The Future of Email Marketing – Think Holistically, Send Individually

The demise of email has been greatly exaggerated.

While Jupiter says that overall email volume has dropped from 41 messages per day per U.S. user to 24, the email marketing universe is very much alive and well. The Direct Marketing Association (DMA) projects that $600 million will be spent on email in 2008, driving an astonishing $27 billion in sales. That’s $45.65 in revenue for every dollar spent on email marketing, an ROI figure that’s nearly impossible to match outside of the bottled water and pharmaceutical industries.

But, the increasingly vigorous expectations and demands of email recipients are changing the game. An electrifying survey by Marketing Sherpa in August, 2008 showed that 41% of subscribers believe an email to be spam if it is not of interest – even if it’s email they requested. There’s a Saturday Night Live skit in there somewhere. You meet someone at a party and they end up being boring and irrelevant, so you can click a spam button and they disappear forever.

Targeted = Relevant = Wanted = Successful

Consumer demand for email that meets their specific needs mirrors the surging desire for authentic, 1:1 conversations with brands via social media outlets. Regardless of medium, today’s consumers want to be talked with, not talked at.

This is troublesome for many email marketers who continue to adhere to the longstanding practices of sending an email “blast” or “campaign” to a “list” and hoping that 5% of the recipients take action. This is the definition of surgery with a dull knife, and the patients are starting to revolt.

Further, in many circumstances email may not even be the optimal message delivery mechanism. Text messages, voice mails, good old direct mail, Twitter, and other outlets can be more appropriate and more engaging for consumers at times.

The promise of a hyper-targeted and relevant message, delivered at the right time, to the right person, using the right medium is holy grail marketing, and its the new focus of ExactTarget, the leading email service provider that’s morphed into a robust, centralized messaging system.

(disclosure: I’m an ExactTarget customer and was a speaker at their Connections user conference this week in Indianapolis)

ExactTarget is trumpeting this new era of multi-modal, targeted messaging under the mantra “Subscribers Rule.” Essentially, it’s an umbrella position for “give people what they want, even if it’s a text message in Portuguese at 3 a.m. featuring coupon codes for mittens.”

This notion of 1:1 marketing has of course been the rallying cry for digital marketing since its inception. Historically, the problem has been gathering enough information and insight about your customer base to be able to fashion customized, truly relevant messaging. In the past, you’d have to mine e-commerce data or implement a sweeping audience segmentation study to do it right, and then you’d build an e-mail campaign around it.

Now however, ExactTarget and its burgeoning network of partners are enabling email itself to be used as a segmentation tool. Advanced link tracking, integrations with Web analytics software like Omniture, and a new user-controlled engagement score feature (whereby you assign a numerical weight to subscriber activities like email opens, clicks, purchases) allow the sophisticated marketer to learn a tremendous amount about their audience based on their email-driven behavior, and then use that feedback loop to create and send ever more relevant and timely messages.

Additionally, a thorough program of triggered messages (sent individually based on Web site behavior) can provide tremendous information about a subscriber while simultaneously delivering hyper-relevant and timely information.

I Get Sign Ups With a Little Help From My Friends

A second very interesting opportunity presented by the centralized messaging platform concept is the cross pollination of message delivery vehicles. The most buzz-worthy example is “email opt-in via text” whereby consumers can use short code text messaging to sign up for highly targeted offers and other communication from a brand at point of sale. This could render the physical email opt-in form moot at retailers and restaurants, and would make opt-in immediate (enabling instant couponing, etc.).

Imagine you’re in a check out line at Petsmart and you see a prominent sign that says “for $5 off Iams dog food, text “Iamsdog” to 23907. For $5 off Iams cat food, text “Iamscat” to 23907.” Instantly, the brand knows whether you have a dog, cat or both, has added you to its database, and you get a valuable and relevant coupon immediately. Slick – and not terribly difficult to execute.

Lions vs. Lambs

As this multi-modal, 1:1 marketing gets more prevalent, the software needed to run it and the expertise needed to strategize and manage it are becoming commensurately larger and more complex. Interesting then that ExactTarget is rolling out a formalized partner program (similar to Microsoft, Oracle and other enterprise software companies) that will features specific partner tiers, certifications and other “badges” to distinguish among specific expertise. This should assist clients in selecting the most appropriate agency partner for their 1:1 marketing efforts, and agencies will have a codified program for reselling the software and providing services to augment it.


I’m on Twitter @jaybaer
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