Industrial-Strength Email

Marketers have higher, more sophisticated expectations for email marketing. Spam has peaked and may cease to be a stumbling block (not to mention a royal pain in the inbox) in the foreseeable future.

These were the two main takeaways from two days of immersion in all things email at ClickZ Email Strategies in San Francisco this week. It was our third email event this year. I’m finding these conferences useful not only to stay on top of the latest email technology and best practices but also to keep a finger on the pulse of what marketers need their email programs to achieve.

The majority of the 300 or so people attending the conference aren’t terribly interested in limiting email use to direct marketing. They’re looking deep into the future at long-term, strategic applications. They want to increase customer loyalty and relationships, particularly in business-to-business (B2B) and services categories. They want their messages to be anticipated, appreciated, and useful to the recipient. They want their messages to be delivered, despite a mind-boggling labyrinth of hurdles between the sender and any given recipient: some 120 commercially available spam software solutions; filters on the user, enterprise, and corporate level; and various spam protection applications built into whatever ISP delivers the message.

Hans Peter Brøndmo, Digital Impact fellow and author of “The Eng@ged Customer,” set the tone in his keynote, asking rhetorically if people prefer to be “marketed to” or “spoken to.” What emerged is that email is undergoing a convergence of sorts. Direct marketing principles are systematically integrated with communications and e-CRM. In today’s email programs, the disciplines are essentially becoming indistinguishable.

A visit to one of San Francisco’s leading digital agencies confirmed this trend. Paul Santello, senior VP and managing director of Carat Interactive, said the percentage of email work his traditional agency takes on has increased dramatically, despite the agency’s strong rep as an ad agency. Clients demand relationship programs to ease customers through more involved, high consideration purchases in sectors such as automotive. Work is shifting from acquisition to lead generation. Clients demand email marketing programs with increased sophistication. The focus is on new technologies, testing, rich media, and concentration on the multiple interactive paths email can generate: learn more; buy now; tell a friend.

“Let’s face it. Email’s cheap,” Santello said. “Many of our clients aren’t mass brands but are niche in their own way.” These include Hyundai, TiVo, and Palm.

Details that are tested, fine-tuned, and refined include the target, message, emphasis on product or product family, sweeps, and measurement of lead volume versus the quality of the lead.

Another agency executive, Rapp Digital’s Ian Oxman, told an audience his client base scarcely grew at all during this tough year. But at Rapp Digital’s email division, which Oxman oversees, revenue increased over 60 percent from last year.

The fly in the ointment? Spam — no big surprise there. It’s not like the topic hasn’t come up in our previous conferences. This time, every speaker grappled with the issue in every session. Marketers are fully cognizant of the fact spam is diluting the effectiveness of email marketing. The growing concern for marketers is actually getting messages into inboxes.

Over 120 commercial antispam software packages are currently on the market. More are in development. They’re deployed on ISP, user, and enterprise levels, frequently combined with blacklists, filters, and antispam freeware — again, on every level between the send and the inbox. When multiple tools are used in multiple combinations, practically anything can be tagged as spam, regardless of how carefully email might be prepared or best practices adhered to.

Numerous reports this year have projected the volume of spam will escalate to many billions of unwanted messages. I was as surprised as I was intrigued to hear both Brøndmo and Vanquish CEO Phil Raymond say they expect to see an end to spam as a significant problem in the foreseeable future — six months to a year from now.

Brøndmo is spearheading development of a spam solution at Digital Impact. Raymond promises Vanquish (currently in beta) will announce deals with major ISPs next March. Ultimately, Brøndmo confided, the solution won’t be software-centric. He believes if critical mass can be achieved in blocking unwanted email, the spammers’ incentive to blast junk will disappear.

Spammers’ revenues hinge on infinitesimal response rates. A sucker may be born every minute, but the gene pool isn’t so tainted that many people are gullible enough to fork over cash for “liquid Viagra.” Actually selling to these unfortunates requires getting literally millions of messages delivered.

Brøndmo thinks if huge ISPs such as AOL and MSN adapt aggressive measures and block massive amounts of mail from their gigantic subscriber bases, the gig will be up. Word from industry insiders is ISP giants have recently begun to quietly discuss plans among themselves.

Certainly, nothing will put an end to all unwanted email. But anything that puts a major dent in the sheer volume of junk would be a boon. It would not only be welcome relief to anyone with an inbox, but a boon to marketers. Look at the strides in email marketing sophistication achieved over this past year. Just imagine how cool email will be, were there guaranteed delivery for all opt-in messages.

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