What My 15-Year-Old Webmail Account Says About Today's Email Marketers

Recently my Yahoo account turned 15. It doesn’t get much use these days — aside from the occasional seed list for a client project — but it is an epic archive of my life, my career, and to an extent, the evolution of email marketing.

While I’m not going to share the dishy details of my personal correspondence through the years, I can relay a few email marketing insights that became evident while I perused my old account.

Marketers are still afraid to let subscribers go. My habit for hoarding email started somewhere around 2005 or 2006, so I have a hefty inventory of email marketing to observe. Of the retail brands that I subscribed to in the mid-naughts, virtually all are still messaging me.

I have barely used my Yahoo account since 2010, and in most instances, have demonstrated no engagement with these brands for five, six or even seven years. Why on earth would they continue to message me? The answer, naturally, is “just in case.”

Marketers who fall into this camp bring to mind the oft-repeated (but misattributed) definition of insanity: that it’s “repeating the same mistakes over and over again and expecting different results.”

For these marketers’ sake, it’s a good thing email marketing is relatively inexpensive. Even so, the cost of repeatedly mailing a growing segment of disengaged subscribers can still add up over the years — and wouldn’t that money be better spent on savvier strategies aimed at lifting conversions among those who care about your brand?

What’s more, ISPs are wise to IPs that produce low engagement, and dormant addresses are often turned into spam traps. That can seriously affect your ability to inbox among those who ARE interested in your messaging, compromising your bottom line.

Batch-and-blast lives. I noted some very clear upticks in email volume each year among the brands I was subscribed to. All fell neatly into the norms for retail email, from one or two messages per month circa 2007 and 2008, to two to six messages per week by 2014.

And signs of segmentation were very few and far between.

While there’s certainly a possibility that more engaged segments were receiving different messaging than me, I doubt it. When you exclusively deliver sliced, image-heavy, static-width messages, there are just not enough work hours in the week for creative teams to produce multiple versions, nor for marketers to manually schedule them all.

Lots of email marketing remains one-size-fits-all, with no consideration for the recipient. Are they accessing the message on a mobile device? How can each message be tailored to its recipients, their behaviors, and their current sentiment? What are the real-time external factors that may influence them at the moment of open?

There are still many marketers who aren’t considering these questions.

Younger companies are among the most nimble and savvy. As I pulled together my thoughts for this article, I realized that most brands that are still messaging my Yahoo inbox are relatively established. All have been around at least as long as my Yahoo account.

Meanwhile, my experience as a consumer with my Gmail account, my active personal account, is much different. It’s ripe with activity from a wider range of brands, including a lot of startups and other relatively young companies. And while there is still quite a high volume of static, minimally segmented messaging, there are also very clear signs of marketing innovation, including open-time personalization, behavior-based offers, lifecycle marketing, and clever mobile-first templates.

In short, my Gmail account is far more reflective of the technologies and strategies that produce engagement and get us email marketers excited.

I have a theory about this phenomenon. I’ve often noted that the savviest digital marketing is produced by the most nimble — and most accountable — marketing teams. These tend to be at relatively small companies with limited staff and budgets. Automation and personalization are no-brainers in those environments. There’s no time nor resources for inefficient production processes or campaigns that aren’t squarely aimed at producing ROI, because performance is closely aligned with the bottom line.

On the flipside, I’ve found larger, older, more complex companies are quite challenged when it comes to revenue attribution and campaign production. In many instances, they just can’t quantify email marketing results too far beyond basic engagement metrics. Streamlined processes are a pipe dream, since too many individuals, teams, and vendors have a hand in their email, leading to long turnaround times and the dreaded design by committee. So it’s really no surprise that large, established brands are often behind the curve when it comes to highly contextual and streamlined email marketing — despite ample budgets.

So what does my Yahoo inbox say about today’s email marketers?

Quite simply, there's still a lot of room for innovation, even among savvier marketers. And it’s time to get motivated about the possibilities of today’s data-driven email marketing.

Don’t fall into the trap of doing as your competitors do. It’s time to lead the way and send your subscribers the right message at the right moment. It’s time to take advantage of the awesome automation tools you’re probably paying for, but not leveraging. It’s time to boost efficiency — to spend less time dealing with production so there’s more time for optimization. It’s time to dive into your subscriber data, to shed dead weight, and boost deliverability and engagement. It’s time to align IT and marketing to enable better data integration, attribution, and relevant cross-channel messaging.

Email marketing is the number-one ROI-producing digital channel. It’s time to get serious about making it work for your company.

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