What Needs to Change in E-mail Marketing

The first month of 2010 provided more e-mail marketing industry merger and acquisition action than in the past two years (based on my unscientific tracking). In Q1, we saw boatloads of new studies demonstrating e-mail as being the primary driver (and beneficiary) of social media.

E-mail is finally getting the praise, attention, and money it deserves, right? The big breakthrough we’ve all been waiting for has occurred – or has it?

Research from the Society of Digital Agencies (SoDA) found that 34 percent of senior marketers regarded e-mail marketing as a low priority. Only “games” was ranked as a lower priority among the nine digital categories.

Clearly, e-mail has made a big leap during the recession and this new research counters other findings that show e-mail as a top choice of all marketing channels. However, it demonstrates that e-mail often isn’t on the forefront of the digital radar for CMOs as much as we may believe. It can and should be though.

For that reality to take shape, several big and small things need to fall into place. Among them:

Leadership

The technology side of e-mail marketing (think ESPs) has rightly led e-mail on many fronts. However, in the long-term that can’t be the only way. Too many e-mail programs remain stagnant and woefully underperform. This is partially based on a typical e-mail scenario. Company A has a few interactive generalists, one manages the e-mail program, and their only partner is an ESP that is really selling a technology platform.

The ESPs get paid based on volume, not success. The technology and fees related are tied to a platform that sends messages. Obviously, this is a crucial element to any e-mail program but one that will not generate success by itself. Therefore, more companies and leaders need to emerge on the other side of the fence.

Historically, most of the thought-leadership has come from the technology side, and that has been invaluable and will continue to be. However, the client side and the e-mail-focused agencies and specialized firms that one could assume have more influence over an e-mail program’s success need to step up. Certainly, there are a few top tier e-mail agencies and some vocal client-side advocates of the channel that have been doing this for years, but a shift should change in order to get the focus back on how to optimize your e-mail efforts, not just technology bells and whistles that don’t get used, or the hope-and-prayer strategy of sending more e-mails.

Hopefully the e-mail community goes for bigger wins in this decade and doesn’t focus as much on the insider pet projects (spelling, nomenclature, and other things that fuel e-mail’s Napoleon complex) that the outside digital community doesn’t care about. Let’s demonstrate the bigger digital picture and our essential role in it.

Change the Cheap and Easy Notion

The highly fragmented nature of e-mail marketing has created a confusing maze of companies offering seemingly similar products, services, and golden tickets to high ROI (define). With that have come viable low-cost, self-serve tools and cheap monthly pricing. A boon to small businesses, yet noise in the back of the typical CFO’s head when he sees a line item more than four figures for e-mail marketing.

“I thought e-mail was cheap?” goes the typical refrain from the unfamiliar executive. With that, we must continue to explain why it’s worth investing strategically in e-mail marketing and building the business case and models that demonstrate the significant impact e-mail can make on the bottom line. The old notion of “to make money, you need to spend money” rings true for most in the e-mail world.

The “easy” side of the e-mail coin has a lot of the same fundamentals. To the untrained and unfamiliar eye, e-mail marketing success looks teasingly simple. Take some images from offline advertising, plug it in a tool, and fire away to a list accumulated over the years.

Quickly, once someone digs deeper, a world that includes changing best practices, CAN-SPAM and related legislation, testing, list hygiene and proper acquisition tactics, analytics, segmentation, image suppression, rendering, and deliverability issues lurks below the surface. This doesn’t even address any of the more strategic items as unearthed by seven experts in a recent column. Until the C-suite understands that e-mail deserves a proper team, tools, and partners, it will be hard to take the big leap.

So, who’s with me and what am I missing? I’d love to know what others see as big-picture efforts that the e-mail world needs to undertake.

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