The email landscape became more and more complex in 2014. The marketers that managed to succeed and drive stronger performance from the email channel responded by taking an increasingly complex approach to their core challenge: consistently connecting with subscribers.
The winners distanced themselves by analyzing their email marketing relationships to identify tactics and rules that worked for individual segments, like highly engaged Yahoo subscribers, or inactive iPhone users. By testing and developing distinct sets of best practices for segments that had previously responded well enough to a single, general set of guidelines, these marketers were able to not only connect with more subscribers, but to consistently provide valuable, targeted content and offers that boosted revenue and customer loyalty. Simply put, they won by applying different practices to different challenges.
The email channel’s segmentation isn’t a sudden revolution: The influences that produced today’s fractured marketing landscape began more than a year ago, a lot more in some cases. Mailbox providers, for example, have followed increasingly unique paths for years.
Most major providers incorporate subscriber activity into inbox placement decisions, using engagement metrics to help make determinations about which senders their customers want to hear from. Many are also redesigning the email user experience by making inbox organization more intuitive, more visual. Gmail started this trend in 2013 with Tabs, a divided inbox which organized incoming email into distinct categories. The release of Tabs lead to an increase in performance for the most engaged users, who gained the ability to control when they engaged with their commercial messages.
Gmail’s reimagining of the inbox continued this year with “Inbox,” which expands on Tabs by providing additional standard categories, as well as the ability for users to create their own personalized ones. Along with an increase in individualized design, Inbox offers users the option to control when they receive emails. To manage incoming emails, Inbox offers to hold the messages in each “Bundle” and deliver them daily or weekly. For messages already in the inbox, Gmail also provides the ability to snooze them by time or location, so users can get those messages whenever they choose. These innovations are changing the way email subscribers behave.
Independent developers, too, are changing subscriber behavior by reconceiving the mailbox experience. Nearly 7,000 email apps are available in the iTunes app store today. Some, like Organizer and Active Inbox, focus on decluttering the inbox to help users become more productive. Others, like Inbox Pause and Boomerang, focus on time management by allowing users to control when they receive email. Whether marketers want them to or not, subscribers are seeing their campaigns differently across a spectrum of providers, mail clients, and apps.
Devices, too, are changing consumer behavior. The phone-to-desktop conversion path is now one of the most common. In fact, email rescheduling features respond to this specific, multi-device pattern. Creating campaigns and re-evaluating best practices for this segment of your audience makes sense. For example, “remind me later” calls to action may be more effective for iPhone users (whose preference might be to shop later, from home, on iPads) than traditional “buy now” options.
Many senders are already treating subscribers from particular mailbox providers or platforms differently from others, developing new sets of best practices to optimize marketing performance for new segments. These marketers have a great head start in 2015, as those influences continue to fracture the landscape into more and more distinct micro-audiences. They also face the same challenge that their less progressive peers do, though: their target segments might be multiplying but their available resources aren’t. Even the early adopters need to draw the line at some point and apply rulesets efficiently as well as effectively.
This will be the biggest challenge in email marketing optimization in 2015, to identify not only which tactics and approaches produce the best response from individual segments, but how many rulesets to maintain and follow as best practices.
Data and marketing analytics are already helping senders manage the discovery process and rising resource loads, but every brand and program will need to reach its own conclusions and develop its own set of email marketing best practices. It’s impossible to say how many of these will become widely accepted a year from now, but clearly there won’t be a single set of best practices at the end of 2015 – there’ll be lots.
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