Email marketing is hot, hot, hot right now and I'm not saying that because I just got back from MarketingSherpa's Email Summit in Chicago and I'm pumped with post-show fervor.
After three years of non-stop "search marketing rocks" focus, seems like the marketing world is taking a second look at its old pal email. And in 2006 email response rates are looking darned good.
It's not the tired email-is-dead 2003 world anymore. Junk mail didn't kill email the way most "experts" expected. Instead, the struggle to stay afloat in an ocean of junk made permission emailers much, much stronger.
In fact, seems like most attendees and speakers landed their current positions about 18 months ago and they've just revamped their organization's previously moribund email department. Now, armed with test results, cleaner templates and automated systems, they're ready to take response rates to the next level.
You could call it Email 2.0. (In fact, I think I will.)
Nearly everyone's opt-in lists are growing like crazy (20% per year was the lowest number we heard, and that was from an extremely established niche mailer).
Double opt-ins (where people have to sign up and then respond to a confirming email to be truly added to the list) are also rising again as a corporate policy.
This tactic was a stronghold of the very early email marketing community. However, it faded away in 2001 as a broad swathe of "real marketers" leapt on the email bandwagon. The game was all about lists and how to pummel them.
Those days have changed. In the world of Email 2.0, marketers are as concerned with list quality, defined as the true yearning of names to be on your list plus their likelihood to click and convert repeatedly.
When Todd Waterman of 'Christianity Today International' said his email team had switched back to double opt-in about a year ago, a lot of heads nodded in agreement.
Our two favorite tactics from show speakers for getting new opt-ins were:
#1. Tweak test opt-in forms
Proving that no rule is set in concrete, David Kreitzer, Marketing Director Bella Pictures, says he more than doubled opt-in form conversions when he *added* an extra field.
Turns out brides visiting the photographer booking site were far more likely to complete and submit an email form when they were asked for the date of their wedding "to check availability." "It doesn't do anything," admitted Kreitzer. "But she feels like she'll get something immediate back from filling out our form, so it's a good thing."
Kreitzer agreed with everyone that while sweeps and free bonus offers raise opt-ins dramatically, name quality nearly inevitably suffers. He recommended tieing Web analytics and email systems together to be able to track true value of name.
The good news is you don't have to work for a mega-marketer such as HPShopping.com to be able to do it (although their email team revealed that they indeed do tie everything you could desire into one analytics database). Mid-size and low-budget marketers can get in on the integrated tracking fun by using ASP vendors (many with low monthly fee structures) with open APIs.
#2. Use co-registrations
Kevin Doohan, Web Marketing Director ConAgra Foods, told everyone he's constantly looking for ways to shave email program costs -- including ruthlessly cutting frequency on newsletters with lower ROI. Then he slams every penny of savings into buying more co-registrations.
"It's a complete land-grab right now to get permission to get into the in-box."
His offer: a simple recipe PDF download, plus recipe newsletter. His cost per name: "Really cheap." His ROI: "Co-registration names perform extremely well."
Speaker Nick Usborne, Publisher 'Excess Voice' newsletter, said he gets more than 40% of his new names each year from bartered (that's right, free) co-registration partnerships with similar email newsletter publishers. "Once you set up the deal, you sit back and watch the names come in on automatic pilot," he said happily.
Surprisingly, when Usborne asked the jam-packed room how many used co-registration to grow their lists, perhaps only a dozen hands shot up.
Creative -- design for email
The days when your email template was a direct knockoff of your Web site template are over.
Email templates that work are increasingly simple. The only Web site navigation most award winners and speakers prominently included on their email templates was a hotlinked logo and a search button.
Plus, many email templates are slimming down from typically two columns to just one column. In the meantime, typeface font sizes are up -- often to 12 points for body copy.
Images are still critical for many mailers, but smart designers are moving compelling text above the image so if recipients block images, they still see something of interest in their email preview pane.
(By the way, although B-to-B emailers have wrestled with their design to look good in the preview pane for a few years now, according to speaker Loren McDonald of EmailLabs, consumer marketers will have to start worrying soon. Yahoo and MSN Hotmail are scheduled to add preview panes to their email services shortly.)
Creative -- copywriting for email
Seems like nearly everyone has been rethinking their copywriting for house lists this past year.
Partly it's driven by keep-it-simple. How few words can you use to get them to click? Few recipients are actually "reading."
But a bigger part of the change is driven by the nature of the house list itself. You worked hard to gain that opt-in; now to improve ROI you have to keep opt-ins actively interested in your content.
Which means fewer sales alerts, and far less promotional language altogether. In fact copywriters have to split their voice in two. Outbound messages to the non-interested masses have to be peppy to capture interest. That means your Web banners, POP displays, print ads, TV and radio commercials and direct mail campaigns to rented lists should be "promotional" in tone.
Copy for the already-interested audience -- especially email opt-ins, inbound phone calls, and search clicks -- should be far more FACTUAL in tone. You've gotten them to the store, now they'd appreciate it if you'd stop pitching them and serve their information needs instead.
Case Studies presented by marketers as disparate as E-LOAN and Intercontinental Hotels illustrated this point. E-LOAN dumped their old "Click for Lower Rates!" newsletter in favor of a quietly practical personal finance tips ezine with hotlinks to a few tools.
Intercontinental Hotels team decided against mentioning offers in their newsletters for Hotel Indigo. Instead, each month they send opt-ins beautifully photographed epostcards with playful haikus. "Subtle" was the byword in the copy department. And it worked, their clickthroughs are insanely high.
Email -- truly global
Email, along with the Web, is one of the few departments in most marketing organizations to go global. Although we've seen the trend coming, we were surprised by how many marketers mentioned, almost offhandedly, they were now in charge of campaigns to multiple countries.
This doesn't always mean translating everything. As Pamela Jacobs of IBM explained, "We've scaled back. Technical translations can be a problem for most of the world, so English is most-trusted by recipients. We only translate for areas like Russia and Japan where English could be a bigger barrier."
Lesson: If you are translating for local markets, don't ruin recipients' trust in the email medium by relying entirely on US-based translators (or software) to do the job. Have every campaign reviewed by a *local* native.
Another lesson: Some languages (such as German) translate a lot longer. So your carefully crafted call to action above-the-fold may require a heck of a lot of scrolling. Look at what copy looks like, how it lays out in both the preview pane and in the fully opened email for every language you translate into.
Last but not least, bandwidth is rotten in some countries (yes, even at work), so if you're sending people to anything that doesn't work beautifully at 56k, consider an alternate option.
Office politics and the email VP
For many mid-size to large organizations, the biggest email marketing trend is, centralization.
Sometimes co-located with the Web marketing team, email is now a single department. Marketers from various product lines, departments and countries all line up to be served by a single in-house email agency.
The job is both exhilarating and exhausting. You serve as the company permission gatekeeper, legal expert, creative guru, tech manager and analytics expert.
You need tremendous power (stemming from the very top) because often enough you're seen as the big old email meanie. You're the one who slashes copy (non-email writers nearly invariably write too long); enforces brand-wide design rules; carefully throttles frequency; and bars marketers from blasting their targeted offer/news to the whole list.
Interestingly, the biggest battle right now for many (aside from coping with the sheer number of campaigns marketers are heaping at your gate) is fighting off the IT department.
Seems that in many organizations IT has noticed that email marketing is taking off and getting a bigger share of tech budgets. Now IT, which normally makes marketing stand in line for help, is butting into meetings demanding that email tech be brought in-house.
"How do I convince IT they don’t want to manage email?" was one of the biggest questions asked repeatedly at the Summit. Speakers (many of whom had been though the same battle) suggested inviting top ESP and delivery audit/reputation management vendors in for IT presentations.
Turns out when IT people see what a major headache getting email out through filters is (not to mention all the other delivery challenges), often they run from the idea of taking over email.
Another idea -- one marketer brought his head of IT to the Summit and asked him to talk to each of the vendors personally. Now that marketer is about to get out Requests for Proposal (RFP) to their top three outsourcing choices, with IT's full support.
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