Email Marketing: Warts and All

It may just be that I'm too sensitive, but it seems there's been an increase in the number of articles berating email marketing. I have no problem with people pointing out issues with email or highlighting changes in the online market. Things are changing and marketers absolutely need to adapt.

But I object to the spread of misleading information for the sake of grabbing headlines. Email marketing has become marketing's favorite whipping boy. Headlines that criticize email or point to its demise go viral. Headlines focused on the strengths of email go nowhere.

If you are reading this, I'll assume you work in email and you're aware of the benefits it provides as a marketing channel. I could drone on about the high ROI, the ability to deliver highly targeted content, the incredible power of the channel to drive purchases and increase purchase intent. While all this is true, we also need to take a candid look at some of the challenges facing our industry:

1)   Spam has been labeled an "email problem."  Look around the Internet and you'll see spam everywhere. It lives on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and it has lived for years in out mailboxes. The problem l is that the barriers to sending spam are too low. Email is cheap and it's easy to send. Moreover, since email does not live on a single platform (as with Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube), there is no central place to shut it off.



As such, spam has become ALL of our problem. ISPs like Yahoo, Hotmail and Gmail don't give a **** about what CAN-SPAM says, and I applaud them for that. They want to protect consumers from spam. And like a mother who yanks her child away from a hot stove, these professionals are trying to protect this industry. Say "thank you" when they block your messages and learn from the experience.

2)   High ROI. ROI is the sacred cow of the email industry. It's what makes email great, right? Email's ROI is large only because the denominator is so small. Sending email is cheap which means that just about anyone can send email (no matter how bad) and still make money. Why do spammers send spam? Because they can make a lot of money sending it. The mark of a good email marketer is not in the ability to demonstrate high ROI, it is in the ability to demonstrate increased customer lifetime value.

3)   Consumers' expectation of email is increasing. Your competition in the inbox and your competition in the marketplace are completely different. In the market, you compete with companies with similar businesses. In the inbox, you compete with every company that sends email that's relevant to your consumers. You're competing for their time, and there are some companies that do a really, really good job. Consumers want to receive messages that are tailored to them and show you care about their business. They'll forgive you if you are off-target every now and then, but if it's clear you aren't even trying, they'll tune you out.

4)   Everyone thinks they're an email expert. Everyone uses email and most believe their personal experience makes them an expert in the field. Your boss, your CEO and just about everyone else in your organization has an opinion of how email should work. But this is like claiming that their daily commute to work has prepared them to compete on weekends with Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart. There are amateurs and there are professionals. Your job is to prove yourself as a professional. How? Demonstrate knowledge of the complexity of email measurement. Don't settle for ROI, look at LTV. Test ideas and when your boss says no, test anyway (just make sure to use small test cells and make sure the naysayers get placed in the control test cell). You'll sleep better at night and earn more respect by making improvements than by following orders in the long run. And, if you get in trouble...

5)   There is a shortage of experienced talent in the industry. Experienced email marketers are in short supply. While I listen to friends in other industries talk about the shortage of jobs, I constantly have industry colleagues asking for help finding experienced email marketers. Companies are looking for people that "get it" and the shortage is one of the reasons we see good companies sending bad email. It's not that the people running those programs are stupid (as some have suggested recently), but that those people have been thrown into a role without proper training, experience, or guidance. Fortunately, more than any industry I have ever seen, experienced email marketers are very generous with their time and knowledge. They want to help new email marketers learn the ropes. If you're new, seek them out and ask for help. You'll be pleasantly surprised.

11 comments about "Email Marketing: Warts and All".
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  1. John Caldwell from, August 18, 2010 at 11:26 a.m.

    Great post, Morgan!

  2. Rita from FreshAddress, Inc., August 18, 2010 at 11:31 a.m.

    Really thoughtful recap of the issues of concern. I would agree with you to work with the professionals as email deliverability and marketing isn't for the inexperienced. At the core is a clean list of deliverable addresses based on those with whom you have had a previous relationship and information messaged, tailored to their interests. Email will be a successful conduit tool for a very long time.

  3. Liz Ryan from Hansa Marketing, August 18, 2010 at 11:41 a.m.

    Great Post Morgan. I agree with your note in point 5. When I meet a colleague, or find myself in an engagement with someone new to email, I always say I'm available for questions and its nice to have someone to "geek out" on email with.

  4. Kara Trivunovic from Epsilon, August 18, 2010 at 11:44 a.m.

    Terrific post Morgan. I couldn't agree more. The shortage of experience is a big problem in email marketing space - I've had the opportunity to guest lecture at a few online marketing courses at universities and it is apparent that the curriculum isn't there to provide a foundational understanding of email marketing so it all has to be on the job training - which is why I think those of us that have a command of the content are so willing to share it with anyone interested.

    Email isn't going anywhere, but it certainly is changing.

  5. Liz Lynch from Demandware, August 18, 2010 at 11:48 a.m.

    Hi Morgan,
    Great article.
    As you say, e-mail marketers have many challenges, both internal and external.
    It's not an easy job and most truly want to send consumers messages that are relevant and useful.
    The willingness of experienced e-mail marketers to help educate their colleagues and share what works will pay off for marketers and consumers as we get closer to consistently delivering the targeted, personalized communications we know e-mail marketing is capable of.

  6. Carolyn Nye from S&S Worldwide, August 18, 2010 at 12:26 p.m.

    Great article! I would really enjoy hearing more case studies or examples of email marketers demonstrating increased customer lifetime value. Kara: Excellent point about Email and general E-Commerce not being well supported in the curriculum at universities and colleges. Even now in 2010 while I am nearing the end of an MBA with concentration in E-Commerce & Global Marketing very little practical exposure to the subject at all. Maybe in the future we can see a bigger push towards that-especially given the demand for knowledgeable email marketers.

  7. Loren McDonald from IBM Marketing Cloud, August 18, 2010 at 12:28 p.m.

    Nice post as always Morgan. I particularly liked the race car driver analogy - ya how often does the CEO or some co-worker offer up ideas on search engine optimization to the in-house SEO person? But email, everyone is an expert.

    I also liked the suggestion to move more to LCV over just ROI. While ROI is a good metric and email typically does well, it can also put email into the conversations of - well ya of course, email is cheap; or ya just send more email cause it has such a high ROI.

    Lastly, and I've also touched on this before, there are probably thousands of marketers or small business owners entering into email marketing anew every year. They simply don't know, what they don't know and apply other marketing approaches they may be familiar with - that simple don't work, or "cross the line" in email marketing.

  8. Lydia Sugarman from Venntive, August 18, 2010 at 2:25 p.m.

    Dear Morgan,

    It's great to read such a candid article that reflects your very real passion for email marketing and all the "controversies" associated with it. I'm standing right with you on this! I almost thought I was reading something I wrote!

    I have to add one of my pet peeves. That is using the word "spam" to describe any kind of unwelcome email, as in "I hate spam just as much as you do, but I wanted to let you know..." Consequently, every email has the chance of being labeled as spam and that's bad for everyone.

  9. Luke Glasner from Red Pill Email, August 18, 2010 at 2:45 p.m.

    Nice Post Morgan,

    Great to see you encouraging marketers to move towards a long term view of email and their business by focusing on Customer Lifetime Value over the current campaign's ROI.

    More email marketers should be looking at the value of their subscribers addresses. Often subscribers go dormant in only a few months, but with email's high ROI we never really stop and question why that is. Imagine if all of your email subscribers stayed active over time rather than falling off after a few months. I think as marketers we should be striving towards that goal - longer average engagement in our programs by subscribers. For those few that can achieve that lofty goal, ROI and LTV could increase dramatically.

  10. Peter Roebuck from All Web Email, August 18, 2010 at 3:41 p.m.

    Great post. I especially liked the bit about consumer's expectations of email increasing. I think this trend will almost force better list segmentation.

  11. Andrew Bonar from PR Angel Solutions, August 19, 2010 at 10:06 a.m.

    Just wanted to, say Dito to the previous comments. This is a well thought out article, as ever a great read Morgan. Keep it up and hope you have a great day!

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