Engagement Matters

The deliverability debate has been heating up in recent weeks with acrimony on both sides. Some marketers are claiming they’ve been misled and deliverability experts are claiming they’ve been misunderstood. The claims boil down to “told you so, engagement doesn’t matter, you’ve been lying to us.” That was in regard to deliverability and it was mistaken in that context. This, however, is not a deliverability column and I want to address why engagement’s importance to email marketing goes far beyond deliverability.

In 1999 when Seth Godin published the book (and coined the phrase) Permission Marketing he identified a significant cultural shift that was in the throes of changing marketing forever. Traditional (interruption) marketing had been around for a century. It was the norm, the way marketing was done. No one asked permission to market, to send direct mail, phone you at home, or interrupt your TV show.

The rise of the Internet, however, was changing everything. The Internet empowered consumers like never before. It gave the connected consumer far more information than ever before and a far stronger voice. Consequently, a consumer hears not just from brands but from other empowered consumers and often trusts them more. In just a few short years, the power of brand messaging has rapidly declined as the power of social messaging has grown. Brand messaging still matters and is still important, but the balance of power has shifted.

A Bain study showed that engaged customers spend 30 percent more than passive customers or detractors. They were looking at social engagement, but it applies across channels. Gallup has drawn the same conclusion: “Consumers will give more money to the businesses they feel emotionally connected to, and they will continue to ignore, or even oppose, those that provide them no value.”

That parenthetical comment “or even oppose” is important. Gallup goes onto say, “Leaders must…move customer engagement to the center of their growth strategy by accounting for the rational and emotional aspects of their customer relationships.” Or as Forrester Research put it, “A customer-obsessed company focuses its strategy, its energy, and its budget on processes that enhance knowledge of and engagement with customers, and prioritizes these over maintaining traditional competitive barriers.”

That is why engagement matters in email marketing, because it matters in all marketing. Interruption marketing and the right of delivery is in the past. The future is permission marketing and the privilege of “delivering anticipated, personal, and relevant messages to people who actually want to get them” (Seth Godin again). As such engagement needs to be at the center of companies’ strategies.

Email marketing started before “permission marketing” and “interruption marketing” were even terms. It has struggled with the transition. Many email marketers still look at last-click attribution and revenue by channel as the measures of their success and conclude that engagement and even permission are not critically important.

In the age of the customer, when disengaged consumers may become (in Gallup’s words) “virulently antagonistic,” when every message is a brand message, such approaches are short-term and myopic.

Of course you cannot have a positive brand engagement without interacting with a customer; suggesting otherwise would be nonsensical. Reach, frequency, and volume matter. But consumers are looking for low-effort experiences. They expect marketers to treat them well and craft meaningful, positive interactions using the right channel at the right time. As Scott Davis so eloquently put it, “Digital Natives and the ever-present Millennials expect you to tap into them in order for you to tap into their wallets.”

This is the key. Be obsessive about your customers, tap into them, and build all of your programs with the goal of creating the best, most engaging, experience for them. Do this and it won’t matter whether (they do) or how much (somewhat) ISPs are measuring engagement in their filtering decisions.