According to a recent DMA study, email is both the “bedrock on which the majority of marketing campaigns operate” but is also leaving marketers “struggling to ensure they have the full range of skills necessary to conduct effective email marketing”.
Certainly, the channel is enjoying a resurgence of popularity, the majority of it driven by mobile as customers find it both convenient and unobtrusive. This doesn’t mean, however, that it isn’t still presenting many of the same old challenges – too much bland, me-too content and too much email marketing overall are two of the most pressing.
Attendees at Marketing Week’s email reputation round table, sponsored by Return Path, discussed how to improve approaches to the channel, maximise return on investment and also make the most of emerging technologies and disciplines such as programmatic in an increasingly data-driven world.
Managing email’s reputation
“The common thread is that firms who felt they were getting on top of email are now struggling with challenges such as how to integrate it with digital and manage low response rates while also being under pressure to manage the enormous rise of phishing and fraud,” warned Emily Morris, marketing director, Acanthus Consulting.
The attendees agreed that they had fallen into the habit of generating too much email. Against such sheer volume, the unavoidable consequence is that quality is falling. That said, response rates were acknowledged to be considerably higher than social which generates much more interest among marketers.
“How you set yourself apart is an issue,” insisted Howard Knight, CRM manager at law firm Dentons. “Within our sector what goes out to clients is commentary on legislation or a particularly interesting case. But the top firms will all put out commentary on the same thing.” Knight noted that the avenue of consolidation of content, perhaps into more succinct weekly or monthly newsletters, often isn’t an option as timeliness is vital.
If email has somehow lost its sparkle, the magpie nature of the marketer and their habit of flitting to the next new thing is also to blame. “Email has lost its sexiness just because it’s getting old,” Dale Langley, email strategist at Return Path complained. “It does generate ROI.”
Richard Hall, Return Path’s regional sales director, added: “The shiny new technology spoken about by clients is all around social but, ultimately, all roads lead back to email and it is the key revenue generator along with search.”
Each member of the roundtable panel noted in turn how easy it was to fall into the ‘bad old ways’ of email, such as ‘spray and pray’, because of the channel’s low-cost entry point. However, Dale suggested: “It’s getting its mojo back. There are new technologies that are making it more relevant and contextual so it can be used to talk to individuals again. It’s starting to turn the corner.”
Avoiding the ‘volume’ mentality
This is one of the bugbear for Paul Coxhill, global CMO of trend forecasting service WGSN, when it comes to email. Quick to initiate and inexpensive to run, when there is some underlying business issue, email tends to be the first response to the chairman or CEO’s demand that marketing must ‘do something’. “Marketing has suffered from 20 years of doing that. Marketers have abused it. It’s our job to re-establish its worth and part of that is to link it to other channels,” he added.
Even with an engaged audience it is possible to interact too often via email. Kurt Pittman, marketing director of Brentford Football Club, revealed that even with a dedicated football fanbase Brentford has had to be careful to segment and manage its email frequency. “We need to make sure we’re clear on what we use it for. There’s customer services, creating demand and then sales. We need to use the structure of the email to get fans to open it for the right reasons while managing expectations internally which is just as hard.”
Indeed several executives noted that making sure they didn’t cross the streams when it came to various departments wanting to use email to serve their own goals was a tricky balance. “There’s not enough machine learning going on and people are hotch-potching systems together,” Ian Hambleton, group managing director of Studio Output warned.
“It’s difficult to move away from the ‘get this out there’ mentality and volume and instead, stepping back and saying ‘we’re going to produce less, but better’. Essentially marketers should be looking deeper into their lists [to target messages better] but they don’t have the time,” Knight said.
Morris agreed: “It’s difficult to get off the treadmill and see what the audience is seeing.” She added that even testing isn’t always going to flag up where change is needed.
Indeed, even the humble email is becoming part of the debate about what should be managed in-house by brands and what by agencies. On the one hand Langley pointed out that in-house meant those working on email understand the business’s goals better. However, Morris pointed out that agencies are able to come in with fresh ideas that are harder to come by in-house.
Pittman however, pointed out that it might be possible to have the best of both worlds: “Agencies do deliver fresh ideas but if the in-house team manages the day to day while collaborating with the creative agency, it facilitates campaigns and ensures continuity.” Not everyone has had a positive experience of collaboration as Chris Holton, marketing director, Snaptrip revealed that, having worked with an agency on a project in the past, he felt the deep understanding of the business was lacking and so the brand brought everything in-house again.
Attendees agreed that email works best when it is part of a well-orchestrated mix of channels. Often, it is the tactic that finally brings an interested customer round to becoming a converted one. “In fashion, Instagram is the key social channel and definitely does well for some brands. You have to give it a go but ultimately it’s all about getting that email,” Hall said. Langley added: “Instagram may generate interest but the result needs to be that you get their email address and the order is placed.”
It’s not simply a question of sticking an email sign-up link at the bottom of every communication through other channels, however, as Morris argued: “It requires a real understanding of how those customers are interacting with you. Mapping those customer journeys is difficult and not done often enough. There are so many touchpoints that joining them up is a task and a half.”
Coxhill said: “Channel integration in B2B is critical. We’re now trying to plan our channel mix agnostically so that when we’re sending emails it’s important we make sure our people have made the relevant interactions.”
Keeping consumers engaged with email
Marketers are still wary of becoming a nuisance via email and as a result are missing out on potential opportunities by not contacting people at all. Rebecca Glenapp, co-founder of fashion ecommerce site Lux Fix said: “Perhaps we were a bit naive in the early days when we didn’t have a welcome programme. If you put in your email to an online form you expect something back.”
Holton added: “A lot of people think of email as something that is hitting them but it’s a useful tool. On a property website if the customer hasn’t favourited a page – because who does these days? – sending an email reminder can put the customer into purchase mode.”
It’s all about context, Langley suggested, adding that he agrees with Glenapp: if the customer takes the time to enter an email address, they are expecting to see something in their inbox. But he acknowledged that the mistake marketers make as part of the email integration process is assuming that the process is linear. “You have to talk to the customer in the context of where they gave that email,” he insisted, adding that perhaps a guide rather than a bland welcome email might have been more effective in Glenapp’s case.
Morris reiterated that understanding the context of how customers want to receive email is impossible without first mapping that customer journey in detail. “What does line people up is bringing more decent client insights into the mix so you’re not planning based on anecdotes.”
One business segment that has managed to get its email integration strategy on point is the fraudsters. Sending out seemingly genuine communications that are targeted and feature what appears to be a relevant personal information is clearly proving successful for them. And it is delivering an inbox full of headaches to legitimate marketers.
“It’s causing us problems because we can no longer rely on email to confirm transactions in the asset management space. Equally, there have been well publicised problems for the legal community in trying to arrange funds for house purchases,” said Morris.
As a result, marketers are having to build in more complexity to their fraud verification processes, making hindering the seamless customer experience that consumers have come to expect. Customer wariness over fraud is resulting in them ignoring branded emails in their inbox. The natural result of this is “fewer people seeing email because spam filters can’t tell the difference between what’s real and what’s not”, Langley warned. “It has a big impact – 20% fewer people are reading your emails because of it.”
Letting the machines take the strain when there is so much data to programme into them is a seductive strategy to pursue, particularly when it has the opportunity to deliver deep personalisation on a large scale.
The growing use of dynamic content in email, which is helping to achieve cut-through, is delivering far greater interest and engagement in the email channel. Adding customer data – which then personalises dynamic content with relevant offers, responds to dropped baskets or even helps the customer remember important anniversaries – adds value.
Pittman revealed: “We’ve been exploring programmatic display and people who visit our website are served these ads. It has been working and is highly measurable. Automation in email is something we’re going to be looking at next; being able to identify someone who lives far away and giving them transport reminders versus someone who lives nearby and doesn’t need that level of information in an email.”
Hambleton warned against an over-reliance on programmatic email however: “Programmatic works really well but then customers get let down when it goes wrong once. Trying to do the whole sale on email you’re going to find a point where you realise this isn’t the right channel any more.”
Coxhill also cautioned: “If you’re using programmatic to make your life easier as a marketer then that’s a mistake. But it’s fine if you’re using it to make the customer experience better. We have a largely automated email welcome strategy and we use it to serve relevant content if users haven’t logged into the website for some time. We wouldn’t be able to do that manually at scale.”
How personal should you get?
One of the biggest banes of the email recipient’s life has been pseudo-personalisation. Anyone, it seems, can get hold of a first name and they’re not afraid to use it. Even worse, ‘Dear Insert Name Here’ emails are guaranteed to fail to close a sale.
Holton said: “People have got bored of companies just having your name. In Snaptrip we use a system that stores millions of interactions from the website and keeps them in the cloud. All the marketers in our team know a little bit of SQL [programming code] and so we are sending out emails where someone has signed up when looking for a Cornwall property but is now browsing Norfolk, so they’ll start getting emails about that.”
Marketers, it is suggested, don’t appreciate what the customer is thinking often enough when they send out their emails. As Holton pointed out, “I don’t always want to buy shoes”.
Langley suggested: “It comes back to context. People sign up for 80% of the brands they interact with regularly but only [read 20% of the emails]. Consider how much email people are receiving and how fast that list moves. If you as a company know that I tend to read my emails at 10am, try sending it to me at 9.59am when it’s likely to be at the top of my inbox when I open it.”
Where web tools are failing – for example, Glenapp admitted that customers rarely use Lux Fix’s wish list function – email can take on a valuable role as curator of customers’ content.
“We played around with content and things like calendars weren’t very successful,” said Glenapp. “However, we currently have personalised content based on browsing history and people use their baskets as wish lists [filling them with products they are considering but don’t buy]. Emails from dropped baskets are really successful. Because we’re a new brand we have to provide content. You can’t build a brand with just a scrape of products that someone has liked.”
Coxhill noted that personalisation of content is certainly valuable, however there are other ways of targeting customers that feel personal but don’t need the deep data dive some might suggest. “Trust in your brand gets you an awfully long way. If your emails are talking to the right tone of voice and personality that you’ve established then you don’t need to go fully down the personalisation route. There is an element of segmentation in all emails and very few go down to the segment of one. Email personalisation will always move towards context.”
Email’s role is still being settled on. Attendees at the roundtable agreed that it is certainly better received now content is more personal and brands have worked out how to respond contextually to customer needs. There remain reputational issues, not least from the threat of fraud. Companies need to find ways not just to stand out in the inbox but also to establish their credibility in the face of impostors.
The future for email is to recognise that no channel now has a single function. Its role as a pure direct response or conversion tool is still important but by no means its only role. Email is now able to deliver automated communications, and dynamic and engaging content personalised both on a one-to-one or one-to-many basis, both of which are accepted and even expected by the customer, provided they are done well.