E-mail Resurges

E-mail marketing has gone through many stages. Once the “killer app” by which to connect with prospects personally and at a low cost, it later fell by the wayside as spam and list abuse reared their heads. Now, as response rates in other channels rise and fall, more marketers are returning to e-mail as the centerpiece of their digital marketing efforts.

“E-mail is not just a tool to support a campaign. It’s the digital backbone tying all other communication channels together,” said Jeanniey Mullen, co-founder of the newly formed E-mail Experience Council (EEC) and senior director of e-mail marketing at OgilvyOne Worldwide.

But she said e-mail’s early success as a hyper-personalized channel was hurt by the drive to make it flashier, prettier, sexier. Rich applications and graphics wreaked havoc with ISP bandwidth, unready e-mail clients, and user patience. ISPs and e-mail providers began disabling the features, limiting their value. And the channel’s low cost has also been both a blessing and a curse, as every consumer knows by now. Users have long suffered a back breaking volume of spam and a steady stream of untargeted, unnecessary and just plain bad efforts by lazy marketers. The result has been the devaluation of e-mail as a marketing tool, a problem that persists to this day.

“E-mail has a history of being cheap and easy; that’s what opened the door to spammers,” said Paul Beck, co-founder of the EEC and executive director of interactive marketing and advertising at OgilvyInteractive Worldwide. “But it also painted a picture in the minds of many people in an organization that it doesn’t need to be funded. E-mail touches more people and is used by every group in an organization, but usually has the smallest budget.”

The good news is that many companies are beginning to understand the value of e-mail, and are restructuring their marketing efforts to reflect its position as the “digital backbone”, Beck said. Instead of haphazardly sending out e-mails from seven or eight different parts of an organization, more companies are beginning to look holistically at their company-wide contact with customers and prospects, and manage it centrally, he said.

The EEC aims to accelerate those efforts by bringing together marketers, agencies, vendors and others for “marketing roundtable” committees that focus on specific issues around e-mail. The first roundtables focus on methods of list growth and effectiveness; deliverability and measurement standards; effective design and user experience; and building commitment to e-mail on the part of “C-suite” executives. Each of those groups is expected to publish initial reports in December. A fifth roundtable, exploring partnerships and integrations with other industry groups, was formed last week.

In the industry, the EEC adds its voice to that of established groups like the E-mail Sender and Provider Coalition (ESPC), as well as other new groups with a tighter focus, like the Domain Assurance Council (DAC), an association of vendors in the reputation service provider space working to standardize some of the technical aspects of reputation. Broad industry groups like the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) are also renewing their efforts around e-mail.

With all these groups spreading their messages about e-mail, is there a danger of confusing marketers and competing with one another? Not according to Jim Campbell, assistant director of the ESPC and its parent organization, the Network Advertising Initiative (NAI).

“For the same reason that e-mail needed a specific group separate from a larger umbrella marketing group like the DMA or IAB, there are niche interests within the space that may be best covered by a narrower selection of the industry,” Campbell said. “The ESPC focuses on issues related to policy, regulation, technology, best practices, etc. We see the EEC as working to promote e-mail to marketers as a channel. As supporters of e-mail reputation, we consider the DAC’s objectives to be consistent with our own.”

The ESPC is working on several initiatives involving education and research, including a survey of user behavior and opinions about opt-out links in messages and opt-out buttons in user interfaces. Results from that effort are due out soon. The ESPC is also continually monitoring adoption of e-mail authentication, and plans to have another update on the state of adoption of the various technologies by ISPs, filtering products and other receivers.

While spam continues to be the central issue, there are signs that authentication and reputation may be making a dent in the problem, Campbell said.

“It is hard to argue that users are winning when you hear the numbers tossed around about how much spam is out there. Marketers certainly continue to feel the pain of the battle against spam,” he said. “However, it would appear that with the adoption of e-mail authentication and the evolution of reputation services that we may be reaching a turning point where receivers finally have the tools to differentiate good mail from bad mail.”

Authentication has reached a critical mass, with the majority of marketers and ESPs having adopted some form of authentication on outgoing mail, he said. The largest ISPs are also checking authentication on incoming mail, and enterprise-level filtering products have incorporated it as well. Once the DomainKeys Identified Mail (DKIM) standard is finalized, further adoption will come.

Reputation, which has long been a part of the filtering process on the receiver end, has become more formalized and more transparent as receivers have adopted third party reputation services, Campbell said.

“This is an area that is rapidly evolving, and that will ultimately be a very positive development for legitimate e-mail senders and consumers,” he said. “It isn’t a stretch to suggest that validating increased spending behind e-mail will likely become a greater issue in the coming year.”

Learn more about making the most of your e-mail marketing efforts at E-Mail Marketing, the first in the new ClickZ Specifics conference series, October 24-25 in New York City.

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