Commentary

Is Email Strategic? Or Dead?

I first read of the death of email, by email. 

I guess certain Wall Street Journal reporters will go far to get attention.  If journalism is supposed to be provocative, it worked.  The recent article "Why Email No Longer Rules," by Jessica E. Vascellaro,  made the case that communicating through social media like Facebook and Twitter is so much more "for the way we live"  -- which just didn't make sense, and drew many objections and comments.  The subsequent follow-up blather from Vascellaro didn't add any clarity, including a "non-scientific poll."

I am writing this because really smart email strategies may be publishers' single most important distribution strategy.  Email may also be your most important advertising strategy.  And I don't want you to be distracted from focusing on what is important. 

Whoa!  I had a moment of hesitation there.  Is email really more important than smart search engine optimization for a publisher?  After all, it is commonly said that 80% of all Internet sessions start at a search engine, principally Google.  People who know what they are looking for often type the actual URL into the Google search box, and then you, as a publisher, have to compete to win that next click rather than let your loyal reader slip through your digital fingers when they click on the next search result rather than your own link.  And for most successful Internet publishers, search-driven traffic is the largest source of visits.  So search engine optimization is also very important! 

It is true that distribution of your headlines through social media like Facebook and Twitter, and empowering your readers to point out your articles or your site to their friends through social media, is important distribution too.  But social media hasn't eclipsed search in volume of traffic delivered to publishers.  And I assert that email strategy is even more important. 

Let's think about the importance of email for a minute.  I'm sending this article to my editor by email because I don't have to check and see if she has email.  Everyone has email.  Ubiquity is the first key to understanding its importance and permanence.  Yes, I have a Facebook account.  And, yes, I have a Twitter account.  And I use AOL Instant Messenger sometimes.  But none of them are ubiquitous communications vehicles: i.e., reaching everyone.

How important is ubiquity?  Metcalf's Law states that the value of the network increases by the square of the number of nodes on the network. The power and value of a truly big network is best illustrated by the value and power of the Internet itself.  And email reaches virtually everyone who uses the Internet. 

But  Vascellaro discussed the number of email users, who are essentially all on one network, and compared them to social media users -- that's many different social networks added up together.  As anyone with junior high school math understands, when you multiply two numbers (the square of the number of nodes)  together, you get a much bigger number than when you add them together.  So the value of a network like email, one network --  with, as Vascellaro said, 250 million users according to Nielsen -- is far greater than several social media networks that all add up to 300 million users in a comparable period. So email's ubiquity is a key element in its importance. 

There is another thing that makes email especially important to publishers: when users give you their email address, you as a publisher have a direct relationship with them.  They have given you the authorization to reach them.  You can publish to that audience rather than waiting for the audience to come to you.  Publishing through email is like subscription publishing, while putting your content on the Web is like single-copy sales: you have to wait for your customers to come find you.

Consider this very publisher, MediaPost, whose email you are reading now.  As a company, MediaPost's many opt-in, email-delivered columns and news stories have more monetizable impressions in a month than it does through all the loyal Web readers who find the site directly or through social media links or through Google.  Yes, more impressions through email.

Better yet, because MediaPost publishes through email, it is in control of the publishing schedule.  MediaPost is not waiting for you to remember that the OnlinePublishingInsider is interesting, snarky and fun, or sometimes useful.  MediaPost can publish to the market as often as it has advertisers to support it.

Then there is the issue of the ephemeral nature of social networks.  Who out there remembers that Yahoo bought GeoCities for $1.2 billion?  This year Yahoo formally closed it down.  A few years ago MySpace was touted to take over the world, and News Corp paid $580 million for it.  And Tech Crunch wondered if it might be worth $12 billion!  More recently, an article wondered if it is worth anything at all on the open market now, having been eclipsed by Facebook. 

And remember Second Life?  One minute articles were appearing in Ad Age that every company would have to have a store there, and Sam Palmisano, the CEO of IBM, "opened" the IBM presence there.  Then last year an article appeared saying. "Will the last one out of Second Life please turn out the lights."  So let's not leap to conclusions on social media quite so quick.  Do they matter?  Yes.  Are they "strategic"? No.  Will they eclipse basic services like email? I think not.

When I asked my son for comments on this article - he's a denizen of Facebook - he said, and I quote, "Duh, Dad!  When they invented the telephone it didn't eclipse the postal service."  Interesting thought.  Although the postal service is hurting today, I'd wager that the number of pieces of mail delivered by the post office today is many times what it was 100 years ago, when the telephone began to be adopted by business and then in homes across America and then the world.

Enough said. I have to get back to my email -- there might be a notice from a Facebook friend!

13 comments about "Is Email Strategic? Or Dead?".
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  1. David Culbertson from LightBulb Interactive, October 29, 2009 at 4:24 p.m.

    Spot on, Daniel. Email as a communications and marketing channel is far from dead. I tell my clients to treat each customer's (or potential customer's) email address like gold: Send compelling and relevant emails on a schedule that doesn't overwhelm the recipient. Permission Marketing by Seth Godin remains the bible for this, even after all these years.

    And nice catch on the connection between Facebook and Email: you can't even open a Twitter or Facebook account without a valid email address!

  2. Nelson Yuen from Stereotypical Mid Sized Services Corp., October 29, 2009 at 4:43 p.m.

    "Do they matter? Yes. Are they "strategic"? No. Will they eclipse basic services like email? I think not."

    I have to HUMBLY say I disagree.

    Disclaimer: I am in no way shape or form, an expert in the field, nor am I more informed than you. Think of the next few lines as a "I don't understand why you are right" comment.

    I agree with the ubiquity of e-mail, but I think it's that same ubiquity that PARTIALLY clouds email as an effective advertising medium.

    Consider the following inside the context of a buying cycle:

    We love search because it attacks consumer sentiment in a RESPONSE framework - more toward the end of a buying cycle

    We love social media because it is an on going and progressive; an active agent with credibility and inherently interactive throughout the ENTIRE buying cycle from begging to end.

    Where does email fall into place? Email is inherently intrusive, even subscriptions are limited to time constraints, e.g., even if a subscriber was interested in something at the time, it may or may not be convenient for him to see the email inside his inbox which may or may not be ignored.

    I'm not saying email is dead. I'm saying "strategically" it is an advertising medium delivered as a "net" and not a "lure."

    You send an email advertisement after some A/B tests and a little bit of behavioral targeting and then you hope to convert. You're not attacking the consumer on a personal level, you're strategically grouping users into a group to convert as many individuals as possible with as many semi-dynamic messages as possible. (LOOK, I GAVE YOU THE BENEFIT OF THE DOUBT WITH DYNAMIC MESSAGES which exist, but are not mainstream.)

    I bring all this up to kind of question what makes email more strategic than search or social media.

    "You can publish to that audience rather than waiting for the audience to come to you. Publishing through email is like subscription publishing, while putting your content on the Web is like single-copy sales: you have to wait for your customers to come find you."

    I don't really want to agree with this either even though I don't have the statistics to see who's right.

    Email is still inherently still not engaging. Even if someone subscribes to my "magazine" he or she will LARGELY ignore my messages BECAUSE they are coming from me as a PUBLISHER. They cannot respond to my message, they can only consume content, and AT BEST respond with an email back.

    Email is LARGELY ignored as an advertising medium not because of lackluster conversion rates (which are anywhere between 3 to 5 percent) but rather an email cannot engage users the same way search and social media can.

    Consider EVERY point in the buying cycle. From the onset I have a problem or need I have to address. I SEARCH for information. I engage the COMMUNITY with questions or concerns about my problem or view others with the same problem. I make personal comparisons towards the end of the buying cycle, and at the very end convert. Along that entire line, email does not support the consuming behavior, it merely tries to interrupt the process by adding an outside influence interim. I see the interplay of brands equity in the same way.

    PLEASE BE ADVISED I COULD BE COMPLETELY WRONG. It's just my view on things and I would like my points address in the likely hood that I am wrong!!!!

    PS. When the phone was invented, it didn't eclipse mail???

    PPS. I think my generation doesn't log onto mail to check for facebook updates, they get the updates via blackberry no? (Although you could argue the email updates also go to the blackberry as a middleman, but truth be told most platforms allow for instant sync.)

  3. Nelson Yuen from Stereotypical Mid Sized Services Corp., October 29, 2009 at 4:52 p.m.

    "Permission Marketing by Seth Godin remains the bible for this, even after all these years."

    My generational take on this... permission marketing (like a customer's email address) is a 5 second audition to hook someone that wasn't looking for you in the first place. It's still constrained by TIME. It's no different from a TV ad. Sometimes we SUBSCRIBE to you because it's the only way we can get from point A to point B in our never ending quest to solve life's little problems. We have to sit through commercials to watch our favorite episodes of X Y Z. In other words Godin distinguishes "permission marketing" from "interruption marketing" but from a usability standpoint it is the SAME if it is constrained in context with something else. in this case, it is time. I subscribe to an address to solve an EXISTING problem, (I want to get an answer to question, I want a coupon right now for something, I am interested in your service at this MOMENT) but the email help me solve my problem later on. One statistic I AM familiar with is the "unsubscribes" or "flag for spam" AFTER an individual has subscribed to a newsletter, update, etc. Typically 4 to 1. I wonder what that says?

    Disclaimer: I AM NOT AN EXPERT BY ANY MEANS TO MARKETING. I just don't get this particular post because I feel like my generation LARGELY ignores email completely. Email may very well work better for different demographics.

  4. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, October 29, 2009 at 5:48 p.m.

    No, not everyone loves electronic social media. If it could be avoided, I think many people who subscribe to it would run from it as far as possible.

  5. Britta Meyer from Loomia, October 29, 2009 at 8:22 p.m.

    Daniel - thanks for your post. I'd argue its title is not any less provocative than Jessica's, or is it? :)

    I appreciate your passion for defending email, and I'm sure the industry will be glad to hear your position, however, several of the points you made are quite debatable. (Nelson, your arguments were very well stated, btw.)

    In summary, here's where you might be off:

    - Email is a pretty big industry (which i used to be part of), and for a long time, potentially indefinitely, there will be a place for it. However, it is not email or social media. It will be a combination of both, and smart email marketers know to merge to the two. Smart providers in the market are already moving in that direction, see Strongmail, for instance.

    - Email is being used for different purposes, including transactional, operational and marketing messaging, and I'm pretty certain all of these functions can, at least partly, be performed by social media. Somebody's site goes down? Breaking news? The location of the local taco truck? I expect to see social media updates on that.

    More importantly even, there are different social networks, different access levels to the community, and different ways for marketers (or businesses in general) to engage. There are still ways to push messages into the news feed, but what's much more groundbreaking is the consumer's ability to come to the business and engage: on the topic they want, when they want it, on the channel they want. Yes, it's a consumer's world.

    Rather than "anticipating" which email frequency or subject I (as part of a list) might be interested in, let me decide. Rather than accepting open rates of 10-15% and CTRs of 3-5% of any campaign, have 100% of interested consumers come to you and get the information they want. Rather than having "Do-not-reply" sender addresses, invite a dialogue.

    - Social media is here to stay. Yes, there might be the skeptics and the traditionals that wish if we just wait long enough it'll all go away. I don't think so. The benefits consumers are experiencing through the social web, including having a voice, sharing with the community, accessing information, etc., way outweigh the short-comings of a developing and less-than-perfect-yet social media world. Smart marketers engage in social media in a way that they can add to these benefits rather than fight them. And smart publishers will learn to appreciate, depend upon and monetize these channels. (Disclaimer: I work for Loomia, and this is what we help publishers with. Maybe we should talk? :)

    Lastly, I really could not get over this paragraph:
    "Better yet, because MediaPost publishes through email, it is in control of the publishing schedule. MediaPost is not waiting for you to remember that the OnlinePublishingInsider is interesting, snarky and fun, or sometimes useful. MediaPost can publish to the market as often as it has advertisers to support it."

    I'm afraid to say it, and I'm generally a big MediaPost fan, but when will you realize that you must give up control and hand it to the consumer? That you should publish as often as the consumer wants it? That those businesses will win that do what their customer want, when and how they want it?

    http://twitter.com/Britta_SF

  6. David Culbertson from LightBulb Interactive, October 29, 2009 at 8:58 p.m.

    For those seem to think email isn't engaging, you might not be subscribing to the right emails. Zappos, for example, is doing a great job of mixing social media into their email.

  7. Allen Maccannell from SenderOK, October 30, 2009 at 10:48 a.m.

    Great point about why many of us are even here: we received our daily MediaPost newsletter. I would be coming to MediaPost much less without the Email that lays out, point by point, what I am going to find here.

    Of course it is important to point out that it is an extremely rare honor these days for a company to be allowed to send daily Emails like that to a particular individual. MediaPost just happens to have the right mix of writers, pertinent daily content and readers that fits what our company does. Even then, I am only subscribed to 4 out of 7 MediaPost newsletters.

    This makes MediaPost's lists extremely well targeted by the way.

    These days, people *will* unsubscribe if they aren't clicking through often.

  8. Aaron Savage from Interactive Mix Ltd, October 30, 2009 at 1:10 p.m.

    I enjoyed your article Daniel. In answer to your question I think that it isn’t so much whether Email or Social media is the more strategic or tactical solution but instead that too many people involved in the industry think in tactical rather than strategic terms. I would argue that the industry is still polished with the geek brush when it should be thinking like marketers and reaching for the red braces (hope that analogy wasn’t lost in construction). Far too much digital is thought of in terms of the constituent disciplines, so search, user experience/web design, email/eCRM, social media, display advertising etc, and out of that we are led to the idea that some of these are superior to th others. This is thinking tactically not strategically. A strategic approach would recognise that all of these are valid and that it is how y mix them together and under what circumstances you combine them that leads to success. Clients are screaming for this and the opportunity exists for Interactive Marketing to grow up and even lead the entire field of marketing.

    The truth is that email is fantastic at achieving certain things in certain situations. It changes what those things are for each client and relies on size and cleanliness of your data, how familiar your permission members are with you recency, frequency ad relevance of your message. It isn’t so good for acquiring new customers (for instance) from a cold or warm mailing. Social media also has its place in creating discussion and building relationships with prospects prior to during and after acquisition. Your display ads might not perform very well in terms of click through but that shouldn’t mean that you necessarily throw them out of the mix bowl because your emails may perform better when you are running display ads. The media multiplier is as valid online as it is offline.

    It is only when we as an industry present our clients with an overall digital marketing strategy that we will be thought of as worthy of a seat at the top table. Sooner or later the offline agencies may get their act together and offer that but for now most are woefully short of understanding how to present good creative that performs. If we miss this opportunity we will only have ourselves to blame.

    Aaron
    www.interactive-mix.com

  9. Kristin Hersant from StrongMail Systems, Inc., October 30, 2009 at 1:57 p.m.

    I completely agree. As a marketer, when a new chanel emerges, I don't look at it as a question of either or - I invest in both and diligently measure the response rates from each channel to determine what warrents further investment. No smart direct marketer will make a significant budget shift on promise alone - without the numbers to back it up.

    The interesting thing about email and social media is that emerging data shows that when used together, the two channels are significantly more effective that either channel as a stand-alone. As this blog post points out, the question really isn't either or - it's why aren't you leveraging both? http://tr.im/DBQH

  10. Kurt Johansen from Johansen International, November 4, 2009 at 7:06 p.m.

    Hi Everyone

    "Is Email Marketing Dead"

    I have read so many views and written so many replies on websites about this topic that I need to publish MY views.

    First for me, email IS a marketing channel.

    Let me explain...

    Email is still the most cost effective and affordable means for a small business to get there products and services 'marketed'.

    Email Marketing is about the 1. The List; 2. The Relationship and 3. The Offer.

    Let's look at this more specifically.

    If a Cafe collected email addresses they could let their patrons quickly and economically know that ANY coffee purchased today comes with a slice of delicious home made apple pie but today only.

    If a video store had the email addresses of their clients they could let them know that all 'NEW' releases are $1 hire but tonight only.

    If you need to fill a restaurant on a quiet night then a fabulous offer could be sent to email clients.

    Email definitely has a place.

    I have filled restaurants for clients, sold PVC Piping ($39,000 in 3 days) for a client who hasn't sold any more than $500 ever in his previous marketing efforts using most marketing channels.

    We just had over a 200% increase in bookings for a business breakfast for a client and they are 'pumped' by the result.

    Email needs to be used wisely.

    The stats I always read seem to refer to large corporations and massive businesses. They don't relate to the most common of businesses, the small business.

    Email used effectively is about contacting your mates, your friends and writing to them on a one-to-one basis.

    So for me it is THE BEST media for small business. And in Australia around 67% of people are employed by a small business.

    Email done correctly makes sense but make it personal.

    The email should be written as if it is going to one person, written in the first person, including the person's first name and this way it will be welcomed as a message from a friend in their in-boxes.

    Simple rule in sales. People BUY from friends.

    Whilst some people may deplore email it could be because the message has not be written directly to them and the message probably contains nothing more than a message about the company sending it.

    This is NOT the way to use email.

    When you learn the steps from my book located in the top right hand side of this page you will discover the process which is making my clients and myself 'friends and buyers' in this wonderful world of email marketing.

    If you are a large corporation you should be asking your marketing team what are we doing to become close to our customers. Why would someone buy from an email which is not sent personally to them but part of a massive mail out.

    If you are in small business refuse to accept the notion email marketing is dead. It is alive and vibrant and the most cost effective way to get you message to your clients.

    When you send out emails be their friend.

    Cheers
    Kurt Johansen
    Email Master Coach

  11. Daniel Ambrose from ambro.com, corp., November 5, 2009 at 12:41 a.m.

    Wow, so many lenthy and thoughtful comments.

    Yes, Britta, I was being a little provocative. I can't address every comment you made, but let me observe that when you think about inserting commercial messages into a social media content stream you are essentially polluting it. Yes, advertisers can take advantage of social media and can see marketing into the mix. But

    I dont' have to "anticipate" what messages you might be interested in. You subscribe to an eLetter on a particular subject and you have told me what you want to know or to think about.

    This brings up a very intersting point: Many Internet marketers seem to want to have every advertising message "wanted" in advance. But the essence of advertising is telling me about something I don't know about and don't want in advance. And the essence of publishing is telling my audience about things they don't even know they need to know. These two concepts come together very nicely in advertising supported email.

    In conclusion, you don't "have to give up control to the consumer." The consumer, by subscribing to an eLetter voluntarily says "tell me about things I don't know."

    And by the way, I DON'T ONLY want to know what my friends know...I want to know more, other things I can call to their attention.

    And Nelson, so interesting that you have condemed email as you said: "Email is LARGELY ignored as an advertising medium not because of lackluster conversion rates (which are anywhere between 3 to 5 percent) but rather an email cannot engage users the same way search and social media can." What the heck is wrong with 3 to 5%? So much of the conversation around the targeting of marketing efforts is focused on the wrong thing. Driving buying percentages up, on smaller and smaller groups through targeting is a way to go out of business.

    You and many others in the Internet advertising business are too focused on percentage response rates and not focused enough on volume. It's like thinking that if you bat twice and get one hit you are a hero because you are "batting 500." NOT.

    And no, the phone was invented in the 1890's and mail volume grew probably right up to the last recession. Mail is still a major marketing channel precisely because it reaches everyone. It is true that mail for the purpose of writing a personal letter is passe' but it has found other uses 100 + years later.

    And I still will send holiday cards by mail because it means more. If I post a happy holidays to my friends via facebook, does that make them feel special. NO. If I write them a personal email, it does a little more so. If I write a terresterial card it makes a much more powerful statement that I actually care about them.

    I fear that many analysts confusing the volume of 'social media' connections with value.

  12. Britta Meyer from Loomia, November 9, 2009 at 2:04 p.m.

    Daniel- you wrote back… ?

    Let me start by saying that I completely agree with your last sentence: “I fear that many analysts confusing the volume of 'social media' connections with value.”

    Yes, social media contacts (friends, followers, connections) clearly differ in value across the different channels (such as a high-value LinkedIn connection vs. a lower-value Twitter follower), as well as within a given channel (preferred lists on Twitter, people I have actual conversations with). From a marketer’s perspective, your actual reach is pretty tough to establish, because you don’t know how many people actually saw your message, unless they interacted with it (commented, RT, and such).

    And isn’t it quite similar with email? Is your list really 100,000 names of the same value, or is it 15,000 who (on average) open the message? Or the 5,000 who clicked? Or the 500 that forwarded the email on?

    The big challenge for social media is that it is too new to be really understood in terms of its effectiveness for marketing and business in general.
    The big challenge for email is that it is decreasingly important as a marketing and communications tool. Sorry.

    Here’s why:
    - Email used to be pretty much your only online 1:1 direct marketing tool. Now there are social media, and they, too, allow you – and are designed to – let you reach your customers 1:1. “Social sharing” is one way of spreading your message, but you can also build your own community and reach out to them in good old push tradition.
    - A significant share of GenY does not look to email as a prime communications tool. One day, they will grow up to be the dominant demographic, and marketers need to use the meantime to adjust their practices to remain relevant.
    - Social sharing is so powerful, because it effectively grows your reach (your “list”) virally via your best customers (think “Netpromoter”), and the movement of the social web only emphasizes the influence of the social graph in consumer decision-making, a very well documented trend.
    - Content marketing and content sharing practices directly contradict traditional means to collect email addresses. People reject having to give up their contact information for access to a piece of content, instead expect you to present them with valuable content to keep their attention.

    Because these trends are still in their baby-shoes (as we say in Germany), smart marketers have time to combine the two, as several comments concluded as well. Here is another recent article on the topic:
    http://www.bizreport.com/2009/11/how_email_and_social_can_benefit_from_cross-marketing.html?utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=facebook

    Anyway, thank you for having spurred an interesting dialogue around this topic.
    http://twitter.com/Britta_SF

  13. Mark allen Roberts from Out of the Box Solutions, LLC, November 9, 2009 at 6:25 p.m.

    Smart email marketing adds value.

    Unfortunately there seems to be an epidemic of poor email as I discuss in my blog: http://nosmokeandmirrors.wordpress.com/2009/07/30/its-an-epidemic-poorly-executed-email-marketing-campaigns/

    It's the "marketing tools" that I discuss in my blog that will be the death of email marketing.

    Mark Allen Roberts

    www.outbsolutions.com

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