I recently chaired the panel on “Mobile email” at TFM&A (Technology for Marketing and Advertising) in London. The assembled experts concurred that:
a) email marketing is alive and well
b) everything digital is going mobile, especially email (Litmus estimates that around 42% of all email is now opened on a mobile device and this can only increase).
But why does email remain so resilient amidst the waves of change which continue to sweep through digital marketing and in the face of newer, ‘cooler’ technologies? To answer this, let’s go back to 1999 (younger readers, you may need to ask your parents). At this time, various voices condemned email marketing to death. This view gathered support over the next few years: the new social networking platforms like MySpace were hailed as the next big thing. Email, people said, had had its day – at least as a marketing channel.
In this new century, these voices proclaimed, we were all going to be communicating by instant messaging and social networks, and even by SMS / text message. So, these people were suggesting, marketers would soon lose interest in the humble email, which would be relegated to the recycling bin of marketing history. And if that wasn’t enough, the fledging Facebook was waiting to take the world by storm.
Now, let’s fast forward (btw why does that expression always remind me of whirring VHS video and audio cassette tapes?) to 2013 where, perhaps surprisingly, we find email marketing in robust good health. But why?
In order to understand the continuing success of email, it might help to go back even further than 1999. Some years before the end of the last century, I was employed by various large direct marketing agencies. It was a good time to be in ‘DM’, as it became known. Laser printing developed. Advances in data processing technology and personalised printing, addressing techniques and falling costs combined to make one-to-one marketing more powerful and cost-effective than ever before. Compared with broadcast, broad scale, ‘untargeted’ communications, direct mail offered some impressive advantages. Specifically, it could reasonably claim to be:
• Data-driven (i.e. relevant)
And as a result:
This was highly attractive to marketers and, crucially, to their Finance Directors. Direct Mail became respectable and even cool. Major national and global brands started to do DM. Budgets were duly diverted from ‘above the line’ into this new ‘accountable advertising’. Money was made, and bright people lured to work ‘below the line’. Direct mail was hailed as a precision ‘rifle’ to target audiences surgically and efficiently, in comparison with the ‘blunderbuss’ approach offered by TV, press and posters.
But of course direct mail wasn’t perfect. It needed a lot of managing of issues around lists, data, printing, enclosing and mailing. The cost of print, personalisation, ‘lettershop’ and postage needed to be factored into any ROI calculation. Also, it just annoyed a lot of people; increasingly bulk mailers were viewed as destroyers of rainforests as well as snake-oil salesmen. The damaging term ‘junk mail’ was coined and it stuck. Response rates fell.
But then email came along. As Bill Gates strove to install a (Windows) PC on every desk and into every home, and those clunky towers gradually got connected to the internet via equally clunky 56k modems, a new DM channel was born. Email marketing offered all of DM’s advantages, at a fraction of the cost: one-to-one targeting with near instant response!
At last, here was an answer to the DM industry’s prayers (that is unless the praying person happened to own a printing or enclosing business). Response rates to early pioneering cold email campaigns were astronomical by today’s standards. Email list brokers sprang up. This was truly ‘direct mail on steroids’… But of course nothing is perfect and junk email attracted its own pejorative label – SPAM. (No-one appears to know why but Monty Python got the blame…). ISPs invented the spam filter, which became increasingly aggressive; bad guys sent bad emails and email recipients got wise. And cautious. Open and click-through rates fell.
Email finds its place
Today, email isn’t so good for targeting consumers cold, especially when sent by an unknown company and with a sender name the recipient doesn’t recognise. On the other hand, it’s fantastic for communication with B2B contacts who already know your organisation. Most B2B decision-makers check their email at least six to eight times per day. Many B2C marketers and charity / not-for-profit fundraisers also swear by it and can prove that it works. Plus, it works well in conjunction with direct mail.
For me, email is and will remain a key online channel. Email marketing preceded MySpace and has effectively outlasted it. Facebook will one day fall from the dominant position it enjoys today. And for those of you who like to stay in control, you might like to consider that your email campaigns are your ‘owned media’, whereas your Facebook page is on someone else’s website…
Personally, I wouldn’t bet against email marketing being around in the 22nd Century.
A version of this article first featured in Infobox, the DMA Email Marketing Council’s free e-newsletter.