Open or mark as junk? the state of play in email

Coupled with the right insight, email marketing is an effective way of engaging existing and prospective customers with your brand. Marketing professionals discuss email marketing in a multichannel environment, including the role of social media and how to work effectively with data.

Roundtable: email marketing

Mark Choueke (MW) Editor of Marketing Week (chairman)
Greg McVey (GM) Sales, UK & EMEA, at StrongMail
Christelle Chan (CC) Director of marketing, EMEA, at Hotels.com
Dominic Collard (DC) Head of marketing at Civil Society Media
Sarah McNamara (SM) Marketing director at Links of London
Jeremy Gidley (JG) General manager, CRM, at TUI UK
Paul Gibson (PG) Sales, UK & EMEA, at StrongMail
Amir Belal (AB) Circulation marketing manager at Dow Jones

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Marketing Week (MW): With the rise of social media, does email marketing still have value?

Dominic Collard (DC): Email versus social media is a really interesting issue. Traditionally, marketers have largely abused email as a cheap, if not free, way of communicating quickly and with measurable results. It was a way of showing your boss how much work you could do. Now, more people are adopting social media to achieve the same aims. My hunch is that the number of emails being sent out is probably less because marketers are putting all their resources into their social media strategy.

Christelle Chan (CC): From my perspective, social media and email have the same objectives but are achieved in different ways. With social media we speak to a large community of several thousand fans, who ’like’ a brand. We don’t address that community as individuals, whereas on email we do, so we are very focused on our email programme.

We can see from interactions on our site what destinations that customer might have researched and can then send an email of suggestions based on that insight.

DC: That is the correct way to do it. But in practice, people see email as the way to get a mass message out. I think marketers who race headlong into social media will start to back away, because one of the dangers is that you can’t control [what is being said about] your brand. That danger is starting to become evident and soon people will revert back to email as a safer and more effective way of communicating.

Jeremy Gidley (JG): We still see email as incredibly important in developing a one-to-one relationship with customers. We have a lot of data about customers that we use and enhance when we speak to them. For example, if they have kids, we can talk about family holidays and if we also know where they live, it is logical to talk about departures from their local airport.

It’s very easy to understand how much engagement a recipient has had with each email and that level of personalisation and accountability isn’t yet apparent with social media. Social media offers some really exciting opportunities to have a dialogue with a broader audience, so it complements, rather than replace email marketing.

Sarah McNamara (SM): At the moment, we use email as an aid to brand awareness for new customers, existing customers and repeat purchasers. We are trying to develop the segmentation strategy so we can talk to different customers about different products. Part of that is talking to them when they want to be talked to, because not everyone wants to receive an email once a day, or once a week.

We use social media and email in quite different ways, partly because of who those respective customers are. Our Facebook fans are huge brand advocates but they are a distinct customer set, in that they are in the 18 to 30 age range and have a different profile to our email customers.

Amir Belal (AB): We use social media to nurture our customer base – to gain their trust and learn about them. For example, if there is a big story that has generated a buzz in social media, we can use that to target other people in the same market sector. We can link to our website and aim to get them to sign up for a trial or to subscribe to our service.

We then use email as a direct response mechanism for lead generation or to bring in sales. The critical thing is being able to collect customer data and then use that to target and segment. We find that using as many media as possible lifts response rates.

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MW: Who looks after your email marketing?

AB: We do things partly in-house and partly with agencies. We have an agency that helps us to develop our social media assets. With email we do it more internally, but we outsource part of it.
JG: We work closely with a partner to develop our strategy on email marketing but we design emails in-house. Similarly, we look at the segmentation ourselves but use our partners to develop the technical solutions that drive our personalised emails. The provider also manages specialist areas, like email deliverability.
SM: Internally, we have the same team doing email and social. We used to work with an agency outsourcing all our social media but, with experience, we felt confident to do that in-house. However, we do outsource the coding and analysis for email.

MW: How do you view outsourcing your email or social media?

JG: We benefit from outsourcing the technical side, because you need very highly skilled people to do it. Strategy should be a joint partnership between your brand and your email service provider. They will bring value in terms of the email specialism and you will bring an understanding of the business and the market.
DC: As a small company, we have to do it in-house, due to budget constraints. I find it much more effective to do it all in-house, because I think separating out the email marketing fulfilment is the wrong way of looking at it. The data, messaging, testing and results should all be part of one project. By not having the luxury to outsource I think we probably do better email marketing than in the days when I worked at Sky or The Guardian, where there were five or six different divisions all involved in one activity.

MW: What about the evolution of email? How are you measuring its effects?

DC: We are better placed to do this than, say, five years ago because off-the-shelf products allow you to create better emails and analyse the results more effectively. If they are linked in well with your CRM, data is looked after well, too.

CC: We see email as central to our marketing strategy. The longer you can hold on to a customer’s email address, the better. We don’t just send mass emails and are very careful about how we approach those customers and how we continue to speak to them in the longer term.

We have got smarter in terms of additional components. For example, we no longer just send out a weekly newsletter. If we notice that a customer has logged onto our website, done some searches and shortlisted, we will talk to them again later regarding these. We track consumer behaviour and act accordingly.

We have segmentations of customers and some of them receive emails less often, because they are already loyal customers and we don’t need to remind them that we are here.

SM: Our new programme starts when a customer registers to receive emails. Depending on whether they open that next email, it sets off a chain of events with future emails. From the day they register and get the ’thank you for registering’ message, they receive a follow-up email within a week.

JG: Last-click attribution [where the final marketing message seen by the customer gets the credit for the sale] is too simplistic and doesn’t truly reflect the part that email plays in all elements of the purchase cycle. There is a big gap in terms of the role email would play during the course of the customer journey, rather than just that last click.

MW: Do you think email marketing can motivate influencers within your email lists to the same extent as social media?

DC: They have very different roles to play. It depends on your definition of when someone becomes an advocate or is merely a customer. To have someone champion your brand, you need to have a sense of community and of belonging to something that is more than a transaction process.

Email is limited in that sense. However, for purely transactional purposes, email is a much stronger vehicle than social media. It’s nice to have people blogging and tweeting about you but, if it’s not bringing in the sales, it isn’t achieving objectives.

SM: We are improving our database so we can see exactly who the key influencers are. This includes doing more work on segmenting our database, which gives insights into our biggest brand advocates. In the meantime we are driving customers to our social media channels, in particular Facebook and our iPhone app, which give people an opportunity to become more affiliated with our brand.

CC: I agree that the most challenging area is to identify the influencers within the email list. At Hotels.com, we track our Net Promoter Score – how likely a customer is to recommend Hotels.com to a friend – and are subsequently able to identify the people most likely to be Hotels.com
AB: We have regular engagement with our email list through the use of targeted communications. This increases loyalty among our key target audience. Increasing their loyalty and ensuring they are always up-to-date with our latest content leads to our subscribers recommending our content and linking to our stories on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn.

MW: How is technology contributing to your email programmes?

Greg McVey (GM): We see people sending fewer emails but getting a greater response from what they are sending. Brands often have budget allocated towards volume but in our experience marketing directors are moving towards sending less by email because the medium is now more targeted and more relevant.

JG: If you can understand who your fans and followers are, social media provides a way to enhance your single customer view. We have a view of our customers that is designed to drive our marketing and this is constantly evolving as new sources of customer information become available.

It’s about holding data that will provide relevant insights, rather than creating a single view of the customer just for the sake of it.

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MW: With all this clever technology, are we past spam?

CC: We assume the responsibility to keep our customers and avoid spamming them but I guess we don’t know what people do when they are not online with us. We might know we were in a group of interest for them but then they made a booking elsewhere. If you look at it from this angle, spam will always exist, because we’re not able to track what happens on other websites.

GM: Spam might be too a strong a word. You still need to be dripping out content to people who have subscribed to your email programme. It’s not necessarily spam, it’s just a message that hits your subscriber base.

CC: It is all right to push content to someone. Whether that consumer decides to read that content or not is based on their needs. People have a booking window when they are planning their travel and, if we miss that window, then god knows where the next opportunity will be. If you don’t interact with them, you will lose them.

Paul Gibson (PG): The great thing about the technology is you don’t have to rely on email to generate that engagement. You can recognise people visiting your website and at that point you start to turn on the email communication.

MW: What about the price of email services?

PG: It hasn’t become any cheaper but brands are seeing more value in it. If you have the strategy right, it is a much more effective way for your business to be successful. The key is working out what you are trying to achieve with a particular programme. A welcome programme makes sense and beyond that you have to think what is the aim and work back from that.

Brands need to have a targeted approach and use the multichannel option, so that the relevant person gets the relevant content in the relevant channel for them.

MW: What is the value of gathering cross-channel data and how are you using that to make email smarter?

SM: Gathering cross-channel data is absolutely vital to give us the single customer view, which tells us who our customer is and their purchasing habits.

We have been testing the time of day, day of the week and subject lines so that we can capture customers at the optimum time, with great results. We have also tested whether special offers increase email open rates and discovered that this has little impact.

JG: The key for us is to bring all the data of our multi-channel business into one place. With email it isn’t just about what customers are doing online but what they are doing in our shops, too, so that we can talk to a customer about the most relevant thing to them at a particular point in time.

CC: The first objective of all our marketing is to try to understand our customers and we gather information on all our interactions with them. In that way we can understand consumer behaviour in different scenarios, segment our customer base and target them in the most relevant manner.

AB: The greatest challenge is bringing in all this data from social media and from web analytics in order to learn more about users’ behaviour. When you have done that, you should be able to use it to trigger automated emails.

But it is more difficult to pinpoint where a conversion has come from. As marketers, we tend to hit our audience with this integrated approach, but you have to sit back and think about testing things out one by one.

DC: Marketers are too obsessed with testing in order to have more confidence an approach will work. But, as a profession, what we have maybe done is excuse ourselves from the decision-making process and relied too much on the data. One of the key reasons why people pay us to be marketers is for what our gut instincts say. I think we should rely a little less on the data.

AB: I think in the past it was easier to make a gut decision but the multichannel environment makes it harder and that’s where the over-reliance on testing comes in.

MW: Is the approach to email testing to do with the culture of a company?

SM: Possibly. We are very lucky to have a chief executive who is progressive and keen to try new technologies, even if the testing hasn’t been done to prove that it is going to work.

Last year we wanted to create a buzz about our friendship bracelets via a competition, so we used non-traditional marketing channels to engage with a younger customer, who might not necessarily have felt Links of London or the bracelets were for them. We did a treasure hunt with garden gnomes and used a variety of media to communicate. We posted the clues across social media, driving customers to follow the hunt via email, leading them into stores to claim their prize, then commenting on Facebook if they won. We did not know how this would work. But it took off and our Facebook acquisition grew by 50% and sales of the product itself went up by 16%.

DC: There are so many good ideas that don’t even reach the table, because marketers don’t feel that they have the necessary data to prove to their financial controller or chief executive that it will work. The Links of London example is great, because it’s the sort of thing where, as a marketer, you feel it is the right thing for your brand and your customer.

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