Email Marketing is Still Cool (Redux)

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Monday 15 August, 2016
by Rob Wells

You're right. We've written this article before. The fact that not much has changed about the idea since then is worth discussing. Email marketing is not disappearing in the wake of social media and microblogging. Actually, it remains one of the most lucrative communications efforts you can undertake.


Flying emails and an '@' symbolEmail marketing was cool in the 90s, back in the days when every second email subject line didn't offer a free online diploma, cheap remote control cars, or lifestyle enhancing pharmaceuticals.

It was cool in the noughties too, even while we learnt to filter out the "bigger is better" ads and only read the stuff we were interested in.

Why is it still cool today?

Old Faithful

The same things that we discussed last time around are still true, and they've all become easier and better over time:

  • You can send beautiful, personalised messages to all your customers with your brand image gorgeously integrated.
  • You can email heaps of people and it hardly costs anything compared to other communications methods.
  • The results are metered and measurable. You can find out who received your messages, when and on what device, what they did about it, and compare all that with your previous efforts.
  • It's well understood. Although it's not the simplest thing in the world to run a good email campaign, there are good technologies and good advisers around to help you get it right without major headaches.
  • Email subscribers are loyal. Sure, some of them disappear. But in a world where 80% of visitors might bounce from your website after finding you in a search engine, you can expect only a tiny percentage to cancel an email subscription each time you send something.
  • It's affordable and accessible to everyone. No, it's not free and it does take real effort. But the systems are available and the return on investment is so obviously worth the cost that the value is impossible to deny. In today's world where active digital advertising can cost upwards of $50 per click, email marketing typically costs a few cents per email and can result in percentage click-through rates of anywhere between a few percent and 40% on highly targeted lists!

What's New?

Technology and methodologies in the email marketing space haven't remained static over the years of course. What's new in the world of email marketing?

Testing and Analytics

Screenshot of some test results for the DDSN Christmas mailout using the 'Email on Acid' tool.In response to the fact that email browser technologies are inexplicably horrible examples of modern technology and almost globally do a terrible job of rendering nicely designed content, email testing tools have come ahead in leaps and bounds over the past few years. It's possible for a modest fee to simulate the experience your email readers have with your content quite accurately.

Because you can test, the effectiveness of the message can be better. You can make sure that all your subscribers are seeing the content you intended them to see in exactly the format it was designed to deliver. Investment in email is more lucrative than investment in other areas because of the value of the audience (who asked you to send content), so incorporating a decent amount of testing time into your email communication strategy is worth the effort.

We use Email on Acid to make sure our email messages look right for all our recipients. It's a rich service, although perhaps a bit daunting to non-technical users. There are other excellent testing tools available - Litmus is one. We integrated PreviewMyEmail into the cm3 Acora CMS platform for interested customers to optionally activate.

The natural extension of pre-send testing is post-send analysis. More than just how many opens and clicks you generated, advanced email sending reports will take you to a deeper understanding of your subscription generation efforts, who clicked what, and how customers behaved after receiving your email. For example, which email links resulted in online orders for which of your customers. We'll talk more about email analytics another time.

Marketing Automation / Drip Feed Content

Today, most good CMS platforms and all robust CRMs and email communications platforms will let you segment your database of contacts into groups or interest categories, or An example email automation workflow diagram"look them up" using individual attributes like birthdates or favourite colours or anything else you've recorded. Then you can automatically send them relevant, highly personalised emails on a schedule that you define.

Outbound email marketing purists sometimes argue that email marketing automation is something different to email marketing. Perhaps they're splitting hairs. Drip-fed content delivered by email makes use of the same communication styles and technologies as traditional email marketing.

The idea and the technologies have been around for a while, but organisations are only just now starting to adopt automated communications as a standard tool. There are dangers, but a well designed schedule with well written email communications that connects to worthwhile online resources will help you connect in a highly personal way with your audience, without the pain of email-by-email manual labour.

Integration

Most systems are getting smarter about offering email communications capabilities that are integrated with other communications and customer support efforts. Whether it's connecting your beautifully written email content via a link to a beautifully designed form on your website, or tracking a customer's engagement from email subscription to sale, or using an email receipt or response to trigger an action in your customer relationship management system, it's possible now to incorporate an email into a fully integrated transaction process.

These kinds of integrated processes don't quite happen with a few point-and-click publishing manoeuvres just yet. However we're spending a fair bit of time helping our clients wire up their email systems with CRMs, websites, analytics processing engines, and workflow tools at the moment. The results of the effort have been useful every time.

Personalisation

Well, personalisation isn't new. We've been able to say, "Hi Jane," since the beginning of email marketing. We've been able to send email to segmented groups of customers since not long after that.

The new bit is that we're collecting and cross referencing a lot more data about customers and communications these days. Combined with new marketing automation and integration capabilities in most email systems as well as smart content generation capabilities, we've got a much better ability to tailor messages to individual email recipients now than every before.

What's Still Missing?

Something we find a little surprising is that there have been some long standing technical problems with email marketing, and the world of networked technology still hasn't caught up with them. In most other corners of the digital world the niggling problems are slowly being ironed out, but there are some email bugbears that don't seem to be improving much over time.

Standardisation

It's still hard to deliver the same experience to everyone. Part of that is because some people are receiving their emails on tiny mobile screens while others read them on truck-sized monitors. But that's not the real problem, since developers are all getting pretty good at responsive design now.

The trouble is that even though the email testing tools and design methodologies have improved, developers haven't really been able to keep up with design innovation in other areas because the email browsing technologies are still horribly inconsistent.

It seems that every person using a different version of Outlook will experience different bugs in email designs. Microsoft aren't the only culprits though. Hundreds of millions of people use Apple Mail and Lotus Notes, and these software packages are plainly awful at laying out emails consistently; they all fall well short of supporting current code standards. Surprisingly, you're even likely to get a different email reading experience on a Google Chromebook than if you use Gmail on your desktop computer to read the same email.

We're looking forward to the day we don't need to use the testing tools discussed earlier in this article because all the email clients are fully standards compliant.

Rich Content

This is probably in part due to the previous point. Because email browsers aren't of this decade, you still can't deliver javascript, animation, video and other kinds of rich content in secure and standard ways to email readers. The solution isn't so bad: you can just invite readers to view the content on a website.

Nonetheless it remains somewhat of a mystery about why the software we use to read 215 billion emails per day ( Email Statistics Report, 2015-2019 - PDF, 585 Kb) isn't the most standardised, easy to use, robust software that we all know.

Deliverability

Sometimes emails don't arrive. No-one really knows why. The email was sent, we've got the logs. We know that person usually gets the email, we've got the logs. But today, it didn't get there. Probably because some email server somewhere in between the sender and the recipient was down momentarily, or it refused a connection because the system administrator installed some overly aggressive new anti-spam software, or just because it was in a bad mood. But it didn't inform the sender, and it didn't inform the recipient.

There are ways to use technology to minimise this problem ( feel free to ask if you want a really technical answer), but really it shouldn't incur the effort that it does.

But it's Still Cool

Continuing minor email technology woes are fairly minor complaints in the scheme of things. We just deal with them by doing some extra testing and occasionally putting up with some inconvenience. They don't make a dent in the overwhelmingly obvious fact that email marketing is cheap, easy, personal, measurable, well understood, smart and effective.

In 2016 email marketing is still cool.

In an informal survey among colleagues and friends, there were distinctly split opinions about whether or not Cher is still cool.

A tiny image of Cher with bright lipstick