There are "marketing-related" emails and there are "transactional" emails. It's as simple as that!
Defined, transactional email is designed to fulfill a transactional request between a customer and business. This can be a password announcement, opt-in communication, delivery notification, order confirmation, customer service notice or response, registration response, event reminder, membership updates, statement delivery or any systematic communication used to support a customer purchase or membership event. If you think about it, this can easily represent 50% of your email traffic in a business. How many of your marketing groups own control over what is put in these messages? In my experience this can be really fragmented and often controlled by IT, the Web team, customer service, and every group but marketing.
This is likely why so little has been done with this "inventory." Yes, "inventory." While each email has a functional value to the consumer, it also has a business value to the business and should be considered "inventory." While many in the direct marketing world will scoff at the value of sticking a company logo on a confirmation email and seeing the real value of this, there are infinite opportunities to build suggestion into the fulfillment. We've been doing this for years with direct mail and call center order fulfillment. Why not email?
I often use the likes of Dell as an example of early adopters who have aggressively used transactional messaging as a marketing element, because it was easy to do, not necessarily because it was a great program.
SkyMall has an interesting approach. Rather than promote its own products in its transactional emails, which would seem to make sense since it's a catalog of products, the company opted to use this real estate to sell partnerships openly. It's an interesting approach, yet a good example of how marketers can forget that customers really do read their email. I purchased a water bowl dispenser for my dog and a file organizer that I saw on SkyMall. Guess what offer I got in the body of the email? Netflix! I still can't seem to find the connection. Do they think because I'm so involved with my pet that I'll purchase a $75 water bowl, I'm likely to stay home or order movies by mail? Not very relevant, yet I can understand (as a marketer) how this happened.
Most everyone I know in the space is trying to monetize their email database, some through direct orders, some through selling their lists, some selling media inserts into their email programs, and some simply through co-reg on the site. Not many are trying to monetize the transactional messages. The SkyMall instance is a good example that depending on who is reviewing it, a transactional email can be deemed progressive or poorly executed. Personally it didn't hit the mark, but I have to give them credit for trying.
A purchase event is a continuous process. It's our obligation as marketers to recommend products and services that may be of interest to our customer at every point of contact. We can't always wait for the motivated consumer; the marketing spend is far too expensive to support this over time.
Here are some programs you can use to model your programs. Note: Not all are great email programs, but each have unique elements and do many things well.
Not all programs can afford this approach, but if you looked at all your email across your company that is used to communicate to a customer, and managed it like "inventory" on a yield basis, I think you'd see a new financial model that would help on many levels.