Getting Email Out of the Friend Zone

Email has always been that channel that’s stuck in the friend zone. Despite its reliability, marketers can’t seem to resist chasing after sexier channels—like mobile and social. But after years of neglect and claims of its death, email is finally getting the attention that it deserves.

“People are saying, ‘We’re so sorry email. You’re awesome,’” says Chad White, lead research analyst for Salesforce ExactTarget Marketing Cloud and author of the new book Email Marketing Rules: A Step-by-Step Guide to the Best Practices that Power Email Marketing Success.

So it is possible that the most effective marketing channel is the one that’s been with marketers for so along? Here are eight reasons why marketers should give email the twice-over.

1) It doesn’t need to be exclusive: Email isn’t a clingy channel that demands all of marketers’ attention. In fact, email can strengthen customers’ relationship with other channels.

“Social media companies use email like crazy—and it’s [for] a very good reason. [Email] can drive engagement on their platforms to a very high degree,” White says. “Mobile is the same way. There was a lot of talk about mobile being the death note of email, [but] mobile has only made email more relevant and more entrenched. On smartphones, the number one activity is reading emails—more popular than making a phone call.”

2) It’s a people-pleaser: The number of emails customers receive daily can be overwhelming. After all, subscribers receive an average of 416 commercial messages every month, according to 2013 data released by email intelligence provider Return Path. Yet, White claims that people still prefer to receive marketing communications via email than through any other channel. ExactTarget’s 2012 “Channel Preference Survey” supports this notion, reporting that 77% of consumers prefer to receive permission-based communications through email.

“Despite years of ever-increasing email frequencies…consumer acceptance of commercial email is still really high. It’s still the preferred channel for commercial messages,” White says. “People would much rather get commercial messages via email than SMS, social…direct mail, you name it.”

3) It’s becoming more sophisticated: Relationships always involve a little give-and-take. With email, the more marketers invest in making the channel more sophisticated, the more likely they are to accelerate a return, White says.

“Email is starting to shake off this reputation of being cheap and simple,” White says. “Neither of those things are really true anymore…. However, the defining factor with email now is that it generates a really wonderful return—generally higher than any other channel, except for organic search.”

4) It can provide honest feedback: Soliciting honest feedback from consumers isn’t always easy; however, email testing provides an opportunity for marketers to determine how subscribers really feel about their messages based on opens, clicks, and conversions. However, new and existing subscribers don’t always see eye-to-eye. So, when testing design elements, White encourages marketers to test their messages on a fresh set of eyes.  

“If you’re testing a new email design, people have already seen your email design many times. They get trained to see things a certain way…It takes time to retrain them to enjoy the benefits of your design,” he says. “So an unbiased group would be new subscribers—people who haven’t seen your email before.  Those are the folks who you should cast the new design on because they’re not biased by having seen your previous designs.”

5) It can identify when it’s not wanted: The topic around whether marketers should send more email is a polarizing debate.  This argument can be settled, White says, by determining email volume based on engagement.

“Inactive subscribers who are not clicking, not opening, [and are] not engaged should receive a lot less—a lot less…. You should try to re-permission them, and if that doesn’t work, then you should let them go,” White says. “At the other end of the spectrum, you have really engaged subscribers—people who are constantly clicking or regularly clicking and making purchases.”

Marketers can better determine who their most engaged subscribers are, White says, by leveraging segmentation and sending more triggered emails. He says although engaged subscribers are likely to respond, triggered emails can also provide additional sources of data based on what subscribers explicitly tell marketers (such as their birthdays) or what they implicitly tell them (such as browsing behaviors).

6) It’s great for long-term relationships: It’s easy for marketers to get caught up in short-term results. However, White recommends focusing on lifetime subscriber value, rather than campaign metrics, to avoid the temptation of using shady tactics to maximize results.

“When you’re in a maximize frame of mind, it can cause you to use gimmicks, little tricks, and little deceits [that] end up decreasing engagement in the future,” he says.

7) It doesn’t have time for games: Relationships often fail when people start playing games—and it’s no different with email. Using vague subject lines to drive opens isn’t an effective tactic, White warns, because while it may be maximizing open rates it’s not maximizing conversions and revenue—which is what marketers really want.

“Subject lines should be pre-selecting people who are most likely to respond to the call-to-action in the email and open right to offer at the end of the funnel,” he says.

8) It counts its wins and losses: When most marketers think about list growth, they fixate on acquisition, White says. However, they often don’t factor in list churn.

“If you’re gaining 1,000 subscribers a week, but you’re losing 2,000 a week, your list is shrinking,” White says. “You have to acknowledge that list churn, that loss of subscribers, is increasing your replacement rate.”

In addition to considering churn, marketers need to evaluate the productivity of their list, White says. For instance, if marketers lose 100 subscribers who each had a lifetime value of $100, and they use low quality acquisition resources, like sweepstakes, to replace those subscribers with 100 new subscribers who have a lifetime value of $10, then the value of their list has gone down, White explains.

“Some are worth a lot more than others,” White concludes. “How do you find those guys and how do you retain them?”

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