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Five ways to win with email marketing in 2011

Author's avatar By Mark Brownlow 16 Dec, 2010
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A manifesto for integrating email marketing with other channels based on marketplace trends

So, yes, it's the traditional time of year for posts offering perspective and prophecies on what you need to do to get through the next year successfully.

Instead of listing predictions, I'm going to pull out some broader trends and suggest five ways that email marketers might account for them. And I hope you'll chip in with your own perspectives and suggestions in the comments.

Digital marketing is characterized by the constancy of change. What's trendy today is typically trash tomorrow. But here are four developments I see continuing to influence (email) marketing in the coming months and years.

  1. Choice and control
  2. Competition
  3. Trust
  4. Expectations

1. Choice

Choice is the big one and has three dimensions:

  • The audience has a wide choice of online channels through which to get the information they want.
  • They also have a wide choice of devices they can use to access each channel: desktop, laptop, netbook, iPad, mobile phone, smartphone...
  • And marketers have a wide choice of channels they can use to distribute the information they want the audience to receive...

Equally, the audience has more and more tools enabling them to sort, filter and prioritize incoming information.

Consider that 2010 brought us the Hotmail sweep feature, Gmail's Priority Inbox and Facebook's new messaging service. All designed to transfer more control to the individual.

2. Competition

With choice comes competition. More and more ways to access information, more and more organizations sending information.

More and more clutter.

And, if you believe Seth Godin, increasing "desensitization to all the information".

3. Trust

With choice and competition comes a need to somehow sort out the digital wheat from the online chaff. So the audience gravitates to trusted sources of information. Trust becomes a real differentiator where information (even quality information) is commonplace.

4. Expectations

Choice, control and competition also change expectations. At a simple level, the audience comes to, well, expect more choice and control.

More importantly, the social web changes how people want to be talked to...toward more personal and personable communications, more interactive and meaningful messaging.

So where does that take email marketing?

The five options

Option 1 is to ignore all those trends and developments. Really.

For all our pontificating about social webs and online (r)evolutions, there will always be a role for basic email marketing programs.

Solid, broad-based promotions and newsletters sent to an opt-in audience will continue to bring returns, with growth largely driven through increases in list size and sending frequency.

This has its limits though: at some point, frequency increases start to hurt the bottom line and list growth slows down. Then significant future revenue gains can only come through sending better targeted and/or more valuable email.

Option 2 is to seek state-of-the-art technological solutions...data-driven, multichannel, integrated, one-to-one marketing solutions for the dawning digital challenge.

What a sentence!

That's a solid route to take for larger organizations with the right skills and resources. Dave Chaffey charts the stages to move through to take email marketing from basic to advanced, effectively giving us (with the accompanying best practices report) a great strategic map to follow.

Option 3 sits comfortably between 1 and 2. It involves incremental improvement across Dave's chart by implementing select strategies, tactics and approaches that reflect the challenges of 2011. Such as...

1. Simplicity and functionality

As choice and clutter increase, so people are less willing to tolerate friction in their communication activities. Review your email sign-up processes, forms, layouts, unsubscribe mechanisms, etc. for usability. For example:

  • Remove technical jargon from sign-up forms and confirmation messages: replace them with warmer, people-friendly expressions
  • Give people choice and control through preference centers, but without subjecting them to choice overload
  • Limit the information required at or after sign-up to what you really need (or find alternative ways to collect the same information without burdening the subscriber)

Use an email design preview service to ensure your emails look good and work fine whatever device and software is used to view them. Keep an eye on the development of mobile email, too.

2. SWYN and social proof

Building trust is a concept that extends throughout an email marketing program (here are 22 factors, for starters).

People understandably trust their network more than their neighborhood marketer. Which means you can:

1. Make it easy for people to recommend your email promotions and content. This is where the use of "share with your network" links comes in. Retail email expert Chad White expects that "...by the end of 2011, the adoption of SWYN links should break the 50% mark."

2. Show people that others recommend your emails, using what Linda Bustos describes as the 5 dimensions of social proof (many concepts already used by ecommerce sites and blogs are easily transferable to email.)

3. Transactional and trigger emails

At their core, transactional/trigger emails are sent in response to a clear action taken by the intended recipient. Like a welcome message after sign-up, or an order confirmation.

They are, by definition, targeted:

  • According to Experian CheetahMail, for example, welcome messages get four times the opens, five times the CTR and over eight times the revenue per email of typical promotional emails.
  • Retailer Isabella found clicks on product recommendations in order confirmation emails converted at more than double the rate of clicks from standard emails.
  • S&S Worldwide revealed "...a 25% conversion rate on personalized transactional messages focused on items left in carts."

These kinds of email give you three ways to succeed:

  1. Service-oriented messages with important or useful information leave a positive impression (and build trust and value)
  2. They're an opportunity for more interaction with your audience (whether through relevant links or specific messages, such as post-purchase review requests or customer surveys)
  3. They can carry marketing messages, like the sidebar space used by Amazon, iTunes etc. to promote sales or product recommendations

These kind of automated emails often sound like they're the domain of resource-rich technocratic marketers. But the nice thing is that even the simplest email marketing software or service lets you send, for example, welcome messages.

4. Use the data, be rational and realistic

As the digital marketing world gets more complex and dynamic, the less you can rely on intuition and experience alone. A willingness to test and a desire to develop data analysis skills may be the difference between a good and bad email program.

We have a tendency to invest in tactics (and channels) that are flavor of the month rather than proven performers. Which is why the recommendation to act rationally isn't as self-evident as we might think.

The number of tactics and channels available is growing, but your budget may not be keeping pace. In an ideal world, you find the mix of channels and tactics that balance business goals with the needs and preferences of the audience.


  • You can't be all things to all people.
  • Not all your audience has the same preferences
  • ...and even if they have a preference, it doesn't mean they won't happily accept an alternative, too.

...which gives you the flexibility to ensure you commit to channels and tactics you can genuinely support. Experiment, test and analyze...but don't gamble just to be fashionable.

5. Build value and personality

Every year we talk about providing value through email. The debate largely centers on "functional" value: what offers and content best address the needs and wants of the audience?

Here we're back to technology solutions that help with segmentation and targeting.

But what about emotional value? That comes from such soft factors as entertainment, inspiration, storytelling, humor, creativity, quirkiness, style, emotion, humanity...

Suggesting you add such personality to emails is easily said, less easily done.

In essence, it means avoiding mediocrity: the bland, safe corporate style of writing and designing by committee that is so prevalent in, particularly, B2B newsletters.

All it takes to do this is more of a human voice, one that recalls that the recipient reads the message as an individual, not as an "audience" or a group of spreadsheet cells.

So we come, effectively, full circle: what was email invented for if not for communication between individuals?

Please add your email marketing predictions, suggestions and recommendations for 2011...would love to read them!

Author's avatar

By Mark Brownlow

Mark Brownlow is a former email copywriter and publisher of the retired Email Marketing Reports site. He now works as a lecturer and writer. Connect with him via Lost Opinions.

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