Is Email Marketing Really A Conversation?

The answer to this question depends on how literally you define the word "conversation." Is donating money to the Red Cross a conversation? Is registering to vote? Is moving from one state to another?

To me, all of these actions have the potential to be part of a conversation. However, to achieve a conversation someone has to (1) be listening and (2) respond in a way that demonstrates they were listening.

The same is true with email. Whether a subscriber opens an email, what they click on, if they unsubscribe -- all these actions are part of a conversation, IF you're listening and prepared to respond.


With email marketing, there are ways to listen to subscribers that are invisible to them and others that directly seek feedback:

Monitoring feedback loops. Removing complainers is critical to managing your deliverability, but complaints also say something about the relevance of particular campaigns and your program overall.



Tracking and honoring unsubscribes. Similar to feedback loops, opt-outs provide an additional data point in gauging campaign and program success.

Tracking opens. While image blocking makes opens slightly unreliable, trends in your open rate and the relative open rate of a campaign can speak to whether you're delivering value, keeping subscribers engaged, spurring viral pass-along, and more.

Tracking clicks and doing clickstream analysis. What individual subscribers click on in your emails and the pages they navigate on your website indicate interest in products, categories, brands, price points, topics and more.

Tracking purchase history. Similarly but more strongly, what individual subscribers buy through any of your channels reveals their interests.

Maintaining a preference center. Personal information, topics of interest, frequency preference, and other information are routinely collected through preference centers. The value of this information degrades over time.

Doing progressive profiling. Used correctly, polls and surveys can indicate immediate interests.


Performing any of the activities above is completely pointless unless you're prepared to respond. Moreover, doing any of the customer-facing activities above sets the expectation that you'll do something with that information, so not acting is actually more brand damaging than not collecting the information in the first place. Fortunately, email marketing gives us lots of different ways to respond:

Segmentation. Rather than sending a message to your entire file, segmentation allows you to target only those that are likely to respond. This reduces list fatigue, spam complaints and unsubscribes -- and gives a lift to your overall opens, clicks and conversions.

Triggered emails. The ultimate in individual email response, triggered emails are sent in response to an action by a subscriber. Some examples include:
- Order confirmation, shipping notification, "rate and review," and re-order emails triggered by purchase.
- Birthday and anniversary emails triggered by birth date of family member or pet, wedding anniversary, or anniversary of purchase or other milestone.
- Welcome emails triggered by joining email, loyalty or some other program or group.
- Browse-based emails triggered by a subscriber browsing certain pages of your website but not converting.
- Shopping cart abandonment emails triggered by subscribers placing items in their shopping cart but not converting.
- Reengagement and reactivation campaigns triggered by inactivity.

Dynamic content. This capability allows part(s) of an email to be tailored to individual subscribers. When email marketers listen and respond appropriately, the results can be truly amazing. For example, Epson's "Happy Birthday" email generates revenue per email that's 840% greater than that of the overall email program. While only 3% to 5% of Orbitz's email volume is triggered messages, those generate 45% of the email program's total revenue. And Groupon's multibillion-dollar valuation is built upon solid geo-segmentation of deals.

Old School vs. New School

As with the topic of my last column, this issue is another litmus test for whether you're an old-school marketer or a new-school marketer. If you think email only has the capacity to talk at subscribers, you're squarely in the old-school camp. But if you think email marketing programs should listen and respond to the actions of individual subscribers, you're solidly a new-school marketer.

3 comments about "Is Email Marketing Really A Conversation?".
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  1. Gretchen Scheiman from Alchemy Worx, March 30, 2011 at 12:19 p.m.

    Hi Chad, the analysis and data collection you have lumped under "listen" are the baseline requirements for doing any marketing - including "old school". The segmentation (list and content) efforts you called "responding" have always been requirements to consider someone a good "old school" marketer. (Even if they've at times been beyond our reach to achieve). The only "new school" about this is calling analytics and segmentation "listening" and "responding". Since neither are generally very transparent to the customer - are you sure these are really activites that evidence "listening" or "responding" or even "new school" marketing?

  2. Chad White from Litmus, March 30, 2011 at 12:40 p.m.

    Gretchen, I was specifically referring to the belief that email marketing is a conversation as being a new school marketing litmus test. After all, if you don't think email is a conversation, why bother doing the data collection and analysis necessary for segmentation, dynamic content, triggered programs and even simple testing? Sadly, all of those activitives/tactics are underutilized, especially with much sophistication.

  3. Bruce May from Bizperity, March 30, 2011 at 2:14 p.m.

    I love where you are going with this Chad. I have been advising clients to engage in "interactive dialogue" with customers and prospects for years. There is so much opportunity to engage an audience through online content (driven in part by emails and in part by web pages). These dialogues don't have to lead to an immediate sale; they can simply build value in the relationship. Direct marketing techniques can be modified for this as well. What we really need is some smart software that can make it easier to track multiple communications so that this kind of dialogue can take place over the course of time and we can create strategic approaches for building audience, interest, CSI, and much more. I am waiting for some smart company to produce a solution for this.

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