Social marketing may be trendy, but email marketing remains the bedrock of customer communication for businesses.
A recent online survey of U.S. marketers by ClickSquared, a provider of email and cross-channel database marketing solutions, and the Relevancy Group, a digital marketing consultancy and market research provider, found that 77% of the 365 respondents were marketing via email—the No. 1 answer. The survey, “Connecting Campaign Management Across Channels,” determined that the second-most popular tactic was print direct marketing, with 69% of respondents indicating they use it, followed by social marketing, at 65%.
There's a lot of attention on social media and search, but email marketing is still the workhorse of many marketing programs, said Michael Thompson, chief deliverability officer at ClickSquared. “It's how marketers deliver their primary messages and keep contacts in place,” he said.
According to Laurence Rothman, senior consultant-brand and reputation at Nationwide Insurance, the reason email represents a significant portion of his company's marketing program is very simple: “It's because it works,” he said. “Especially in the b2b space, people are on it all the time. I don't know anyone who's not walking around the office checking their BlackBerry.”
Nationwide works with email marketing company ExactTarget to market to an audience of insurance agents, wholesalers and brokers via different types of email. Social media is increasingly important, and Nationwide has a significant search presence, Rothman said, but nothing has replaced email as a way to connect directly with customers. “When you're dealing with b2b accounts that can be worth a lot individually, you want to build that personal relationship, and email can do that,” he said.
Email may be widely used and, for many marketers, very effective, but it still comes with challenges. For one, there's still a fine line between use and overuse of email. Regrettably, Thompson said, some marketers have crossed that line since the economic downturn due to pressure from management to generate revenue.
“They're going back further into leads that are 12 or 24 months old and trying to contact them,” he said. “That's resulted in more complaints and marketers getting blocked from ISPs. We'll explain why they shouldn't do it, and they know it; but they're under pressure.”
On the plus side, Thompson said, that negative trend has led to a renewed focus on how to gather and automate data to move leads along the pipeline while maintaining a good sending reputation.
Another issue that continues to dog many marketers is that email is still not integrated into their overall marketing efforts.
“Email grew up and evolved in a silo because it was so different than direct mail,” said Kara Trivunovic, senior director of strategic services at StrongMail Systems, a provider of email marketing and social media solutions. “Fast forward 10 to 12 years, and email still sits in a silo in most organizations—or at least is considered separately from other marketing efforts.”
Marketers are at risk of doing the same thing with social marketing, she said. “When I'm talking to clients about the introduction of social or evolution of it, I warn [them] to not let it grow up by itself, like the only child off in the corner,” she said. “It's important to look at how social impacts the email experience, and a call center call and the sales guy calling on a client. That's a big challenge.”
Integrating email marketing and social media efforts to make the most of both channels is a particularly hot topic among marketers this year. While some speculated not too long ago that social media would replace—or at least surpass—email as a go-to marketing tool, that hasn't happened.
Instead, said Ron Cates, director of new market development at email marketing solutions provider Constant Contact, savvy marketers are using one channel to bolster the other. “Email and social are completely intertwined,” he said. “Email lights the fire, and social fans the flame.”
Adding social icons to emails is proving very successful, Cates said. “We're seeing up to a 60% increase in reach by adding social icons to an email,” he said. “It's really profound.”
Likewise, Constant Contact is helping clients drive email sign-ups through their Facebook pages, he said. For example, he said, a marketer could use Twitter to promote an upcoming email newsletter that features an interview with a prominent industry expert and include a link to the newsletter sign-up.
Social media is also having an impact on marketers' email content. For example, marketers can use social listening tools to determine which topics users are discussing on social sites, then address those topics in email communications. The casual tone of social media has also changed many marketers' email content, Cates said, making it more conversational. “There are a lot more b2b [marketers] writing in their own voice and deciding in advance what that voice is going to be,” he said. “They're starting to understand that they need to develop a persona. It's them—it's not fake—but it's them on a really good day.”
The trick to successfully integrating email and social, Trivunovic said, is to make clear the value proposition for engaging with your company through both channels. “You can't just take an offer that was in email and post it on Twitter,” she said. “It doesn't create that unique value proposition for each channel.”
Email, Trivunovic said, remains very effective at developing and cultivating relationships using, for example, a newsletter format, while social media is often useful for disseminating quick hits of information—“like a billboard of electronic marketing,” she said.
Plus, social media can help businesses gain ground in areas where email falls short. For example, many businesses are beginning to use Twitter for customer service, Trivunovic said. “They're answering questions, allowing users to engage conversationally about the challenges they have and how they fixed them, which isn't really a fundamental strength of email,” she said.
Not surprisingly the other focus area for many email marketers this year is optimizing email for an ever-growing number of mobile devices.
“This is something that should be front and center for b2b marketers,” said Tom Sather, director of professional services at ReturnPath, a provider of email deliverability solutions. “Businesspeople are even more busy today, and you're competing with more senders. Content needs to fit into that third screen.”
Marketers must understand how their customers and prospects are reading email and develop a practical strategy based on that, ClickSquared's Thompson said. “A fair amount of people are seeing email in two places [on their desktop and mobile device], so marketers must make sure their content is optimized for both,” he said.
Additionally, marketers must identify which version of Outlook their users have because Outlook 2007 displays emails differently than Outlook 2003, he said. “Make sure also that you're not precluding your customers from seeing the content you want them to see because it's not optimized,” he said.
For Nationwide, the way the audience is viewing email informs what types of content the company uses, Rothman said. “If they're reading on a desktop, we can add more content,” he said. “BlackBerry chops up more email, but on the iPhone we can play with the format a little more because it displays better.”
Giving the audience what they need in a format they can read will be top-of-mind for Rothman in the next year. “We'll work with our database folks and increase relevancy,” he said. “We'll open up the lines of communication even more with the people who are consuming our emails to figure out what they want from the program. With any email program, you have to determine if you're meeting subscribers' expectations, because, if you're not, you're not going to have a program for long.”