The Problems With Email Marketing

One of my favorite email lists is currently engaged in a feverish discussion over the problems of email marketing.

“Who killed opt-in email?” That’s the general theme. A lot of finger-pointing then takes place. It was the spammers. It was phony opt-in offers or the use of spammer tricks (misleading headers, negative opt-in) by major marketers. Or it’s just audience exhaustion — after all, how many emails can you really read in a day?

It’s all these things, and they’re having an impact. The list I describe here used to have a waiting list of advertisers. Now it features ads for other lists from the same publisher. Rates for names and list advertising have all fallen to the floor. My own email newsletter, A-Clue.Com, also seems to be getting a regular trickle of unsubscribes, despite my best efforts to make it relevant. There is something to be said for reader exhaustion.

The glut is only going to get worse. Every publisher and e-publisher I know of is now planning its own lists. They’re hiring writers left and right to do “news” stories that can be packaged (with ads) into new opt-in publications that (the people upstairs are told) will bring Really Big Results to the Bottom Line Real Soon Now.

That’s the way big business works. It doesn’t operate on Internet time. The knee jerks as fast as everyone can collect the evidence, verify it, and gather together for a series of meetings (sometimes with pizza, sometimes with doughnuts) to hash it out. Then the budget fight has to take place, has to be won, and — voil`! — last year’s trend is ready for next year’s market.

At the very same time one trend fades, the leading edge is continuing forward. The new trend is to integrate news or customer data into outgoing emails on the fly thus making them more “relevant.” The trend is embodied in Mediaplex, which ClickZ readers have known about since last May. (We keep you ahead of the leading edge, on the “bleeding edge,” where real change happens.)

By making messages “relevant” with technology, big marketers figure they will have it both ways. They can send more messages, and the messages will be read because they’re “relevant.” It’s a great story, right? The leading edge thinks so, too.

Me, I’m skeptical. I’m skeptical of anything that promises to increase email advertising, especially advertising from the same old clients. I’m skeptical of machine-made relevance, whether it’s based on “news” or personal data a marketer has about me. I think it results in a flood of quasi-spam, like the messages from and Webvan I now get (in beautiful HTML) but don’t read.

Here’s a radical idea. How about if, instead of emailing me every time a machine finds “news” you think is “relevant,” you wait until you have some valuable insight to share? How about if, instead of emailing me on a schedule dictated by your editorial or marketing department, you wait until you have a truly valuable offer or insight to share?

How about if, instead of beating me over the head with email, you make it an unexpected, even anticipated, pleasure? Now that would be revolutionary.

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