Email marketing is a victim of its own success.
Not only do overcrowded inboxes present a challenge for marketers, but email’s effectiveness at driving immediate results can also distract from its broader potential to build customer relationships through even the most complex customer journey.
To their detriment, brands often view email as a “free” tool and focus too heavily on sending high volumes of email to create short-term revenue gains through promotions. While email remains a great channel for regularly—and reliably—connecting with customers, there’s a missed opportunity to use email for much more: as a branding element; as a market research and data collection tool; and as a personalized, outcomes-based channel for developing conversations with individuals over time and cultivating consumer relationships. As marketers have turned to email to connect with and reassure their audiences amid the COVID-19 crisis, the medium has shown its versatility.
This unique moment comes as marketers already have begun to reexamine the channel’s possibilities. The objective? Experiment with data and analytics to drive more personal, interactive and contextually relevant email conversations. Email, in other words, can be a utility that actually isn’t even about the conversations it facilitates so well.
We asked two email experts—Oded Benyo, president of Epsilon’s PeopleCloud Messaging solution, and Shar VanBoskirk, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester—for their take on the future of email marketing and how marketers can accordingly evolve their email marketing strategy.
Given email’s somewhat utilitarian reputation among marketers, it was interesting to see how many brands turned to the channel for critical messaging during the COVID-19 crisis. It suggests that perhaps marketers are rediscovering something about this medium that they’ve always understood yet haven’t consistently acted on. Given that, what is the unique personality and potential of email—not as we’ve seen it most commonly used, but at its best?
ODED BENYO: Email is a very intimate, personal channel that allows a marketer to have a conversation with a consumer. It gives consumers very relevant, specific information about things that matter to them at a time when they want to read it. The intimacy factor is significant because consumers are happy to receive very personal, specific messaging in email.
But we’re still reliant on an old approach to marketing—of thinking of marketing by channel as opposed to thinking about marketing by consumer. If you think about an interactive campaign with a consumer with multiple touch points, email will be one of those, and you can be extremely creative. And now we have the technology and the ability to bring personalization and intimate communication into the channel. We’re going to see an increase in the reliance on email because it’s going to allow marketers to be more relevant and more specific.
SHAR VANBOSKIRK: Email is the first social medium. Email is in its nature interactive. But most of the time, marketers don’t leverage it that way. They don’t think about email as something that can drive interactivity and connection between a brand and a human being, or between human beings and other human beings. There’s a lot of potential there for marketers who can think about harnessing the uniqueness of the medium itself and not just use it as a dry method for delivering a coupon.
Marketers should understand that email is an extension of their brand promise and a place where they can demonstrate their brand promise. If right now you’re thinking about email as an ad hoc way to send out coupons, or even an ad hoc way to try to create a personal conversation with a customer, you are under-leveraging it.
The best email programs are ones that balance business goals with user needs. Most of the time, email marketers forget about the user need part of that equation. What do customers need from your brand? What do they need overall, as human beings who have fundamental needs for community and for safety and for entertainment? Once you’ve answered those questions, then you can ask, “What is my brand goal, and how do I balance what I need as a brand with what my customer needs?” A good email program will fit in that balance.
Why do so many marketers go astray? What are the email marketing challenges that can keep programs from fulfilling that potential?
VANBOSKIRK: Email works so well that everyone wants to take advantage of it. It is the sweetest grass; it’s the place where everyone goes to graze their livestock. When that happens, pretty soon there’s no grass left for the livestock. Gradually, consumers and business customers are seeing so many emails in their inbox that they start feeling like email is really hard and super crowded.
But that doesn’t mean email doesn’t work; it just means that the challenge of being a good emailer has gotten even harder. Now it’s not just about leveraging the medium well, it’s about making sure that your email stands out from everyone else who might be kind of average, and certainly from everyone who’s ugly and clunky and crowding up what is otherwise a really effective medium. Email is cheap enough that bad emailers are almost not penalized for doing things in a clunky way. It doesn’t cost them enough for them to stop sending bad emails. That means good emailers are having to stand above the cacophony—not just once you’ve opened an email, but even when you’re just looking at the myriad messages in your inbox so that you know which ones to trust and which ones to pay extra attention to.
BENYO: It’s the nature of today’s business world that when you have a channel that’s less expensive, it gets less attention from executives. So sometimes people misconstrue or misunderstand the importance of email marketing. I would argue that for those bad emailers who think it doesn’t cost them much, it is costing them in that clients are turning them off, not paying attention and disconnecting from the brand. There’s a residual impact over time. However, we as an industry have not done enough to measure and demonstrate the overall effectiveness of email.
Email campaigns are very easy to measure in one sense, but I don’t get the sense you’re referring to those traditional metrics. What needs to change in how we evaluate email if we want to better capture its true value?
BENYO: Everybody needs to start to look at email programs over time and how they affect the behavior of the consumer over time—it’s about nurturing client relationships. Too many marketers continue to measure email programs in a very episodic way: They send an email and right away they ask, “How many clicks did I get? How many conversions did I get off of those clicks?” Well, you may have a portion of consumers that respond that way, but a large portion of them are still gathering information, especially on a considered purchase. Increasing the aperture of time is critical.
VANBOSKIRK: There are effectiveness metrics, which are how effective email is at accomplishing my immediate goal, such as driving sales. But email might also be effective in other ways: Am I looking at how much value my email customers are bringing to me over time? Is email effective at building and maintaining client relationships, even if it’s not driving an immediate sale? Are my email customers worth more to me than my non-email customers? Is email offering an assist to other channels, like shortening the time it takes for my sales to close or making it less expensive for me to buy media in another bucket? And then, are there efficiency metrics that you could put in place that are looking at the time to convert or the effort to convert? How is email shortening or improving the efficiency of those conversion efforts.
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Advanced metrics aren’t the only way big data has affected email. It’s also opened up a lot of possibilities for marketers in terms of email personalization strategy and contextualization. When it comes to integrating data with email marketing, what’s the best-case marriage of data and design?
BENYO: Data is the fuel for all your communication. The more you leverage and use the data to inform your decisions and content, the better off you are. Creative becomes the outlet and the manifestation of that data. You have all that information, but then it becomes about how you express it, how you share it with the consumer, how you put it in front of them. The most important role that creative plays is to humanize the relationship—to take the content and make it personal, meaningful and relevant, so it feels like it’s more about you and less mechanical. That’s where the art comes in and leveraging all that data to make something that connects with people on a personal level. The marriage of the two is critical.
Email is the perfect channel for personalization and one that people expect to be very personal, very intimate, very meaningful. The importance of personalization in email marketing today is well known, but until now, it was very hard to do. We didn’t have big data; we didn’t have the processing power. We’re just starting to get there now in terms of the ability to really personalize messages for every individual at every time. Now that we do, email is going to stand out because of the ability to do that in a context where people are ready to receive it, whereas in other mediums—like digital media, push notifications, in-app environments and pre-roll video ads—they may not be.
VANBOSKIRK: Where data-driven email marketing gets overwhelming is when a marketer feels like they are supposed to be collecting everything. And many marketers do: They hoard data, and they become data-heavy but not necessarily insights-rich.
An email marketer might do well to collect all types of data, but they might find that one type is more useful in terms of the payout that they get from exploiting it. It might be easier for you to identify the particular data that will help you offer a message that can be really in line with what your customers need.
How does data-driven personalization of email marketing affect optimization and testing?
BENYO: Traditionally, optimization was about A/B testing, where you break everybody into two groups. But in the world of personalization, optimization takes on a completely different look, because now you’re almost optimizing for every consumer individually. Drawing too many conclusions from a group that’s too large is essentially a failure to leverage the technology that allows you to optimize at a much more granular level.
Instead, you want to try and manage the communication at an individual level or based on a very small group of individuals that have similar behavior patterns. People who make that leap find that they are able to get the overall impact of the email program to be a lot more effective. You have to rely on technology to do it, but it changes how you think about optimization because it’s no longer in big buckets, but rather, you’re optimizing for the individual.
VANBOSKIRK: Marketers should balance business goals with user need as they’re making optimization and trade-off decisions, so they’re not just trying to send out communications that will give in to customer whims. For example, you could look at what kind of communication gets the best customer response from the customers that you care the most about, based on margin and revenue expectations.
Adapted from an audio interview with Benyo and VanBoskirk. Listen to the full interview.
Core Insight: Taking the long view on email can produce lasting results. Look at email metrics over time to determine how messaging is influencing customer behavior. Understanding how email drives actions over a longer period ensures you’re focusing on relationship building rather than one-time, instant results.
Oded Benyo, president of messaging and international offerings at Epsilon, is responsible for driving growth across Epsilon’s industry-leading Epsilon PeopleCloud Messaging business, which is focused on creating personal email conversations between brands and their customers to drive performance. He also oversees Epsilon’s international growth, adapting the company’s offerings to local markets and ensuring support for customers in their home countries.
Shar VanBoskirk, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester, helps CMOs lead customer-obsessed strategies at their firms while also transforming their marketing functions to deliver brand experiences that are relevant to empowered customers. Her research focuses on marketing strategy, budgets, staffing, organization and creating an operating model for customer obsession.
Main image credit: Illustration by Caleb Fox; Source imagery: DamienArt/Shutterstock
Secondary image credit: Andis Rea/Shutterstock