The Prisoner's Dilemma That Is Email Marketing

As consumers, we all get too much email. That means as marketers, at least collectively, we are sending too much. Now I know it’s easy for any brand to point at its own ROI metrics and insist that email is still working very well. Some engagement metrics may be flagging, but email still drives sales, lifts ad-supported page views, and drives businesses forward.

Yet you only need to look at the proliferation of inbox management tools to see a universe of email users struggling under the deluge. Our metrics tell us one thing, but studying user behavior provides some contradictory insights on subscribers’ appetites for just one more message.

Still, deciding to be the first to scale back on email is not the same thing as buying the first electric car on the block. Yes, both show farsightedness and initiative, but email marketers who cut back on volume face danger if the rest of the industry doesn’t follow suit. Brands email because email drives revenue; simply, emailing less will result in fewer sales for some companies.



Leadership notwithstanding, that’s an exceptionally hard choice to sell to the corner office. Even if email’s ROI is slipping (which is it), email still performs at 3x the return of social media and 2x that of search, according to the DMA’s annual “Power of Direct” study. Maybe by overmailing, we’re killing the goose that lays the golden eggs -- but since all the other geese are laying eggs of copper and nickel, who can blame marketers who stockpile the gold ones while they can, and hope someone figures out how to make this honker healthy again one day?

An even more powerful deterrent to scaling back email than losing sales is losing share. Mindshare in the inbox is limited, like shelf space at Walmart. Every spot you give up, a competitor may well take.

This dynamic between competitors who could be collaborators creates a perfect prisoner’s dilemma that email marketers find themselves in. In the classic example of this game theory, two members from the same gang are captured and accused of a crime. The police do not have enough evidence to convict them, but do have enough to convict them for one year on a lesser charge, which they tell the prisoners separately during questioning. But they offer each prisoner the same deal: roll on your partner, and you’ll go free while the other gets three years in jail. But if both criminals rat on each other, each gets two years in lockup.

The best collective scenario would be for both prisoners to keep quiet, and serve a year in jail each. But the risk of keeping quiet is that the other will not, which would mean three years in jail while the other gets off scot-free.

This precisely where email marketers sit. We are all seeing our ROI erode, but none of us is going to put ourselves in a position where ours deteriorates three times as quickly while our rivals’ results hold steady.

There is hope, however, and it comes not from hiring the mathematician guy from Numb3rs. Here are some steps marketers (preferably all of them in unison) can take to break free of the email prisoner's dilemma:

  1. Collude. Some email consultant will propose this during the wee hours of the cocktail reception at the upcoming Email Insiders Summit, but the guys from the ESPs will ply him with drinks until he forgets what he was talking about. They’re actually looking out for him, because this approach might not even be legal.
  2. Replace message or campaign ROI with subscriber or program ROI. Take a longer view of your metrics, and it becomes easier to see that today’s uptick could be next week’s depression. It might not mean cutting your volume by 20%, but recognizing the value in sending judiciously can have a profound impact on the quality and relevance of messages.
  3. Align your email program with brand values. I know of no brand's mission statement that includes the mandate, "Annoy the crap out of people until they navigate the maze required to ask us to leave them alone." Your ROI may say that sending more email is a good idea, but are you really providing a unique and valued service by reminding your subscribers that it has been two whole days since their last purchase?
  4. Embrace restrictions on email marketing. The best thing to ever happen to big tobacco’s bottom line was the restriction of television advertising for cigarettes. All the brands knew that if everyone stopped advertising on television, expenses would drop and profits would skyrocket. In fact, the cigarette companies themselves supported the legislation. As email marketers, we instinctively oppose legislation that might restrict our practice. But imagine what would happen if every brand were only allowed to send one message per week per subscriber? How would that affect ROI, relevance and engagement?
2 comments about "The Prisoner's Dilemma That Is Email Marketing".
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  1. Darrin Searancke from Halifax Chronicle Herald, April 3, 2013 at 12:50 p.m.

    Mike - you make some great points, it's like the email Elephant in the room that no-one wants to talk about! It's a great engagement medium, but marketers are just spamming interested parties.

  2. Tiffany Lyman Otten from Tiffany Otten Consulting, LLC, April 3, 2013 at 12:58 p.m.

    We actually ended up doing this for one of our clients and have not seen any decrease in ROI, and instead, could put more emphasis on more intense behavioral targeting and more dynamic content.
    So far, so good, but still a bit "hold your breath".
    Now, I'm about to feel really dumb, and I hope it's one of those issues where everyone is thinking the same question but no one wants to ask. But.
    What exactly do you mean by collude? How and with whom? Just want to know EXACTLY what you mean so I don't inadvertently do it and go to jail LOL.

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