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Don’t change the channel

In an era of increasing mobile and social media customer interactions, a multichannel approach to marketing is essential to any successful marketer’s toolkit. Email is often a core asset in this strategy.

When it comes to multichannel marketing, that email-centric approach is JetBlue Airways flight plan. “Email is the central piece of communication for us because we have a large and engaged email list,” says Maryssa Miller, director of digital commerce at JetBlue. “We see it as the central communication channel, but we also realize that customers want to communicate with us in different ways. We use various channels to communicate with customers throughout the travel window.”

A JetBlue customer may receive an email encouraging him to book a flight, followed by an email itinerary. JetBlue then moves to mobile with a push communication from the airline’s app to remind him to check in to his flight. After his travel is completed, he will receive an email communication asking for feedback on the travel experience.

The airline has a mobile app, an e-commerce site, a mobile site, a strong social media presence, a toll-free number, and, of course, the in-airport and in-flight experiences. To help create a seamless experience across those touch points, the brand integrates its messaging and makes it easy for customers to jump from one channel to the next. In the airport and on planes, JetBlue actively promotes its mobile and social channels. Using the app, flyers can check in to their flights by signing into their personal profiles and TrueBlue loyalty accounts using their email address.

The brand’s marketing emails for special offers and the like also serve to promote other channels. The airline encourages customers to share its email via social networks with share-to-social buttons within the emails. The messages also highlight the airline’s mobile app and mobile-optimized experiences.

“Email is still the most active channel in terms of really being able to drive customer behavior through to a transaction, mostly because of the really engaged list that we have,” Miller says. “The [mobile] app has been a really big push for us, because it’s a single source that a customer can go to during the travel experience. The social channel helps build awareness. But email is the driver for booking transactions.”

Email delivers sales for FedEx, as well. Amid retail stores, an app, an e-commerce site, and even drivers and trucks in the field, FedEx uses email as a central touch point of its multichannel approach to marketing because of the channel’s ability to drive transactions.

“Email has long been an effective marketing and transactional channel for FedEx,” says Christopher Bevel, email marketing principal at FedEx Services. “Email is highly preferred by our customers because of its ubiquity, immediacy, and ease of use. And, it makes good business sense for FedEx because of its low cost, utility, and easy execution,” Bevel says.

FedEx has a number of email newsletters that are optimized for mobile phones and include links to its social pages. “We see email’s value improving so far as we can more fully integrate email and social to enhance experiences and take advantage of cutting edge interactive marketing trends,” Bevel says.

The courier service’s emails contain content aimed at educating customers and driving transactions across channels. FedEx’s Updates newsletter, which features expert advice, tips, and product information, and is aimed at small businesses, helps customers manage their experience with the brand—from creating a shipment and scheduling a delivery to working with FedEx employees in stores or out in the field. FedEx also has what it calls the “Get Ahead” email program aimed at small businesses and its “We-Commerce” program, which offers specialized solutions and insights for online retailers.

“Our customers naturally do business with FedEx across many channels and touch points every day, from Web and mobile application digital channels, to in-person channels such as call centers, retail stores, and our couriers,” Bevel says. “Our goal is to create new solutions and make it consistently easy for customers to do business with us no matter how they interact with FedEx; that’s a big part of how we’ll create customers for life,” he says.

Email engagement

For many organizations, email is vital to ongoing multichannel customer engagement efforts—especially for retailers. “Email works well as a follow-up to a transaction,” says Ira Dolin, VP of digital strategy and email practice at Epsilon. “It is a personal touch point that allows the brand to have intimacy with a customer. This gives the retailer an opportunity to follow up with a consumer to send marketing messages. It is a key way to keep customers engaged with the brand.”

Merchants often use the point of sale as a place to capture email addresses and further engage customers. Retailers like Apple, Gap, and Nordstrom even offer customers the opportunity to receive an email receipt at the point of purchase, which are sometimes followed by a welcome email for new customers.

However, not all retailers place email at the center of their multichannel marketing strategies. According to ExactTarget‘s Retail Touchpoints Exposed survey, released in August 2012, only 2% of retailers offer digital copies of receipts via email and only 2% use in-store signage to promote email or text message engagement. In fact, according to the research, only 44% of America’s fastest-growing retailers sought email opt-in at the point of purchase at all.

“Marketers can capitalize on in-store customer touch points to drive email opt-ins in order to send product announcements, [information on] clearance sales, and exclusive discounts,” says Jeffrey K. Rohrs, VP of marketing at ExactTarget. “Consumers expect interaction and will reward brands that create seamless experiences across online and offline channels.”

Chris Silva, an industry analyst at the Altimeter Group, says that retailers can take advantage of the fact that people have their phones with them in stores to encourage customers to opt in to their email list; for example, by using signage with QR codes or text-to-subscribe messaging. “When they’re physically there with their phone, that device is the link to their social graph and their personal information that you may not have,” Silva says. “It is a great way to get a hook in the users and get them to opt in to direct marketing and email campaigns.”

Email is also an effective way to get customers to return to the store—and then engage them with on-site marketing. For e-commerce retailers like Build.com, an e-commerce site that sells home improvement items, abandoned shopping cart emails work well to drive customers back to their online store. “Every communication should be an extension of the first click or interaction,” says Brandon Proctor, VP of marketing at Build.com. “The customer silently tells you information from when and where they sign up to where they leave and everything in between. It’s our responsibility as marketers and data analysts to listen to our customers and personalize the experience based on behavioral triggers to get customers to what they truly want without making them work for it,” he says.

Multichannel workhorse

The death of email has been oft-predicted with the rapid growth of social media, but email has proven that it actually helps social. National Geographic Society, for example, integrates email with social by adding share-to-social buttons to its emails and by inviting social fans to opt in to receive its email newsletters. And it’s not hard to see why. The appeal of baby penguin photos and fresh water shark videos means these digital assets can be easily pushed beyond email. Social helps the brand spread its content while growing its email database in a more central and solid channel.

“People seem to gravitate between different social networks and the popularity of each platform constantly changes, but all of them rely on email for alerts, notifications, and confirmations,” says Marc Haseltine, manager of email and alternative marketing at National Geographic Society. “Email is still extremely useful for private correspondence and personal communications. With social media people can cultivate an idealized image of themselves to project to others, while email may allow for a truer expression of one’s self and interests that’s away from the public sphere.”

Rohrs calls email a “workhorse” in explaining why the channel has survived the era of social media. He points out that like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Pinterest, email itself is a channel for sharing. In fact, social media companies use email to share updates.

“Think about it: Even social media needs email to survive,” he says. “For instance, why did Twitter just massively overhaul its follower alert emails and introduce a new weekly summary of activity within the accounts you follow? They did it for reengagement, plain and simple. Twitter, and every other social media network, needs an external means to get you to reengage with their sites, apps, or community when you drift away,” Rohrs explains.

Email also has an important role to play as mobile phone adoption continues to grow. According to Google’s April 2011 report, The Mobile Movement: Understanding Smartphone Users, 82% of smartphone-owners check and send email on their devices.

Many consumers open emails on their phones but later shop online or on a tablet, a habit that Altimeter’s Silva refers to as “snacking.” This multichannel consumer behavior presents challenges for direct marketers, who should be tracking what devices their customers are using to open their emails and designing the messaging accordingly. “The content needs to be personalized and interesting enough to come back to,” Silva explains.

They’re looking for content they can connect to, something that will stick out and give them a good take away. If I open an email on my smartphone, I’m less likely to consume it unless it is really compelling,” he says.

Marketers who want to connect with consumers on their mobile devices should focus on content strategy and optimize their design. This includes a user-friendly layout built around the smartphone experience, like screen size and the need to scroll through content.

With this in mind, marketers should make sure that their email messages are clear and concise and that the design is simple and shows up well on a phone. Additionally, fewer links—or one simple and clear call-to- action—is an effective approach; this will help avoid customers clicking on the wrong link.

“The challenge is that you need to be specific about what you have to say, but you need to focus on accessibility,” Dolin says.

Epsilon’s Dolin recommends that marketers take a scalable approach and make use of plain text formatting, a slim one-column design, and responsive design tools to help optimize the experience. Businesses should look at their specific company goals, as well. A healthcare client that Epsilon works with wanted to optimize its email for mobile but it turned out that the company didn’t have a website that was optimized for mobile. Looking to see how many clients actually opened emails on the mobile phone and which phones they used, they created a test. So the company produced different calls-to-action depending on which device a customer used when opening its email. Desktop users saw the message “Order now,” which linked to the website; iPhone users saw the message “Call to order now”; and Android users saw both calls-to-action. “Android users are already used to things not always being optimized, so they wouldn’t be as upset,” Dolin explains.

Build.com also has optimized its emails for mobile. Proctor says that this is part of the brand’s approach to creating a personalized experience and sending the right message at the right time. “The key is consistent messaging with the full view of the customer buying cycle,” Proctor says. “Mobile is becoming a large email digestion device, and we are shifting strategies to truly create a cross-channel experience.”

National Geographic Society is also integrating its emails with the mobile channel by optimizing emails that are opened on mobile devices. The organization uses detection tools to see if someone is opening an email on an iPhone or an Android phone, for example. Using this data, National Geographic will then send email offers promoting apps to people that are viewing the site from a mobile device.

Using cross-channel integration and personalization to ensure relevant, seamless interactions no matter how a customer engages with a brand will help direct marketers create an engaging, customer-centric experience—and email is at the heart of this experience. Consumers may build profiles across social networks and jump from their laptops to their smartphone to their iPad within a day’s browsing, yet email is alive and well. According to ExactTarget’s 2012 Channel Preference Survey, 91% of the U.S. online population checks email daily and 94% have subscribed to receive email from at least one brand.

“Email is the glue that holds a customer’s profile together,” Dolin says. “You can put QR codes in it. You can add social links. You can optimize it for mobile, and within the email itself you have the opportunity for cross-channel promotion. It is a personal touch point that allows the brand to have intimacy across channels.”

Savvy direct marketers are finding that an integrated approach to email marketing makes the most sense for customers—and focusing on the customer is the most effective way to build relationships and, in turn, drive sales. “Email continues to provide an effective way to cultivate and grow relationships,” says National Geographic Society’s Haseltine, “and new technology makes it easier for direct marketers to automate and measure their efforts.”

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