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Email: In Transition, Not Fading Away

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by: Loren McDonald (@LorenMcDonald)
19 October 2009

Has email outlived its usefulness in a communications world where social networks generate the most buzz? Or, is it still a vital part of this evolving world?

The email industry has been debating those questions since a Wall Street Journal writer suggested that email is on its way out.

I agree with her initial assertion that communication patterns are shifting, especially in personal email use.

For me, Twitter direct messages (one-to-one private messages) have replaced email when I need a quick response or my primary relationship with someone is on Twitter. For other situations, email remains the most efficient means of communicating when I have to say more than will fit into a few 140-character Tweets.

However, I disagree that email's time is up. On the contrary: Email is the linchpin of a diverse network of communication channels, which users will customize to meet their unique and personal needs.

For example, some users will rely on Twitter direct messages, Facebook postings or text messages when they want instant access to friends and family.

Instead of emailed flight check-in reminders or weather advisories, they'll opt to receive them in SMS or text messaging. Organizing an event might be more efficient in Facebook than by repeated emailing to a group.

You don't lose access to your customers if they don't want emailed payment reminders anymore. You just need to offer the channel that best suits their individual needs and preferences.

The Case for Email Marketing
Too many things have to happen before commercial email will die.

First, recipients have to stop opening, acting on and converting from email.

Next, marketers have to stop sending email. Given that commercial email goes beyond the standard broadcast message to include lifecycle communications triggered by customer behavior, this is not likely to happen.

Finally, companies would have to halt their transition from print to digital communications. That's not likely, either, because the infrastructure currently supports email, not Twitter or Facebook.

Also, many companies are increasingly seeing how email can support business goals, solve problems and save money all the way through the organization, such as resolving customer issues via email instead of through a more expensive call center, or sending prospectuses or reports in email instead of spending money on paper and postage.

Social Network Limitations
Until something better comes along, no social network can replicate the positives of the email experience and eliminate the negatives.

Many network messages are ephemeral. If you aren't paying attention when a friend Tweets a message, or if you go days without checking your Facebook page, you'll miss those messages unless they are sent directly to you, you hunt them down, or you have them emailed to you. (This is another vital use for email in a social networking age.)

Assuming you have decent delivery, your email messages will sit in the inbox until your recipient opens it, deletes it or moves it to a folder for better management.

Many messages aren't suited to the public exposure of a social network. Email offers privacy, space to develop your message unhindered by a 140-character limit, and easy access.

Finally, Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn (three of the best-known social networks) can't match the rich experience of a well-crafted email message: images, navigation, the space to provide inviting copy, and multiple facets such as product info, promotions and articles.

Marketers Cautioned: The Real Enemy Is "Us"
As the cartoon character Pogo once proclaimed, "We have met the enemy, and he is us."

While the explosion of mobile applications and social media outlets is clearly creating shifts in email and channel usage, bad marketing practices will likely have the biggest negative impact on our beloved channel.

These are just a few activities that will take a few years off the life expectancy of email marketing:

  • Poor permission and opt-in practices. Consumers don't know or care what the CAN-SPAM Act allows. Getting permission is a must.
  • Lack of relevance. The vast majority of emails sent today are one-size-fits-all, lacking any personalization or segmentation based on preferences and demographic or behavioral data. The "blast" has probably had the single biggest negative impact on email marketing's vitality.
  • Overmailing. Marketers have gone crazy with frequency. The mantra at many companies seems to be "Heck, if six times a month works, let's send 12 times." This might work in direct mail, but in email, this is a strategy that generally backfires in the long run.
  • Lack of differentiation. I subscribe to dozens of emails from retailers, and quite frankly, I see little difference between most of them. Every subject line is almost identical—"Free shipping and 20% off"—and the content and design of the emails do not leverage the actual differentiation among these various brands.
  • Lack of personality. The more successful brands have discovered that people are turned off by faceless corporate-speak. People are attracted to communication that is real, transparent, human and full of life.
  • Poor design. Messages that don't render properly across browsers, email clients and platforms (basic cellphone, smartphone, desktop or laptop computers) are simply annoying to recipients.
Email as a marketing channel is not likely to die anytime soon. But its efficacy is clearly at an inflection point.

As a global community, the choice is ours: to change our ways and make the channel as vibrant as ever, or watch it head into a long and painful slide into irrelevance.




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