While social and content marketing long enjoyed the limelight, email suffered as a marketing tool. But, barber&hewitt’s Michael Barber recently argued that like Mark Twain, the reports of its death by some media outlets has indeed been greatly exaggerated. And brands that want to harness the full potential of this marketing tool – which, notably, has been made increasingly relevant by mobile devices and wearables – should, in part, ensure emails are optimized for mobile, personalized to each customer and put said consumers in the driver’s seat.
By and large, email marketing campaigns suck. Or so said Michael Barber, founder of marketing firm barber&hewitt at Digital Summit Phoenix last week.
That’s in part because 78 percent of email is spam and 94 billion messages per day cost the global economy $20 billion.
In fact, Barber pointed to one brand that sent nine emails on Cyber Monday as a good example of where email marketing has gone wrong.
“For the average person, that is overwhelming,” Barber said.
In addition, subject lines and URLs are too long, call-to-action buttons are too small, multiple column layouts are too confusing, and brand emails still go out with greetings like, “Dear F*Name,” because brands don’t test their messages first.
Yet there’s still a big opportunity to target mobile customers with email. Email interactions are up overall, driven largely by mobile. In fact, Barber pointed to a study that showed 80+ percent of smartphone users said they even use their phones in the bathroom.
Further, per Barber, Think with Google found email assists in the path to purchase and provides a halo effect afterward. And he cited an additional study that found consumers that receive email campaigns have higher touch numbers than those that don’t.
Where Did Email Go Wrong?
“As marketers, we were really enamored with social and content for the last five years and forgot about email,” Barber said. “While we were all enamored with Facebook, Twitter, and content strategies, devices changed and the media turned on us, but they’re starting to turn back.”
In addition, email providers have thrown another wrench into email marketing overall as they have gotten better at filtering by giving consumers the ability to unsubscribe and instantly mark message as spam, “destroying the reputation you’ve built up with a consumer,” Barber said.
He also said email providers have layered on reputation data to the metrics they use to determine whether to deliver a message to an inbox or junk folder or whether to quarantine or block it.
“You do not control this reputation data as a brand or agency. This is controlled by the consumer,” Barber said. “How many consumers open the email, how many mark it as spam, how many delete it…if you have a good reputation, you’ll hit the inbox. If not, you’ll go to junk, etc.”
What’s more, some email providers have moved promotional emails out of the inbox altogether. Further, Gmail’s inbox app allows users to delete a thread by swiping left, which means an entire brand category could, in theory, be gone in a single swipe.
Federal governments have also gotten smarter about email marketing campaigns and spam. Barber pointed to Canada’s tough anti-spam legislation, CASL, in which consumers have to give explicit opt-ins that brands can document that say they are allowed to send consumers emails. Barber doesn’t expect rules like this to appear in the U.S. “in our lifetime,” but noted it will pop up in other countries, making this an important consideration for brands and agencies doing international campaigns.
So, Barber said, email marketers must simply make their messages suck less. And they can do that by focusing on what he calls the Three Ps: Portable, Personal, and Prescriptive.
Portable emails go everywhere users go and follow them throughout their days. Any email that doesn’t do this simply isn’t relevant, Barber said.
And the first step toward creating portable messages is to use a single-column format, like the emails from furniture retailer Room & Board that also have single calls to action around one topic.
“It gets to the point and tells me what it is doing,” Barber said.
Single-column emails also respect that users are busy.
In other words, Barber said, “Tell me what you want me to care about because I don’t have a lot of time.”
In addition, emails should be responsive or mobile aware so they are delivered the right way for the right kind of device.
And calls to action should be larger than 44 pixels to make it easy for consumers to click and arrive at the desired destination, even if they have fat fingers, Barber said. He also highly recommended eliminating “click here to register”-buttons altogether.
For a brand looking to stand out from the crowd, Barber said it’s easy to incorporate GIFs or videos, such as men’s clothing retailers Bonobos and Jack Spade do.
“If you have the ability to create interaction, you should do it,” Barber said.
And don’t forget pre-headers, which are like secondary subject lines and increase the clarity of value for consumers.
Good tools include ReallyGoodEmails.com, Litmus, Targeted.io, and Email on Acid, Barber said.
Brand emails must cater to the needs and desires of each consumer and the experience must be unique to each customer. Personal emails utilize data on what consumers do on the web and in social and on what purchases they make to meet those objectives, Barber said.
That means using tags to layer on interesting elements or social icons to have conversations and expose consumers to a wider audience and to drive social opt-ins.
Brands can even bake in social content by putting real-time social feeds into email campaigns based on when the email is opened, making that message timely and relevant, Barber said.
Consumer data also allows brands to do things like send a welcome email, Barber said. Those messages have 20 to 30 percent higher open rates. And it doesn’t hurt to remember dates like birthdays and anniversaries, which also mean tapping user data in smart ways.
Brands can also tap into information about gender to cater email content or even seasonal elements like weather to have conversations with consumers based on what is happening in real life, such as retailers JackThreads and Bonobos did when it was snowing in Colorado in late May 2014.
“Always give me something more,” Barber said.
He also pointed to Bonobos, which sent a link to a cat video to watch after he placed an order as something to do while he waited for his pants.
“It makes me want to open it,” Barber said. “I can’t help but want to open [future emails] just because I want to continue to interact with the brand.”
Tools for personalization include: StrongView, Janrain, and FullContact.
Brands are no longer in control of their email conversations. They need to let consumers take control or risk destruction of the channel, Barber said. Prescriptive emails do just that.
“We are no longer in control of the conversation,” Barber said.
When working with Maryland waterfront resort destination National Harbor, Barber said the brand asked its 400,000 subscribers what subjects they wanted to hear about and customized its first large call to action based on those responses.
“A really great way to get insights is simply to ask customers what they want,” Barber said.
Brands should also ask consumers how frequently they want to hear from them and give them lots of options.
Also: Give consumers reasons to interact. And if customers don’t start interacting, get a reengagement strategy in place, Barber said.
“Start a campaign flow to get them to be part of the conversation,” he added.
But if customers want to get out of the conversation, make it easy, he recommended, pointing to yoga retailer Lululemon, which puts its unsubscribe button at the top of the page.
Or, give that customer a reason to stay, Barber said, pointing to deal-of-the-day website Groupon, which has a creative “Punish Derrick” video for its customers that want to unsubscribe.
And, finally, Barber said, “Die purchase lists, just die.”
“Every single metric [and piece of] research says it doesn’t do anything good for you. Complaint rates and CTR go in the wrong direction,” he said. “Please stop buying them…this is not what you want to happen.”