What 'Free' Means For Email Marketers

I've been following the Free Debate blow by blow for the past couple of weeks. If somehow you have missed this, then here's the rundown. Malcolm Gladwell wrote a pointed critique  of Chris Anderson's latest book, "Free: The Future of a Radical Price"   (which you can read for free. Seth Godin jumped in and said that Malcolm is wrong, and the online community has started lining up on different sides since.

Despite the debates that have surfaced about the viability of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube or the future of publishing, there is consensus about the digital age having ushered in an era where information and ideas are abundant. Regardless of whether these companies can develop sustainable business models, the fact remains that there is more free information available to consumers than at any prior point in history. Moreover, while some people do still choose to pay for some information (e.g., through books, newspapers, magazines, etc.) that is "superior" to the information they can get for free, there is still a lot of very good information available to them at no cost.

I dare not attempt an exhaustive list of the implications the information abundance era will have on email marketing, but here are a few of the things that I believe we are already seeing as a result.

1.    Free is not cheap enough. Consumers are not interested in registering for "free email newsletters." Why should they be? If they want information on a topic, it is easier and timelier for them to simply search for it. If they are required to pay with their email address, consumers demand something that is not only free, but really, really good as well.
2.    Permission is the beginning. This year marks the 10-year anniversary of permission marketing. Unfortunately, permission has been used as an excuse to send spam. Recently, I asked a group of new employees to hit the streets and interview consumers about their attitudes toward direct marketing and email. Despite a general sentiment among consumers that permission does give marketers the right to send email to them, most still referred to the majority of these messages as spam.

If much of what is sent with permission is spam, then anything sent without permission is spam -- no matter how relevant. One consumer interviewed said he had a "relationship" with some of the stores where he shopped frequently, that he "was the one who initiated contact, and that this made all the difference." In a world where relevant information is abundant, permission is still required so that you have the right to deliver it.

3.    Relevance is delivering the unexpected. Relevance says that you should deliver information that people want when they want it. This is true, but if you look at programs that consistently transcend consumers' concept of spam, you will find programs that don't just deliver the information consumers know they want. They deliver information consumers didn't know they needed.
If I know I want to buy something, I can search bargain sites or comparative shopping engines. If I know I want information on a topic, I use a search engine. However, there is information out there I don't know about that is relevant to me. Recommendations from Amazon work so well because they notify customers about books they should like. Amazon isn't simply hoping to get the right offer in front of you at the right time. The company is opening new doors by introducing books to consumers they should know about, but don't yet. This is where email marketers earn the trust of their subscribers.

4.    The bigger the brand, the higher the standard. Much of the free debate is centered on the fact that technology now allows anyone with time, energy, and an idea to make that idea widely available. They may not all be good ideas or good content, but that is for consumers to decide.

For marketers, the implications are enormous. Professional content producers are being held to higher and higher standards -- a trend that will  continue. If the professionals cannot provide superior content, then consumers will look elsewhere; there are plenty of amateurs happy to fill the void. If brands want to earn the trust of their customers, they need to meet the expectations of consumers who believe big brands with big budgets should be able to use those budgets to deliver really, really good content. Doing so has the potential of opening doors because of the trust it builds. Not doing so opens the door for hobbyists to become trusted experts, putting the brand at their mercy.

"Free" means that there is an ever-increasing level of competition facing our programs, and consumer expectations will continue to grow. While the debate about "free" continues, don't get lost in the details. Take stock of the things that are unquestionably going to be affected and start figuring out how to respond.

3 comments about "What 'Free' Means For Email Marketers".
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  1. Peter Rosenwald from Consult Partners, July 22, 2009 at 2:05 p.m.

    There is no such thing as a "free" free. The best things in life may be said to be free but look at them carefully and you'll see that each has its price.

    Free is so over-used that it is immediately devalued in the consumer consciousness.

    The challenge (and it is not an easy one) is to construct offers that engage the consumer's interest beyond simply getting something for nothing.

    Marketers need to fully understand the amount they can afford to spend to get one person to do something, the allowable cost per order (ACPO) and then let this metric guide them.

  2. Elle Mac from Not Applicable, July 22, 2009 at 3:39 p.m.

    "Free" content is certainly entertaining and pervasive these days. But I think (hope? pray?) that intelligent readers understand that there is a price to be paid for free. Namely, there are no fact checkers. The content is often rehashed. And in the zeal to feed the "free content monster" often there is much ado about nothing. The writer is forced to make a mountain out of a mole hill (oops, find a provacative position) because they have a deadline. The debate over the "free" POV makes me chuckle. So are writers/bloggers now "feuding" like rappers? Is this Nas vs. Jay-Z. Cute.

  3. Morgan Stewart from Trendline Interactive, July 27, 2009 at 12:42 p.m.

    Great points Paula, Peter, and Lauren. In Anderson's book he spends a lot of time addressing how companies make the transition from "free" to "paid"--as well as dissecting several models for doing so.

    Do customers pay for "free" somewhere? Absolutely... usually! The area of information/content is the big sticking point. Clearly a lot of people (and all companies) are going to be monetarily driven. Then you have individuals/organizations with other motivations. Consider Craigslist where the motivation is more altruistic--capital markets are not the primary driver. Sure Craigslist charges for a couple things out of necessity to pay their bills, but by-in-large it is phenomenal service that is FREE to consumers.

    Then, there are content developers/writers with similar motivations. They don't have the same resources available to them that companies that convert "free" to "paid" do, but they also have the freedom of not needing to do so--and consumers seem to appreciate that. I see this as a threat commercial entities need to consider seriously when assessing their competitive landscape. "Can someone get the same or better information for free somewhere else?"

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