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Email Marketing - the current trends

Probably every publisher does it – email marketing that is – though few could claim to do it well. The rise of the spam filter, and publishers’ continuing inability to properly integrate and manage their data sources is resulting in diminishing effectiveness. Paul Crabtree looks at current trends and how publishers can improve their email marketing performance.

By Paul Crabtree

Email marketing is very much the dinosaur of online marketing, having been used for a great number of years. Publishers such as Dennis and Emap have used email communications for close to a decade. Podcasts, RSS, streaming media, MMS, skinkers and more are the latest initiatives, but this diluted attention does not mean that email is as easy as it once was.

For subscription marketers, email technology and methodology has not stood still. Indeed, 10 years on - with the growth of spam filters, the proliferation of email traffic and the array of email technologies available to marketers - it has become an increasingly difficult discipline to make work effectively, achieve your objectives and provide suitable ROI. In this article, we examine some fundamental areas which need to be understood and addressed by today’s subscription marketers - data capture and management, targeting and personalisation, the importance of sender reputation, and golden rules for email effectiveness.

Data management is more difficult than ever before

Accurate, up-to-date data is the bedrock on which every successful email campaign is built. However, many subscription marketers are struggling to use the right data to power their campaigns as they have information stored in multiple, disconnected databases - a CRM database, the website database, their subscription fulfilment house and more. Combining all of them together to create a meaningful customer view is key to data-driven campaigns.

In fact, eConsultancy’s recent ‘Email Marketing Census’ surveyed over 500 email marketers and found that many companies are struggling to integrate email with the rest of their business activity - more than 8 in 10 have ‘no integration’ or ‘some’. This lack of integration will strangle ongoing email marketing effectiveness. Not having systems that talk to each other not only prevents you effectively measuring ROI, but fundamentally hampers implementing a testing program.

The increased use of digital channels and the much discussed topic of media fragmentation mean that marketers’ roles are fundamentally changing. Ideally, digital channels are targeted, individual and measured and this relies on a good understanding of your contacts. Integrating different systems and customer touch points to aggregate all the information in one place, to allow data mining and effective direct marketing, is key.

Looking at the experience of National Geographic, moving to an ‘all-singing, all-dancing’ solution isn’t always necessary. Small steps can reap significant benefits. Previously, the company ran a complex email newsletter program, comprising of 13 different newsletter lists that were being managed in isolation. More recently, after simply combining the data sets, de-duping and implementing a permission centre to encourage contacts to sign up to multiple newsletter lists, the benefits were significant:

* Acquisition: Increased the size of all 13 email lists, from between 13% to 115%, through cross pollination on data capture.
* Increased Response: a better indication of the recipient’s interests and an ongoing testing strategy has pushed open rates to between 28% to 30%, with click-through rates ranging from 22% to 25%, more than twice the media industry average of 8% to 12%.
* Increased Efficiencies: Unsubscribe rates across the board decreased as content became more relevant.

Relevance through targeting and personalisation

Data capture is the first (and critical) stage, while keeping it clean and useful is your ongoing challenge. There is a difference too in what people say they like, and what they actually like. A recent IDM study reported that 53% of consumers admitted to filling in false information online. If half the profile information in your database is made up, this will be a major hurdle in making your marketing as relevant as possible. At a basic level: if, for example, the gender fields have been filled in incorrectly, you might be sending well-executed, targeted campaigns, yet with wildly inappropriate content (and correspondingly dreadful conversion rates).

Combining interest information with what people are doing with your email – ie. behavioural marketing - is essential to long term effectiveness. Using event-based targeting has been proven to generate better conversion rates, as follows:

Type of campaignAvg. conversion rate:
Untargeted broadcast emails1.1%
User-triggered campaigns2.3%
Lifecycle messaging campaigns2.3%
Clickstream-based campaigns3.9%
Source: David Daniels, Jupiter Research.

Here we see untargeted campaigns with the lowest results; followed by user triggered (ie. you do something which triggers a campaign, such as complete an online form); then lifecycle campaigns (which come from a purchase, ie. renewal messages for publishers); and the best performers are clickstream campaigns (that monitor what you do on the website, which can require quite sophisticated systems).

Take the example of the Times Preview, which constantly is refining the content in each subscriber’s individually customised email, based upon interests and demographic information. From launch, the open rates are constantly improving as subscribers refine what they want to see, and moved from an average of between 15-20% to 40-50% in the first year of launch. Added to that, over 50% of regular readers agree that reading the emails makes them more likely to buy the paper copy.

A simpler example of this in action is through renewal cycles. Monitoring and using what the recipient did with the email should guide the next communication. If they clicked through but didn’t renew, can these people be diverted into a new campaign via telephone / direct mail or with an ’abandon cart’ style email – rather than just ignored. This trend is becoming more popular with marketers and it’s proving to be the single most powerful campaign type - and we forecast it will continue to be over at least the next 12 months.

Power to the people

When an email is filtered into the junk mail folder, this is usually down to the reputation of the marketer - sender reputation can be blamed 77% of the time (according to Return Path, 2006). This powerful and intangible sender reputation is based upon a number of factors including the number of complaints you receive, your mailing history and the hygiene levels of the lists you are sending to. As with any reputation, it is difficult to build up, and very easy to damage. The power very much sits with the recipient, as one click on the ‘mark as spam’ button and they set your email marketing back. (As such, email marketers can very much be viewed as reputation managers in today’s digital environment.)

It can be seen already causing problems for some large publishers - for example, NatMags encourages you to use a different address to Hotmail when you sign up to their digital magazines.

This has some major implications for subscription marketers:

* Staying in the know: monitoring and managing your reputation is key. Companies using their own in-house technology need to make sure this is resourced and actioned appropriately.
* No Guarantees: delivering paid for content via email needs additional investment to guarantee delivery.
* List acquisition: checking good data quality that will ensure you do not receive any complaints is key. Running test runs to ensure a low number of complaints and good data hygiene is paramount. Only recently, a promotion for Scarlet Magazine to a bought-in list caused untold damage to the sender’s reputation.

Also, Windows Live Hotmail is Microsoft’s latest release of Hotmail, and includes a ground breaking feature. For companies using emails through selected email broadcasters, an ‘unsubscribe’ button appears as part of the control panel. All those people that select unsubscribe can be passed back to the sender. It is anticipated that this will encourage people to be more ruthless in what they choose to receive and mean less will just ignore emails they don’t want to receive. With Hotmail accounting for 28% of UK web mail users, this is a significant announcement.

Don’t forget that even as a B2B marketer, a considerable number of people on your list will be using a web mail system. Approaching your database from the stand point that all your names are B2B which means you can treat them all in the same way, is not a long term option.

In addition, with Web 2.0 and the increasing number of companies looking to add comments and editorial, email is the essential medium in distributing that user-generated content – which becomes Email 2.0. Any marketer that encourages user comments on their site, or blogging etc, has the ideal vehicle to alert subscribers to updated content – email.

Mixing the message up

Combining email promotion with your other marketing promotion is a sure fire way to generate more subscriptions or even push sales through the newsstands. The launch of Emap’s Grazia magazine relied heavily on using email as part of an integrated communications plan to push people to websites and drive them into store. Emails that preview forthcoming editions or highlight special subscription offers have been proven to drive significant footfall. Email has evolved to become not an ‘add on’ to a campaign, but an integral part of it.

For B2B publishers, using email to distribute digital magazines or to deliver forced free trials of titles, reduces print and distribution costs and allows you to reach a significantly larger audience, quickly. Digital titles like Dennis’ Monkey and NatMags’ Jellyfish are ground breaking examples of large B2C publishers following the lessons of B2B players and supporting new titles through email.

Still just the start of the journey

Although it has been around for years and is used by almost every subscription marketer, email is still in its infancy. eConsultancy’s ‘Email Marketing Census’ also found that 81% believe they can use email marketing better.

My recommendations to ensuring that you’re one of the 19% satisfied marketers are:

* Implement measurement: tracking your ROI is critical to show changes over time, monitor individual campaigns / whole portfolios and justify investment in future.
* Manage your data ruthlessly: data collection, rigorous suppression and ongoing cleaning.
* Messages: only send relevant campaigns and integrate behaviour to drive your event plan.
* Bring data together and unleash its power: joined up thinking on a one customer view. Disconnected systems mean lost sales – and integration unlocks the data goldmine that you’re sitting on.

Most of all, amidst the hype of the emerging technologies and methodologies, don’t forget your tried and trusted friend: email.

Top 5 tips to improve your email promotions

* Use deadlines in your subject lines
* Use dynamic content to ensure message is as relevant as possible
* Update your sign up process to encourage people to add you to their safe senders
* Check how many people on your list use web mail clients like Yahoo!, Hotmail, AOL etc and adjust your designs accordingly (confirmed using a pre-flight checker)
* Target recipients based on their behaviour patterns and not on when you want to send