Are Email Programs Getting Better?

  |  March 22, 2012   |  Comments

How do your consumers perceive your email frequency, value, and relevance? Part two in a two-part interview.

Ryan Phelan, VP of strategic services at BlueHornet, and I continue our discussion about consumer perception on email frequency, value, relevance, and whether email programs are getting better.

Simms Jenkins: In 2006, 77 percent of subscribers said they received too many emails and promotions. However, in 2010, that percentage shrunk to 49 percent. Why? What changed on the marketing front/and or subscriber front?

Ryan Phelan: I think this is because email has changed and because subscribers have changed. Back in 2006, many of the emails brands were sending out were basically copies of their website pages or in many cases, newsletters.

Just a couple years later, when the economy worsened in the U.S., marketers began relying on email more for sending discounts and offers. As we've already discussed, this is a behavior that subscribers have become accustomed to and it's something that they feel is valuable. Additionally, subscribers are becoming better educated about managing their email volume and expecting ISPs to help with some of that, as well.

Over the last 18 months, we've seen the ISPs moving toward relevance-based deliverability. Google, for example, may consider an email spam if there is not engagement by the user. This challenges marketers to come in line with the new "rules of engagement" and to recognize that a relationship-based program drives higher results. As they see higher results with triggered messaging, they are starting to move toward a regular cadence of segmented emails. Sure, this is moving slowly, but consumer expectations for it are growing.

SJ: Relevance is a term a lot of marketers disdain mainly because so-called email experts are usually harping on it and because it can be seen as vague - yet it was the number one reason for people to unsubscribe. What do you make of that?

RP: Simms, I believe that this is one interesting outcome of years of consumer experience with search engines and the web. Consumers have become familiar with - and have gained value from - delivery of content that reflects their individual needs and interests. They've learned to expect that from their search results, from the products they see on the web, and from what's in their inbox.

It makes perfect sense for consumers to call out marketers for lack of email relevance, particularly today when they are more empowered because of access to social media. What's more remarkable is that we are surprised when consumers call us out for it!

SJ: You take a look at some old school and what I think can be irrelevant best practices (such as asking people to add you to their delivery book/safe sender). For example, you found 70 percent of people don't add marketers to their delivery address book. What does that tell you about subscribers and their understandings and actions as they relate to the technical side of email?

RP: I'd encourage us to focus on the percentages of people who do it! When we consider that subscribers are looking for and demanding relevant content, and that they are protecting their inbox from getting flooded, the 30 percent of people who are adding a company to their address book are likely brand loyalists or advocates. As for their understanding of this, I think they know what the pre-header functionality does, they are just making choices about whether to click on this or not.

SJ: Forrester said most email programs receive a falling grade, according to its latest review. Why can't we get smarter and better given that email is a relatively mature channel compared to their digital communications and messaging channels? Will we ever "pass" as a collective industry?

RP: Simms, I think we are getting smarter, we're just not consistent. There are two key things driving this: first is the amount of churn in digital marketing. College grads often work their way into digital marketing by doing email and after a bit of experience they move on, taking their knowledge with them. So as providers, we are always educating and helping marketers learn, often when they don't have ready access to learnings from their predecessors.

The workload of marketers is the second factor that contributes to program failure. Email marketers wear many hats and many are asked to be tactical without the time or space to be strategic. Most program failure comes from a failure to start with a clear strategy that rolls up under higher level business goals and objectives.

Both factors impact our ability to drive toward a "pass," but it has taken and continues to take a lot of work. That's where I think the strategist role is essential. It provides a more holistic view of the program, plus helps ensure continuity over time and across channels.

SJ: In my next interview and column we will dive into mobile, but what is your advice for email marketers trying to adapt to the fact that many of their subscribers are reading their emails on smartphones and tablets?

RP: One of the statistics from our study was that 69.7 percent of consumers deleted and 18 percent unsubscribed from emails that looked bad on their mobile device. This statistic was also backed up in the street interviews that we conducted. Considering the rate of mobile adoption, it's a stat that should have marketers sprinting to optimize their emails for mobile as quickly as possible - especially since most ESPs offer this functionality. Email marketers need to put their brand everywhere their subscribers are consuming information. More and more, that's on their mobile device.

SJ: Ryan, any parting words or takeaways from the EEC event and conversations you have had with marketers of late?

RP: One of the great things that I really enjoyed from the EEC 2012 conference was the energy. This is a fantastic industry that is truly ready to help marketers who want to be successful. I challenge marketers to pay attention - both to how their customers behave, and to what they tell you they want and don't want from the relationship you have with them.

SJ: Great stuff Ryan. Thanks for your time and sharing these very interesting new findings. I hope we all can put these to work to ensure a better inbox for all subscribers.



Simms Jenkins

Simms Jenkins is CEO of BrightWave Marketing, North America's leading email marketing-focused digital agency. The award-winning firm specializes in elevating email marketing and digital messaging programs that drive revenue, cut costs, and build relationships. Jenkins has led BrightWave Marketing in establishing a world-class client list including Affiliated Computer Service (A Xerox Company), Chick-fil-A, Cox Business, Phillips66, Porsche, and Southern Company. The agency was recently ranked among the fastest growing private companies by Inc. Magazine.

Jenkins was awarded the prestigious AMY 2010 Marketer of the Year from the American Marketing Association for being the top agency marketer and the Email Marketer of the Year at the Tech Marketing Awards held by the Technology Association of Georgia. Jenkins is regarded as one of the leading experts in the email marketing industry and is regularly cited by the media as such and called upon by the financial community to provide market insight and consulting.

Jenkins is the author of two definitive and highly regarded books on email marketing; The New Inbox (published in April 2013 by ClickZ/Incisive Media) and The Truth About Email Marketing (published by Pearson's Financial Times Press in 2008). Jenkins is currently the Email Marketing Best Practices Columnist for ClickZ, the largest resource of interactive marketing news and commentary in the world, online or off. His industry articles have been called one of the top 21 information sources for email marketers.

He has been featured in Fortune Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Adweek, Bloomberg TV, Wired Magazine, and scores of other leading publications and media outlets. Jenkins is a regular speaker at major digital industry and general business conferences.

Additionally, Jenkins is the creator of and, the leading authorities on email and social media metrics. Prior to founding BrightWave Marketing, Jenkins headed the CRM group at Cox Interactive Media.

Jenkins serves on the eMarketing Association's Board of Advisors among other civic and professional boards. He is also a mentor at Flashpoint, a Georgia Tech-based startup accelerator program. Jenkins is a graduate of Denison University in Granville, Ohio and resides in Atlanta's Buckhead neighborhood with his wife and three children.

Follow and connect with Simms on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, The BrightWave Blog, and his book websites at and

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