E-mail Marketing’s Future in a Twitter World

Here’s a hunch: Twitter, Facebook, and other social networks are forcing e-mail marketers to change their ways – and consumers and businesses stand to benefit.

At the Email Evolution Conference (EEC) in Miami, e-mail marketers explained how they are striving to improve campaign performance, from pruning e-mail subscriber lists to reevaluating success goals and the metrics they track.

Motivating the marketers? They want to improve return on investment, adhere to best practices, and ostensibly avoid the unemployment line. It’s no coincidence this push comes as people spend more time on social networks connecting with friends, family, and others.

Here are three ways that social media is changing e-mail marketing:

E-mail Will Play Nice With Social

E-mail complements social media in referral campaigns and incentive-based promotions to acquire new customers, say e-mail marketing practitioners.

Consider these examples, including the first two that were discussed during the Email Evolution Conference :

  • Mint.com acquired 8,000 users from one social e-mail referral program at a 50 cent CPA, said Kristin Hersant, StrongMail’s director of corporate marketing. In that campaign, Mint.com tested three messages with customers; customers were all asked to enlist three friends to sign up but the rewards varied. Some customers were offered the chance to win an iPod Nano; some were given “exclusive access” to Mint.com’s beta testing program; and participants in a control group didn’t receive an incentive. Of those that received the “exclusive access” offer, 48 percent opened the e-mail and shared the invitation, on average, with five friends each. Those invitations had a 61 percent click-through rate. Every 2.6 clicks on the invitation led to one friend becoming a Mint.com user.
  • Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes, a 112-restaurant chain, averages about 40,000 new e-mail subscribers a month thanks to its e-mail and social initiatives, said Pilar Bower, optimization and e-mail strategist at Red Door Interactive. In January, Souplantation and Red Door worked with BlueHornet, an e-mail service provider, to manage a campaign that encouraged subscribers to refer a friend to sign up for the restaurant’s “Club Veg” e-mail. Of 70,000 new subscribers last month, 17,000 were attributed to the refer-a-friend campaign.

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  • And, ASPCA, an animal-rights organization, is building its donor base using e-mail, social networks, and online display advertising. In the first step, it ran display ads, courtesy of lead-generation firm Pontiflex, on CookingClub.com, GardeningClub.com, and PlanningFamily.com that invited pet owners and animal-rights advocates to sign up for ASPCA’s e-mail. One ad, for instance, read: “Does Your Cat Keep You Awake At Night? The ASPCA Twitter group has real-time tips on caring for animals. Sign up now to learn about the many ways you can support the ASPCA.” ASPCA then sent an e-mail inviting those people to become a fan on Facebook or follow @aspca on Twitter.

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    “E-mail is only one way to engage your member, donor, and advocate,” said Debbie Swider, e-marketing manager at ASPCA. “When we combine all three (Facebook, Twitter and e-mail), we capture a bigger audience.”

People, Not Lists, Will Matter

E-mail marketers will need to segment and personalize e-mail campaigns if they want messages to resonate with customers and prospects. Marketers must compete with personalized messages shared among friends and followers – typically trusted sources – on social networks.

There’s a silver lining for e-mail marketers. “The real advantage email has over social is data,” said Jay Baer, president of Convince & Convert, a social media strategy consultancy, in an e-mail interview with me. “Email knows who you are, what you’ve bought, what you click on, what time you open. Twitter knows that you are @somecustomer, and what you Tweet about, and maybe your geography. It’s no contest.”

While a potential treasure trove, that data tends to be more valuable if it is integrated, accurate, and easily analyzed. Case in point: the InterContinental Hotels Group is undertaking a massive information technology and business project to better understand its customers. The initiative calls for integrating its transactional records, loyalty member data, Web analytics, e-mail metrics, and guest data.

“By consolidating this data, we are able to view all aspects of a customer’s profile in one location, which allows our marketing to be more agile,” said Ryan Sagan, marketing automation manager at InterContinental Hotels Group, in an e-mail interview. Still, he cautions that integrating data is only the first step in an ongoing process to better understand what customers want.

New Metrics Will Matter, Too

A focus on customers – instead of a “list” – requires marketers to reassess the metrics they collect and analyze. Today, measuring a campaign’s open rates, click-through rates, and best days and times to send e-mail do not tell the full story about a customer and the likelihood they will do business with a brand.

Instead, the objective becomes building relationships with customers and prospects over time rather than obsessing over the percentage of people who opened an e-mail from a particular campaign.

“We said we’re going to get out of the campaign management business and get into the customer management business,” said Sal Tripi, senior director of operations and compliance at Publishers Clearing House, a direct marketing company best known for its $10 million sweepstakes. It sells magazine subscriptions and merchandise.

Publishers Clearing House also slashed the number of subscribers from its e-mail lists, removing some names as soon as 15 days after some signed up for a promotion. “By whittling it [the list] down, we were able to deliver a smaller list but much more highly engaged,” Tripi said.

The Bottom Line

Convince & Convert’s Baer recommends that companies coordinate their e-mail and social communications. “Today, most companies have separate email marketing and social media departments, and they need to merge (or at least cooperate fully) to eliminate the unfocused, tone-deaf message conflicts that are all-too-common today,” he said.

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