Is E-Mail Still Important?

I’ve been going over a bunch of topics in my head to prepare for upcoming conferences. I’ll be moderating expert panels on retention and multi-channel marketing at next week, and then talking about how e-mail integrates with other channels at the at ClickZ Specifics E-Mail Marketing conference.

Combining all these topics, I ask myself: “Is e-mail still useful as a retention technique, or has it lost its impact?” Moreover, where does it fit in a multi-channel marketing strategy?

Follow the Conferences

To me, the most telling sign is to look at upcoming conferences. I remember participating in three ClickZ E-mail Marketing conferences in 2002 and 2003. Then, they stopped. Why? Spam had become such a huge problem that the industry was unofficially declaring e-mail marketing to be dead.

After a long hiatus, the ClickZ E-mail Marketing conference is back, and will no doubt be sold out. What changed? For starters, the industry has grown up. Best practices, common sense, and the increased ability to provide personally relevant e-mail communications helped revive the industry. Improved blacklists, whitelists and techniques for identifying spam also helped the cause. Moreover, an increasing ability to give power to users (over how often they receive e-mail, and what specific topics they want to receive) has led to a more mature view of e-mail registration and subscription processes.

But is E-mail Old News?

But new technologies, like RSS, have also come on the scene. Some have proclaimed RSS will overtake e-mail. There are definitely two sides to this argument (and many others have written about them already). While new browsers include RSS readers, this is still a technology my mother wouldn’t be able to use easily. Also, marketers can easily ruin the burgeoning RSS landscape by entering into it without understanding the culture. Once RSS becomes no more than another way to get marketing e-mails and coupons, the landscape won’t look so different. Due to the nature of how RSS works, however, there isn’t a spam problem (until someone figures that out). And because RSS folks are learning from effective marketing best practices, feeds are becoming more relevant and customizable. There’s definitely something appealing to controlling exactly what companies I hear from, how often, and specifically about what topics. That was the promise of the evolution of e-mail marketing, in fact. RSS marketing may beat e-mail marketing to the punch, if it can find the market penetration, and convince everyone a “pull” world is better than a “push” world.

The jury remains out on all these issues.

Channels Old and New

A year ago, I did a Webinar with a company called ClickTactics. One feature of their platform is the ability to create marketing campaigns that use multiple channels, including personalized Web sites, e-mail, and (most interestingly) snail mail. In fact their research (and others) have shown that marketing campaigns that bridge the off and on-line worlds are more effective than those that exist in just one of those worlds. Way back in 2002, AMR found “companies that follow up e-mails with other direct communications realized an increase of 5 to 10 percent in their response rates.”

On a related note, catalogs have resurfaced in a huge way over the last 18 months. Even pure-play retailers are using catalogs and insert media to reinforce brand and online promotions. What does this tell us? Traditional marketing techniques still work. That shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone.

The really big picture is retailers are remembering just how many customer touchpoints they have at their disposal. In the same way the industry has figured out that multi-channel consumers are more profitable, the industry is likewise figuring out that effective multi-channel marketing campaigns are more effective than single-channel efforts. This means not only using e-mail effectively, but customizing Web site experiences based on the e-mail marketing a user received, customizing the user’s RSS feeds, and using direct mail when appropriate to reinforce the messaging.

First, companies need to use the best practices for each customer touchpoint individually to make sure each is performing optimally. Once that’s done, companies need to figure out how to use them all to perform unified marketing campaigns.

The same way the industry slowly realized e-mail doesn’t replace insert media or catalogs, RSS and other new technologies won’t replace e-mail. Instead, each will become yet another viable channel to communicate with customers. It will be up to users to decide which combination of these channels is the best for their individual needs.

If you’re planning to attend either the or the ClickZ E-mail Marketing conference in New York, please say hi!

Until next time. . .


Meet Jack at ClickZ Specifics E-Mail Marketing, October 24-25 in New York City.

Want more e-mail marketing information? ClickZ E-Mail Reference is an archive of all our e-mail columns, organized by topic.

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