Commentary

GDPR Will Confirm Email Marketing As King Of ROI

Some marketing gurus may be looking at today's release of email metrics from the Direct Marketing Association as further proof that email is on the wane. The channel we've all been using since the 90s to say hello to one another and stay in touch with brands is constantly written off.

A surprise to all might be that not only is the channel alive and kicking -- it could actually be about to be given a shot in the arm by new General Data Protection Regulation rules, which at first seemed draconian but now might appear a little more welcome. Let me explain.

Regular readers will know that I am a massive fan of email and do not swallow the line that it is doomed given the rise of messaging platforms and social media. However, we do need to take on board what the DMA is showing us. Open rates in the UK during 2016 remained at about the same level as in previous years of around an average of 14% -- which means that roughly one in seven delivered emails are opened. When it gets to the business end, however, click-throughs are down from around 1.8% to 1.6%, eMarketer reports today. Click-to-open rates are also down in 2016 compared to the year before, from around 13% to 11%. 

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So the drops are pretty small, although still worth mentioning. Are they a sign that email has lost its allure? Not really. I would contend that after a couple of years researching email marketing heavily, it is often a victim of its own success. Again, let me explain.

The problem is that email is a very cost-effective means of reaching out to customers and prospects, and nearly whenever you look at any research, it tops marketers' ROI league table. It also comes with the added bonus that, unlike social, the list is yours. It is not subject to organic filtering by a platform owner who wants to charge you to promote messages to those who didn't get it first time round. It is also not subject to the concern of everyone ditching a platform for the latest new place to digitally hang out. The list is yours.

The result has been an over-reliance on email. It depends which study you look at, but volumes have hugely increased. Whereas one or two emails might have been the monthly norm for a brand a few years ago, many marketers are now sending that number every week.

The result has been twofold. Of course, when people feel inundated with so many messages they begin to ignore or probe their inbox less deeply. The other behaviour is that they open a new email account and use that to interact with brands. This habit is becoming increasingly common, particularly with millennials. The messages still get checked, only less frequently -- and of course, they're being batch read, so only those that truly stand out will be formally opened and then achieve a click-through.

This puts us in a position where email lists are bloated, too many emails are being sent out and so consumers are adapting. Selecting a long list of overnight marketing messages for deletion is commonplace, as is a second account or filter through which brand messages are separated out.

So by tasking email marketers with re-permissioning email lists by the time GDPR's massive fines begin to bite from the end of May next year, those lists will only get smaller. The people who have just languished on lists because it's easier to delete emails rather than click through to unsubscribe will have an opportunity to be taken off. And believe me, they will.

It will hurt and it will come as a shock to email marketers to have their flock reduced, but I would suggest this is a top-line vanity metric that will be declining, and if people weren't interested in keeping in touch they were simply bringing down the metric that matters more -- the proportion of people an email drives through to the company's web site. 

So if this sensible metric has been diminished by the overall email net being cast ever wider, it's likely to bounce back next year, by which time companies should have prepared for GDPR. Email is far from dead -- it's not even on its knees. My prediction is that once re-permissioning has happened, engagement metrics will shoot up to new highs.

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