Email marketing has alway enjoyed a reputation as a reliable source of responses. Send an email, get sales...send an email, get registrations...send an email, get pageviews...
While the results are still remarkably good, each year they get a little bit worse...if you accept the ROI figures published by the USA's DMA:
- 2008 $44.93 (return for every $1 invested)
- 2009 $43.62
- 2010 $42.08 (estimated)
Not much worse, mind, and many other marketing channels would sell a close relative for those kinds of figures.
However, high ROI comes largely from email's low costs. If you want to ramp up the actual profits attributable to email, you have to invest more in targeting and technology.
The rate of decline also depends on what else is going on in the online environment. And there are several trends that warn against email complacency.
1. The diversification of communication
For many years, email was pretty much the only way you could get updates on new content or promotions from a website. This is no longer true.
The cracks first appeared with blogs and the accompanying web feeds. Now we have remote interaction and communication with websites via Twitter, Facebook, SMS, IM and their ilk. Not to mention an ever-growing mountain of online content and information chasing the same audience.
User attention is split between a growing volume of channels, media and online sources of information and entertainment. You have to fight harder for your share of that attention.
2. Growing email competition
You're not the only organization that understands the value of email marketing. Economic turmoil taught people to refocus on accountable, measurable, reliable marketing tactics. In other words, email marketing.
The UK DMA's quarterly benchmarking reports show the volume of email sent through ESPs jumping each quarter through 2009 to a level almost double that of 2008.
Then we have the rise of Bacn: all those email updates from social network sites alerting their members to new followers, connections, invitations, discussions etc.
The result is growing competition for attention within the inbox.
3. The social inbox
This inbox is itself morphing into a broader communication hub, as webmail services and email software manufacturers build more and more social features and functionality into their products. (See, for example, the latest announcements from Hotmail).
The merging of social and email tools, together with increasing message volumes, leads to more intelligent tools for organizing and prioritizing those messages. It will get progressively easier for users to ignore the less important messages and find the important ones.
Indeed, ISPs are looking at how users interact with a sender's messages to determine whether those messages are even worth delivering in the first place.
A well-known example is when users mark a message as spam. That's a negative signal the ISPs take account of when evaluating incoming email from the same sender. But some ISPs have indicated that such metrics as opens and deletes will also play a future role in "scoring" a sender.
All of which means "less important" messages get increasingly sidelined.
The social revolution online also changes expectations of how organizations communicate with customers and prospects. Users expect more from the communications they receive and can afford to be more selective given the variety of choice they now have.
4. Email on the move
Until recently, you could be pretty sure someone getting your email was sitting in front of a PC at home or in the office. Not anymore.
Over 50 million smartphones were sold in the first three months of 2010. Litmus report the iPhone has become the sixth-most popular email client, and last year Pivotal Veracity found mobile devices already accounting for around 10% of opened B2C emails.
Now throw in the iPad and netbooks.
Emails designed (strategically and physically) for the desktop PC are increasingly consumed in a range of working, domestic and mobile environments, on screens of varying size, with different abilities to properly interpret the HTML that makes up the email.
The one size that fitted all email before doesn't fit all email now.
Dealing with the challenge
Given all the above, what should you do?
The key factor to future email marketing success is always going to be increasing the value you deliver to recipients. That's a rather tired mantra that's generally ignored by marketers, because their emails are doing fine just as they are thank you very much.
But the consistent success of past email marketing efforts depended on a (relatively) unchanging online environment. And as we see from above, this just isn't the case anymore. You only have breathing space if you're already delivering more value than the competition.
And the competition is not just those sharing your niche, but just about everyone trying to attract audience attention online.
Value brings attention and ensures your messages are one of the recipient's inner circle of preferred online sources.
This means exploring some of the more sophisticated options offered by your email marketing software or service. Things like trigger emails, segmentation and other data-driven tactics.
Beyond that, it involves moving away from a traditional mindset where emails are just top-down broadcasts looking for an immediate hit: a sale, a donation, a registration.
Email needs to reflect the social Internet, encouraging:
- interaction (e.g. polls, surveys, user-generated content)
- sharing (e.g. shareworthy content and tools to make sharing easy, such as SWYN links)
- connection (e.g. encouraging recipients to formalize relationships with the sender through address book entries and social network connections)
- long-term loyalty (e.g. supporting content that adds value to purchases and promotional messaging)
Finally you need to prepare for the mobile email revolution. It's not here yet, but it is lurking around the next corner. At the very least, you can begin to consider how you might modify your emails design so it looks good on small screens, too.
It's not just an issue of coding an email right so that it looks fine on your office monitor and the iPhone, though. We need to understand how "mobile" email consumption changes how people use email, and adapt our messages accordingly.
Posts like these can sound like Chicken Little, a harbinger of doom that never comes. That's missing the point. We all know email is not dead, not even dying. But the long-term winners in the email marketing world are those who know that email is changing, and react accordingly.