Combating Pandora's Inbox: Email Marketing After the Breach

As someone who has been working in email marketing for more than a decade, I have been anticipating the day when the industry would finally get the attention it deserves.  Well, earlier this month, it got attention in spades -- but for the wrong reasons.  As consumers began getting emails from top brands informing them that their names and email addresses had been stolen, email marketing as an industry was formally introduced to the consumer consciousness. Before this month, hardly anyone knew who Epsilon was or how it worked with their favorite brands. That's not the case anymore.  

Email marketing is not just in the spotlight -- it's under the microscope. And it's easy to see why. While spam has made it difficult to find relevant messages, consumers now have to take extra care in navigating an increasingly dangerous Pandora's Inbox full of phishing and virus-laden emails. In terms of performance and ROI, email marketing remains one of the most effective direct marketing channels in a marketer's arsenal, which is why it's more important than ever for companies to take the steps to protect it.

Companies affected by the security breach were quick to point the finger to a third party, but ultimately the responsibility lies with the brand. Consumers have a relationship with the brand, not the technology or the service providers the company sues. When things go wrong, consumer trust is damaged, and excuses matter very little.  As marketers, that means that we need to be aware of the risks associated with the work we do -- and make smart decisions to minimize it.  

I have no doubt that CEOs at major brands around the world are asking their IT and marketing departments about their own policies for protecting customer data.  The fact is that many of the responses will reflect the same essential setup that was in place at Target, Citibank and other brands affected by the Epsilon breach. Outsourcing email marketing services to a third party is commonplace, and that's not likely to change. Many companies simply don't have the tools or expertise required to run effective programs. Other companies, like financial service organizations, turn to insourcing to keep their customer data behind their firewall at all times, where it is subject to the same data security policies as all their highly sensitive customer information. Retailers and other high-volume senders are also getting into the in-house game thanks to new services that eliminate IT requirements while lowering costs. 

Whatever email marketing deployment model you choose, protecting customer data can no longer be an afterthought. With the amount of customer data needed to drive targeted and effective email programs, the fallout from the Epsilon data breach could have been a lot worse. Still, the release of names and email addresses make the proliferation of spear phishing attacks an inevitability, which is likely to cause a significant blow to consumer trust in the email channel.  From here on out, consumers are likely to review emails from their favorite brands with increased scrutiny, and if there is any question about their legitimacy, the delete key will not be spared. As a result, marketers need to make sure they are doing all they can to protect their data and execute their email marketing programs flawlessly with compelling content that drives engagement.  

Email marketing is now out of the shadows, and you should use the occasion to make sure your email programs can stand up to the scrutiny. Don't assume your IT department or email service provider has the proper systems in place to protect your data. Ask for an audit from your IT department or from a third party if you currently outsource your email to an ESP. Next, use the increased attention to make a case for additional investment in the channel to improve the relevancy and performance of your campaigns.  

If you weren't one of the brands affected, consider this a wakeup call to carefully evaluate your programs and make necessary changes, because it's always easier to maintain customer trust than to win it back.

Tags: email
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