Last October I wrote about email and its importance as a publishing platform that reaches everyone. I had to make the point after a Wall Street Journal reporter had written "Why Email No Longer Rules." So it was fun to moderate a panel this week, a year later, with folks from Groupon, the latest internet rocket-ship-growth darling, along with leaders from Daily Candy, Gilt Groupe and the founder of Thrillist, who collectively shake loose billions of dollars in advertising revenue and merchandise sales earned from "publishing on email" strategies.
The OMMA Global conference had the usual speeches and panels on mobile and on pay-wall strategy, and social media, so it was fun to hear the panelists explain to the assembled publishers why email is so important and what makes email work for them. In a virtual chorus, they agreed: Email reaches everyone, is taken seriously, and success is about the value of the content.
A publisher's email connection to its readers is direct and overt when customers opt in, far exceeding the casual social media "like" or "friend" or "follow." One way to think about it is that when subscribers give you their email address and invite you to publish to them, they are inviting you to appear in the place for things they trust; where their travel reservations, credit card bills, and even retirement plan statements arrive. Is that a good place to be? Thrillist, Groupon, Daily Candy and Gilt Groupe execs all think email -- with hundreds of millions a year in revenue -- rocks.
Ben Lerer, Founder and CEO of Thrillist, the hyper-successful email-based young men's publisher, recently pointed out that consumers today have figured out how to manage their email inboxes so they are no longer beleaguered by spam. But thousands of publishers are doing email publishing badly. And too often publishers are flocking to social media or mobile seminars looking for answers when they haven't yet correctly done the basics of operating the most basic digital publishing platform.
When asked about the relative importance of email versus social media, one panelist pointed out that when people come back from being away on business or vacation, they "catch up" on email, but don't bother to go back to see what tweets or Facebook postings they missed.
What were the key takeaways?
Lerer pointed out the first thing is to get clear about the goal of your email and design it accordingly. Is it to "deliver the content" or to drive traffic to your Web site? For advertising-driven media companies, selling ads on emails might be a good strategy, but recognize that the email must then be designed to hold attention, not simply to offer a link. Too many media companies are sending out nothing more than links, and wondering why advertisers don't value advertising on their emails. Lerer must know something, because he is successful captivating the supposedly hard-to-reach young male market.
The most amusing comment of the day was the general agreement that "open rates" are not important. As one panelist put it, you need to know open rates only because management will ask. There are simply too many reasons why email may be "read" without being recorded as an "open" to get hung up on that. The metrics that all agreed are the vitally important to focus upon are about the viral nature of email -- do readers forward it to a friend or colleague? Does the viral growth exceed the number of unsubscribes? What is the percentage of readers clicking through to your site, or on an advertisement or offer?
Email for a mobile strategy?
For publishers searching for a mobile strategy, it was pointed out that the iPhone already displays html emails nicely, and shortly BlackBerry will introduce a software upgrade that will vastly improve graphical email display on that widely used platform. It is worth noting that the first thing customers do with smart phones is get their email there. So the old (email) is new again (mobile).
Speaking of mobile strategy, check out the iPad app from Gilt Groupe. Panelists agreed that the Gilt app is great, and is setting a standard they would like to match. The key to success on the new platforms will be more than delivering your content there; successful apps will provide new functionality that enhance the media (in this case, shopping) experience. For these publishers and marketers, the beauty of their email centric strategy is they have powerful voices to market new apps, such as the Gilt app, to their very large audiences with precision and with impact.
You are reading a successful email now. You may be reading it on a mobile device. Is your company doing all it can with this "old-fashioned" channel?