Email is considered an old technique within new media. Where other channels have introduced new, shiny formats, email sits as the dowdy sibling to direct mail and social marketing. Compared to the longevity of direct mail, email is often seen as commoditised, transient and disposable. From an engagement perspective, email falls short of social media’s allure of instant amplification.
Iris digital director for Europe George Nimeh says it’s a fairly passive media, which poses a challenge for marketers who want to use it as a direct response medium. “Compared to real-time social media, location-based marketing and other buzz-worthy stuff, email isn’t very sexy. However, that doesn’t make it irrelevant to the modern marketing mix,” he says.
That is because marketers are now experimenting with up-to-date email formats, employing some of the most sophisticated techniques and using levels of customer data that most channels can only dream of.
Some are testing the new web language HTML5 to incorporate video, for example, but this currently means that the number of people who can open it is greatly reduced.
This restricts creativity in email developments, argues Dan Northover, digital design director at Partners Andrews Aldridge. He says: “Email is bogged down in convention. Because you might lose a bit of your audience through not being able to open your emails, it becomes underwhelming for 95% of marketers.”
This means marketers need to redefine the way they think creatively and go back to nuts-and-bolts marketing. Kitcatt Nohr Alexander Shaw digital planning director Lazar Dzamic says: “Marketing emails generally have conservative layouts and a conservative interplay between words and images. The magic happens in how we play with the data and content that goes into the email.”
The creativity, then, comes mostly at the back-end – the timeliness, personalisation, segmentation and the integration of email with other channels.
Dzamic adds: “Email is much cheaper, faster, more personalised and automated than regular DM. This means you can have completely different offers, images and copy for every customer.”
Relevancy has always been a core requirement of any marketing activity, but the technologies now available allow truly tailored communications. In this landscape, a one-size-fits-all approach just doesn’t cut it anymore.
Dan McKinnon, business development director at email marketing agency eCircle, says: “Spam used to be messages that people were sent that they had not opted into, but the web 2.0 version of spam is stuff that the recipient does not find at all relevant.”
Untargeted messages will affect the brand long term, adds Vince Keay, email and database marketing manager at online recruitment business Jobsite. “Email develops a bad image when people are thinking of short-term gain by sending more and more emails,” he says. “If you do that, your database will quickly wither away.”
One growing trend is the careful use of data to personalise messages to create one-to-one communications triggered by behaviour, demographics and motivations. Fifty-two per cent of email marketers now say they use personalisation, compared with 38% in 2009, according to an email census carried out by Econsultancy and Adestra this year.
To create truly personal communications, brands need to monitor their consumers’ behaviour at every touchpoint and feed that information into their messaging. A solid eCRM system requires investment, takes time, needs a lot of data and requires a lot of testing. But if done well, the results can be very compelling. Brands can then take a template for an email and populate fields based on customers’ unique interest based on previous purchases, demographics or interests.
Emma McLaughlin, online acquisition and retention manager at John Lewis, says this approach makes email DM much more personalised and relevant. “Dynamic segmentation means that we have maybe 500 versions of the same newsletter with dynamically populated sections based on, for example, your gender or whether you are a parent or not.”
Technology providers help clients to manage the huge volumes of emails and install a level of automation. One such provider, Neolane, has helped Jobsite to automate the creation and delivery of its 2 million daily emails. Content is intelligent to recipients’ preferences or how they have previously browsed Jobsite.
Smart brands employ a mixture of these planned interactions with consumers and communications that are automatically triggered by browse or purchase behaviour, for example.
One such trigger can be an abandoned shopping cart on an ecommerce site. This can prompt an email asking the consumer why they failed to complete the purchase – something Amazon does very well. Similarly, John Lewis sends beauty offers a few months after purchase to prompt replenishment, while airline KLM targets customers on their birthday with the offer of a personal gift.
Some brands are trying to go beyond reactive communication by exploring propensity modelling – that is to try and identify the likelihood of a consumer to undertake a given action, such as taking up a new service or product even if they haven’t yet expressed an interest in it.
For department stores like John Lewis, which sells a very broad mix of goods that can potentially cater to everyone at any point in their lives, this is extremely important. McLaughlin says: “We model whether they are likely to buy from another category. We need to convey our whole range of goods to people who may have only purchased from one or two categories.”
Like any media channel, email works best as part of a multichannel, integrated mix. One of the key channels it can enhance is direct mail. But it is important that marketers don’t treat email as a cheap version of direct mail, argues E-Village business development manager Rogier van der Veen.
Compared with direct mail, email is cheap, fast and flexible. It costs about £2 to send 1,000 emails compared with around £4 for a direct mail pack. So there is a temptation to replace direct mail with email.
But Richard Madden, planning director at Kitcatt Nohr, says it’s more beneficial to use both methods in tandem. “The wonderful thing about using direct mail is that it’s sticky and email is slippy and using both together has the best effect,” he says.
First Direct is using direct mail more sparingly in favour of email for the majority of its customer communication. But when the online bank does create direct mail it spends more money to create something that customers are more likely to keep, explains its head of marketing Paul Say.
Email can also be used to enhance direct mail by prompting recipients to open it. Marketing services firm Epsilon found that by emailing people to tell them that a direct mail was coming and then sending a follow-up reminding them to open it saw a 400% increase in opening rates.
It’s not just direct mail that complements email. Many email marketers are looking to integrate social elements into their communications. This can include links to social media fan pages within emails or increasing the ability to share the message by encouraging people to send it to four friends to get a special deal, for example.
Kitcatt Nohr’s Dzamic adds: “Smart brands provide such great content that you have to share. This is as much about going back to the basic principles of the right message at the right time.”
Digital agency Underwired has adapted McCain Foods’ eCRM strategy to account for different motivations and therefore messaging needs of different audiences. By developing audience-specific messaging, Underwired claims that click-through rates rose to 12.6% from a national average of 3.08%. Crucially, purchase frequency in the core segment increased by 3% and sales revenue grew by 38% (see Viewpoint, page 23).
E-Village’s van der Veem says: “The way email is now being deployed is being fuelled by social media trends. It’s more personal, there is more information and people are trying to have a better dialogue with consumers.”
So social media should be viewed as complementing email marketing as opposed to replacing it. One of the key differences between email and social media is that brands don’t necessarily know who their audience is within Facebook or Twitter. Unlike email, Facebook owns the data, which makes it a very powerful channel.
Regardless of how much time people are spending on social networks, they still need an email account in order to sign up to one. And, as email marketers are swift to point out, much of the traffic is driven to social networks from email alerts.
In fact, email is used for almost all basic business communications because it is perceived to be more secure, private and user-friendly. Crucially, it’s a direct private channel of communication that alerts customers to new product offerings or promotions.
Social media can play a role as a broadcast medium to encourage sign-up to an email newsletter, for example. This can be achieved through mini forms within Facebook pages that allow people to sign up for a deal.
“But it can also be used to bridge the gap between marketing and customer service,” says Sue Jenvey, associate director of digital and direct at Haygarth.
Despite clear signs of integration between email, direct mail and social media, most companies are a long way off from a truly integrated multichannel marketing approach. Only 17% of respondents to Econsultancy and Adestra’s research say their email marketing is fully integrated with the rest of their sales and marketing activities.
This comes down to data management and integration of customer information from multiple channels. However, this level of integration is not achieved easily, nor is it common.
And the advent of HTML5, the next generation web language, will no doubt make things even more complicated. HTML5 opens the door to a much richer user experience (See The history of email, above). Some webmail providers, including Yahoo!, are already taking steps to support the language, and as this becomes more widespread email marketing innovation will experience a new dawn.
Nicola Ech-Channa, brand communications manager, McCain Foods
Social customer relationship management (CRM) is likely to be the next exciting development within email marketing. By that I mean integrating social conversational history into a consumer’s profile and using this to inform direct communication.
We’ve spent the first half of this year preparing a much more holistic digital strategy, which means that our eCRM uses all available online possibilities. This means we have to be bold enough to occasionally drive users to specific social networks and online conversations, which naturally sit away from the brand site.
We introduced “share to” social buttons within our emails early last year and are now looking to make social an integrated part of our eCRM strategy. We know that an audience of mums is most likely to be active on Facebook and so we’re developing a campaign to open up conversations there. We’re also looking at including our Facebook status in our emails and giving people the chance to “like” our content direct from emails.
The most important challenge for us is to match the style and tone of the conversation. In email, we have more free rein to talk about the brand openly because people who have signed up to our emails have asked us to have a conversation with them. On social networks, we have to tread more carefully and wait to be invited to join the conversation. Once we’re invited in we have to have something valuable, entertaining and relevant to say.
Jon Maddison, UK country director, Epsilon
Every marketing channel has its strengths and limitations. Social media is the current channel of favour with many benefits – messages are unobtrusive, trusted and in real-time. But you cannot control what gets promoted.
The key is to use your marketing channels in a complementary way. By communicating with your customers through email you can trigger advocates to share your content with their peers on social media, who in turn can sign up to receive future tailored email messages from you, thus completing the cycle.
This approach overcomes social media’s biggest challenge – measurability. Imagine that a compelling offer for a must-have product is emailed to 100 recipients. Those recipients are invited to post it to their Facebook page.
Friends of the person who posts the offer repeat this process, generating a healthy stream of new acquisitions for the company’s email programme along the way. And, thanks to website analytics, take-up of the product offer is trackable, so the marketer can calculate return on investment for that campaign.
But, best of all, we can now track ongoing purchases from our original recipients’ friends. With the source of these new customers correctly attributed to social media, it is now possible to calculate ongoing returns from your social media marketing programme.
Email is hard sell, social media is soft sell and when the two disciplines are integrated you have a compelling partnership.
The history of email
Email formats have fundamentally remained the same since the introduction of Microsoft’s Outlook 2007. Prior to its launch, emails were developing into quasi-web pages, with animated gifs, flash and executable files. Outlook 2007 put a stop to this due to security concerns, significantly reducing technical options. Since Microsoft dominates the email market, marketers using the technology had to follow suit.
The advent of HTML5, the next generation web language, allows experimentation with techniques like scrolling product boxes and video and audio with controls, all of which were banished by Outlook 7 and were traditionally dependent on third-party plug-ins such as Flash.
Apple is pioneering HTML5 and video-in-email with the iPad, iPhone and Apple Mail, while many webmail providers, including Gmail and Yahoo!, are already taking steps to support the language.
- Personalisation on a one-to-one level is now possible with careful database management and dynamically populated templates.
- Brands should use triggers to automatically send emails at certain points within the consumer cycle, such as when a shopping basket is abandoned.
- Social media tools can now be integrated into emails to allow the messages to be easily shared.
- New tools within social media can also be used to drive sign-up to emails.
- Email can save money and improve the effectiveness of traditional DM packs.
- Clients should look to integrate all of their incoming and outbound communications with customers to ensure a seamless experience.
- HTML5 should allow for more creativity within the email channel.