McDonald: Is It Time To Expand/Evolve the Role of Email Marketing? Three Suggestions.


Is it time to rethink the role of email marketing?

Beyond a few developments such as optimizing for mobile, the role of email marketers has changed surprisingly little in the last 20 years. 

Oh sure the tools have gotten better and more sophisticated, but what email marketers and teams do really hasn’t evolved much. So it had me thinking, is it time for email marketing to think bigger, to expand its scope and purview? To expand the thinking or perhaps repositioning of email marketing?

In my view, the three biggest keys to success for marketing in the future are having an insane focus on the customer experience, managing and integrating data, and leveraging AI and machine learning tools. And while tools and platforms will indeed increasingly use AI and machine learning to help create and test subject lines, determine optimal delivery times, offers and content for individual subscribers - this technology doesn’t fundamentally evolve the role of email marketing, except for some changes in process and perhaps skill sets. 

AI and machine learning will require a great focus on data - from hygiene to platform and stream integration to managing privacy and trust. But of my 3 keys to the future, the focus on customer experience may have the biggest impact on - or open up new opportunities - for email marketers and their beloved channel.

With this in mind, the following are three areas that I propose may be ripe for change in email marketing - or at least hopefully good fodder for discussion and debate. Mind you, none of these three ideas are either new or radical - all have been discussed in the past - but it seems we’ve come to no agreement or conclusion and perhaps now is as good a time as any to reopen the conversations.

  1. Email Marketers Should Own “Push” Channels: The idea that email marketers should own all “push” channels - email, SMS and mobile push notifications is not a new idea. In fact I remember back at an Email Insider Summit nearly 10 years ago and in leadership meetings at the EEC at about the same time that we discussed renaming the conference and organization and broadening the focus to include mobile messaging. But that sentiment never flourished and everyone doubled down on the core focus on email marketing.

But is it time to restart this conversation? Marketers talk a lot about multi-channel messaging and email marketers increasingly use and share platforms with multi-channel capabilities. And yet, in many organizations these channels are owned and deployed by completely different groups, sometimes not even within marketing. I know one client where the Product team owned push notifications and didn’t trust marketing to manage the channel in fear that they would inundate customers.

But another indicator got me thinking about the need for email marketers to step up to the multi-channel plate. Last year I presented the results of our annual benchmark report (which included some new metrics around SMS and mobile push in addition to email) to hundreds of marketers around the world. After presenting some volume mix ratios across the three channels I would ask the audience if they knew how often their company was communicating to customers across these channels. In every presentation I would see either one or zero hands raised, which I found amazing, but not that surprising.

Many marketing organizations tend to be organized in silos, so it was not that surprising that an email marketer did not know the cadence that her same email subscribers received SMS and push notifications.

While I’m biased, I believe that email marketing teams tend to have more knowledge and experience in managing customer data and leveraging behavior, building out segmentation and targeting strategies, and creating, testing and optimizing content that gets great results.

As the use of mobile push and SMS messaging increases, email marketers have both an opportunity - and perhaps responsibility - to take the lead on coordinating customer messaging strategy, content, cadence and automation programs across these channels.

  1. Beyond the Inbox: Optimizing Between the Click and Conversation: Email marketers spend the majority of their time focused on producing great emails that get delivered into the inbox, render correctly and drive the desired action. But unless they work in a small organization, the ultimate success (website conversions, store traffic, etc.) of the email is likely dependent on co-workers on other teams or departments doing their job well.

While not a perfect analogy, this is a bit like a chef at a restaurant preparing an amazing meal, but then having the server ruin the dining experience for the customer through inattentive and poor service. Ouch.

With the growing focus on retention and customer experience, is it time for email marketers to rethink and potentially expand the purview of email marketing to extend well beyond the inbox?

I’m not suggesting that email marketers own management of their company’s website, for example, but that they use available tools to take a more proactive role in ensuring the ultimate success of their email programs.

This can include gaining access to (or adding these tools to your martech stack) tools that monitor, analyze and predict customer paths on your site, uncover both good and bad anomalies (e.g., detecting customer struggles), site heat mapping that shows where customers are clicking and hovering, and session replays that let you see exactly how every individual customer is interacting with your site.

With email marketers having a thorough and first-hand knowledge of the paths and struggles of their subscribers AFTER they click and interact with a website or mobile app, they can use these insights to both rethink content, design and where they are sending customers. It also enables email marketers to more proactively work with peers who manage websites and mobile apps to fix issues or redesign content and customer experiences. 

In the end, what good is the right message, right time and right offer if a subscriber has a less than stellar or failed experience outside of the email?

  1. Focus on Retention: One of the biggest trends in the market in recent years is that almost everything you can think of is now purchased on a subscription or “as a service” model. Food, shavers, massages, cars and transportation, music, software and soon things like air travel. And of course mundane things like content (newspapers and magazines), home pest control, mobile phone service, home security, and house cleaning are nothing new to the subscription model.

This growth of the subscription model puts email marketing front and center in the challenge to retain customers. With subscription models, customers are literally at risk of being lost every month when they can simply close their account (subject to terms of course). Push and in-app messaging will be key for mobile app-based services, but most service organizations will use email (beyond of course the core service itself) as the beachhead for retention communications.

Email marketers have long focused on the importance of welcome and onboarding programs at the start of a new relationship and then using email nurtures to sell or cross/up-sell customers. And then when email subscribers are seen as starting to disengage with emails or they cancel the service itself, they are put into the inactive subscriber or “we want you back” campaigns and nurtures.

But many of these email activities tend to be reactive or focused on a single event (starting a service) rather than the complete end-to-end lifecycle. Certainly many companies have very sophisticated email and multi-channel programs that leverage customer behavior, scoring models, and the understanding of how customers experience their brand and service - but too many completely ignore or fumble this process.

My own experience with some popular massage and food kit service businesses suggest that in fact most companies are losing a significant percent of customers by not leveraging the power of email marketing. The food kit company was so focused on customer acquisition that they failed to understand that ordering food kits required a change in thinking and meal planning that is a new experience, especially to families. 

Success of such a program was less dependent on the quality of the food (which was quite good), but rather on educating my family on how to incorporate these kits into how we shopped, planned and cooked. But their email program was primarily focused on getting us to make our next order and was not leveraging our behavior on how we were interacting with the service.

Counter that to a home security service client that built sophisticated regression and scoring models that leveraged customer behavior such as how often they armed the alarm system, did they download the mobile app, how often did they interact with the app, etc. They built out nurture email programs that understood in advance the signals of potential churn and then responded to customers based on their behavior signals well in advance of potential cancellation. Higher at risk customers would then receive phone calls from their call center to walk customers through basics like how to arm their system. (I wish our home security system provider did this.)

Again none of this is necessarily new or rocket science, but what I’m calling for is that marketers in organizations with service and subscription models shift their focus and how they position email to management. Email marketing is not just a powerful customer communications channel, but in a world gone subscription crazy, it may be the difference between success and failure for many businesses.

What do you think, is it time for email marketing to evolve and step up to the plate?