better timing, triggers, and fluidity.

The best recommendation for marketers is to develop a solid baseline of mobile behavioral response to email. Benchmark this performance with your highest-value and early lifecycle customers and use that information to optimize content for mobile. Over time this will require much more synchronization between the mobile Web and mobile email experience, and how consumers' funnel experiences are managed. How you segment your customers will be trumped by how quickly you optimize response.

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