The Magpies of E-mail Marketing

The buzz in e-mail marketing today seems to be about everything but e-mail. I’m constantly being asked about social networking and video in e-mail and frankly I’m not very excited about either topic.

Perhaps I’m just being a grumpy old man who wants these other media to get off his e-mail lawn. Perhaps it’s the midwinter blues, though here in Seattle there are signs that spring is coming, so I’m not sure that’s it.

Whatever the cause, I’m pretty underwhelmed. It seems every presentation and every pundit is talking about these two subjects. I’m told they’re both game changers, vital to all marketers, and should be universally adopted immediately. I’ve seen more lists of steps to success than I can shake my old man’s walking stick at. But it feels like fluff, and I’m not getting the substance.

Allow me to explain.

It’s clear that social networking marks an evolution in the peer-to-peer use of the Internet for communication. Note that I said evolution not revolution, I will come back to that. What is not clear is who will be the winners in this space or what the impact will be for marketing. Today, Facebook is the leader. Twitter was last year’s new hotness and before that MySpace was clearly going to shape the future for us.

The critical advice seems to be: create a company Facebook page and a company Twitter account and then post stuff to each and see what might work for your audience. If you’re really sophisticated, try to combine the two with e-mail by enabling consumers to forward your e-mail communications to these media.

Meanwhile, video in e-mail is giving me a serious feeling of déjÀ vu. Five years ago video was going to revolutionize e-mail. Unfortunately, browser compatibility and system capabilities made the whole experience uninspiring. Not much has changed in this regard except the hype and the popularity of YouTube.

There are plenty of people who wish it would work and who think it would be great if it did work (me among them). This seems to be leading to a great deal of wishful thinking and hoping. The reality is that current solutions either provide a good experience but work only on a small number of ISPs/platforms, or they work on a wider variety of platforms but provide a very limited experience (too small, too short, no audio). To cap it all off, at this time there is no solution that works out of the box for Outlook 2007. How this state of affairs equates to “revolutionary” or “game changing” I cannot fathom.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against social networking or video in e-mail. The platform for which I am responsible supports both. My issue is that the focus is on the possibly revolutionary when real value is being derived from the actual evolutionary. And make no mistake, there are great things happening.

A recent case study shows some great work by Ogilvy bringing substantial benefit to Sears through the use of dynamic content to support advanced segmentation.

I’m seeing some exciting work with multivariate testing. This mathematical technique enables testing of multiple, independent variables without the need to test every possible content combination. This makes it much easier to test more variables more quickly and so produce significant optimizations to content.

Companies are taking steps into mobile by combining SMS (define) communications, both inbound and outbound, with their e-mail campaigns. I’m seeing continual advancement in the use of triggered and behaviorally targeted communications and integrated messaging through the use of APIs (define).

I’m all for exciting new things, but we all have limited time and resources. Are these the most valuable things to be working on right now? Sometimes it feels more as though we’re magpies jumping at the latest shiny thing, snake oil salesmen looking for the next miracle elixir, rather than professionals developing critical strategies for long-term success.

To some extent, this is what industry watchers must do. Revolution is what sells. Evolution, though, is what actually happens in the real world. Installed bases take time to change. New technologies and platforms take time to gain critical mass. It takes even longer to understand how to effectively use these capabilities. E-mail is at a level of maturity that the incremental advances are hard work. Dynamic content, behavioral targeting, and multivariate testing are difficult and take real effort but reap real rewards.

What do you think? Are we allowing ourselves to be distracted from really improving e-mail marketing by the latest shiny thing? Are we being seduced by the allure of quick wins that never pan out, or am I being a curmudgeon and completely missing the boat on seismic changes?

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