Email Is Not Dead, But Preferences Need to Evolve

On the direct marketing landscape, email is as strong as ever. Over the past month, DoubleClick, ExactTarget , and Habeas have released studies testifying to the overall strength of email as a marketing channel. This comes as a response to a string of recent articles claiming that "email is dead." It simply isn't true. Consumers are comfortable buying through email and they feel comfortable receiving permission based email from companies they trust. In fact, across the board consumers prefer email when dealing with businesses for most communications -- and they don't see that changing any time in the near future.




I am delighted that the email marketing community has responded to these false alarms with responsible and compelling data. Email is the established technology for outbound digital messaging. That said, new channels are emerging. Much like traditional media, direct marketing is becoming fragmented. In the '90s we added email to the direct marketing mix of direct mail and telemarketing. Since 2000, there has been an explosion of new communication tactics added to the one-to-one marketers toolkit. We need to move beyond showing the value of email to highlighting the roles it plays in a fragmented one-to-one environment.

This week at the Email Insiders Summit, we heard from a group of college students about their media preferences and how they use technology. Guess what? They were all different. While there were some overall themes, the glaring reality was that they all used a different set of tools for communication, and they used those tools differently. As much as we may try to categorize communication preferences by demographic data points such as age or income, there are consumers who break the mold. In the 2008 Channel Preference Survey, we found some teenagers prefer to communicate with friends and family through snail mail, and some senior citizens are heavy into text messaging. How do we serve customers under these circumstances?

Start Listening!

So think, what would your marketing program look like if you communicated with consumers more like you communicate with your friends and family? In marketing, we regularly come across deals that we know are a good value and want to share. How do we pass this information along to those closest to us? Do they all go through email? Text only? Do you call 20 of your closest friends? More than likely you communicate to different people differently. After all, they are real people, not lists of faceless contacts. To listen to our consumers means that we need to commit to serving our customers and honoring their unique preferences. These preferences come in several forms:

1. Opt-in. Do your consumers want to hear from you at all? Are you on my "friends" list? This is the base level we have all become accustomed to, but we need to go deeper.

2. Type of communication by channel. How do they want to receive promotions? What about account statements or travel alerts? Recently, I received a flight cancellation notice by text message. Thankfully, this came just before I dropped off my rental car at LAX, so I was able to rebook another flight while driving to Orange County. If this had been sent only through email, I would have seen the message too late. For flight delays, text messages are my preference. If the same airline were to send promotions via text, it would be the end of our relationship. I want the deals, just send them through email.

3. Frequency. How often is too often? Again, this is a personal preference by the consumer. Otherwise, we are just playing the law of averages. As we move into more channels, these frequency preferences will need to be honored by channel. Email once a week, direct mail monthly, text messaging -- only in emergencies!

4. Content. "Opting-in" should not be an on/off switch. Give me a chance to tell you what I want and don't want. Aggregate information that is relevant to me so that you don't violate my frequency preferences.

From my airline, I want messages about promotions in email, I want my statements and receipts in email -- I can archive and sort them there. I don't want messages about sweepstakes. I want alerts by phone, but if I don't answer, send me a text message. Don't bother me with partner programs, I already have more frequent flier points than I can use. Don't assume that one channel works for me. Honor channels, frequency, and content... or I will turn to another suitor who will listen.

To do this, we need to evolve and take channel preferences seriously. There are already companies taking the lead in this area. The financial services industry was forced to tighten up communication preference centers to combat phishing scams; National City Bank stands out as a good example.

Email may not be dead, but it is not the end-all channel either. The solution to one-to-one marketing fragmentation depends on our ability to capture preferences, listen over time, and adapt accordingly. The people that you communicate to want to be in control, they want to provide input into your programs, and soon, I believe they will demand control. So, build the tools to listen now and reap the rewards for years to come.

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