The Invisible Channel

It's a slow week here at the E-mail Insider Chateaux. It is the dog days of summer and everyone's out of town. We are all gearing up for September, so this week it is hard to get motivated. That means that I'm going to take advantage of the fact that most of you are away from work to discuss something that is more speculation than fact, more notion than theory. It is what I'm coining as the Invisible Channel.

I had a friend call me the other day, a veteran in the interactive marketing space and ask me if e-mail was still a viable form of advertising. In certain ways, the question is funny because obviously if it wasn't a viable form of advertising, spam wouldn't be a problem. The fact that spam is a problem, is an indication that e-mail is all too successful as an advertising channel. But of course, I knew what he meant: Is it a viable form of advertising for legitimate brands?

What strikes me as the most interesting development over the last year is the tar and feathering of the e-mail marketing space. While most media stories report on the evils of spam, there are almost no stories on the people who are taking advantage of these solicitations and who are buying products advertised via the e-mail channel. After all, I talk to E-mail Service Providers and E-mail Marketers all the time. These guys (I'm talking legitimate, middle-tier e-mail marketers now) are making a ton of money. And since these guys are mostly direct marketers who make money when someone actually buys something, that means there are a lot of people buying things straight from e-mail.

I would also propose a theory of why this happens: when people (consumers I'm talking about here) are thinking of e-mail marketing, they are only thinking of the vast array of unwanted offers they get. They forget about the offers they do take advantage of that come through their in-box. They don't think of those offers as spam, or even e-mail marketing, because it doesn't register as an annoyance. For instance, I'm on a list of a company that sells specialty records. Every time they send me an e-mail about a sale they are having, I usually place an order. I don't think of their e-mails as spam. They are just making me aware of something that I'm interested in and the marketing channel doesn't even register. After I've placed the order, I completely forget the fact that I heard about the offer through an e-mail solicitation. And I would guess that is the same for all marketing channels: when the message hits home, the marketing channel becomes invisible. When people write about spam, they forget about the Invisible Channel effect.

Take a look at this chart:

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The red line in this chart shows e-mail volume processed by CETS, our e-mail tracking system for a typical dating site advertiser during the month of August. The blue line represents the 'Web reach per million' for the domain that the e-mail is sending traffic to. (This data is supplied by Alexa which tracks traffic, based on data they are receiving from installs of the Alexa toolbar).

The interesting thing about this chart is how closely the ups and downs of the e-mail sends match the ups and downs of the traffic numbers on the site. E-mails go out, traffic numbers go up. E-mail sends go down, traffic to the site goes down.

But, I hear you saying, the dating sector is going to be very much driven by CPA type e-mail offers. What about mainstream brands. Well, below is the chart of a very large retailer who uses many marketing channels to drive traffic to their Web site:

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While it is clear that E-mail is not the only thing driving traffic by looking at this chart, it is also clear that the spikes coincide with their e-mail sends.

What both of these charts show is that people in vast numbers respond to e-mail solicitations. But my guess is that if you were to ask these same people if they'd like to see all e-mail marketing abolished tomorrow, they'd all say yes. What they have forgotten is the Invisible Channel: the fact that they are responding to offers via their in-box, but are not recognized as e-mail marketing because it is for offers they want. The fact that they have been marketed to is invisible to them as is the marketing channel.

Most of us live in a world of self-deception and denial. We are unaware of the factors that are working on us to affect our opinion in many ways. This lack of self awareness is what keeps us screaming about spam at the same time we are responding to an Amazon ad for a book we are interested in. As Mel Brooks said, "We mock the thing we are to be."