Marketing Expert's Corner

This article written in 2009


For UNIX and PC boxes, the beginning of time is Jan 1970.  The first long-distance inter-computer communications were sent in 1969, over ARPANET.  In 1971, the first email was sent.  In 1984, I received my first email on a PDP/11-70 green-screen terminal while at work at Stanford Research Institute.

I couldn't believe what a lousy substitute email was for a phone call or even a paper memo.  At that time, email was about the quality of an IM... without any of the social networking aspects.  Of all the people I knew and worked with, only 4 had email accounts.  But it was the Internet.

I never really used email again until I joined Sun in 1988.  Dozens of emails a day -- and NO spam.  While there was a high volume of useless and irrelevant email, there were no advertisers and no chance of a virus.  Ah, those innocent bygone days of ASCII.

Why the tedious trip down memory lane?  This is supposed to be a newsletter about marketing, right?  Well, to use email effectively, you have to go back to first principles:  

  • What problem are you trying to solve?
  • Why did you choose email to solve it? 
  • How can you optimize your intended outcome?

You've Got Mail

To stay objective, I have to start out by declaring my bias:  I think email -- the way it is used in business -- is an abomination.  Despite its overwhelming usefulness, email marketing brings with it a plague of time-wasting and credibility-limiting behaviors.  It is well documented to waste hundreds of hours per year for every worker.  Next time you click on a virus or a phishing scam delivered by email, join with me in cursing this spurge.

From a marketing perspective, we have to look way way beyond "email blasting" as the topic here.  Because in many industries, email dominates all other media as the way a business communicates with its customers and prospects. If your company value is tied to your reputation and the lifecycle value of customers, you've got a lot to think about here:  to a reasonable degree, email messages are your company.

   "I feel that if a person has problems communicating, the very least he can do is to shut up."
                 - my college math professor

The Electronic Communications Mix

Take a look at the communication flow out to and in from your customers.  Measured by volume or frequency of contact, the main channels are typically:

  • email
  • web
  • postal mail
  • phone
  • in person (particularly sales and service)

Ironically, the last two on the list are likely to be the most important and high-credibility conversations you can have with prospects and customers.  Some will argue that in terms of credibility and impact, the list should be inverted.  But here we're focusing on email precisely because it's so ubiquitous, misused, and ineffective. 

Interruption-Based Marketing

Email and internet advertising are at the core of many companies' outbound marketing.  All too often, companies are so focused on their need to generate leads and sell that they all but ignore  the customer's interest.  So their messages are not intrinsically valuable:  they're basically a nuisance.

The statistics tell the tale:  over half of all email is junk and spam.  This is approaching what it took the US Postal Service 235 years to achieve (68% junk).  Email response rates have fallen well below 1% (in a recent seminar, I heard 3% hailed as a great number), which is again exactly what postal mail took so long to achieve.*

Unless, of course, the mail is relevant.  Offer your audience something they actually want, in the form and time that they want it, and double-digit response rates happen.  But only if you care enough to send the very best:  information the customer actually wants, crafted in a way that's easy to consume.

The problem with this is, it ain't cheap.  Forget about blasting to a list that you haven't groomed.  Put time in to carefully planning and executing, customizing your message to fit the needs of your segments.  Don't know who your segments are?  You can't effectively communicate unless you know who your audience is, and what they care about.  Time to do some homework.

Horizontal vs Vertical Emailing

Everyone knows about a general email blast:  this is horizontal coverage, hitting your audience perhaps once a month.  But what about vertical campaigns?

The idea is, once a prospect has indicated interest (started a thread of the conversation of commerce), a sequence of individually-tailored emails is sent at carefully planned times.  The automation needs to be subtle, and not look like a robot.  Particularly, a vertical email threads needs to be stopped if there is a human interaction with the prospect.  While it's perfectly reasonable to start a new thread tailored to the new "state of play" in the conversation, continuing the old one (triggered by, say, a web registration) will erase the credibility you are trying to build.

As you can imagine, setting up these autoresponder systems is quite the chore.  It's not a problem with the software products -- these are just complicated workflows that somebody in marketing has to think through and design for scores of interaction and interest paths. 

Crafting all those messages and updating them (for little things like the Christmas season or new product introductions) is quite the job, and must be tended to fairly often.  If you're going to do sophisticated email marketing , you'll probably need to dedicate at least one person to make the system really sing.  Don't let the vendors tell you otherwise.  And don't forget the landing pages that typically need to be customized for each of the vertical campaigns.

Good news for the Marketing workforce -- this function can be expensive to outsource, and is hopeless to send overseas

Is Email Even the Right Model?

For most outbound marketing, email is a reasonable and economic choice.

But what about in-bound and ongoing customer communications?  Of course, you want people to email you when they're curious or just plain lost.  In that mode, email is just a substitute for the phone.

There are a bunch of other situations, though, where the very model of email is just not effective.  Email is point to point, asynchronous communication, but there are a lot of information exchanges that don't fit that model.  Email is a lousy way to have a group conversation, and is a very frustrating way of sharing information.  Let's look at the alternatives (taking the phone for granted):

  • IM / Chat -- one to one synchronous
  • Group IM -- many to many synchronous
  • Forums / Discussion groups / Subscribed Lists -- many to many asynchronous
  • Blogs and Podcasts - one to many asynchronous
  • Twitter / Facebook / What Ever --one to many (a)synchronous
  • Kiosk -- many to many asynchronous
  • Portal -- creates the fiction of one-to-one synchronous

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that mature companies should be offering all of these to their prospects and customers.  A priori, you don't know which media and communication styles are going to work for your audience trying to achieve their pre- and post-sale goals.  Let the customers vote with their feet:  they'll tell you not only what they're interested in, but how it's easiest for them to interact with you.

Done right, "this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship..."

*Interestingly, postal mail response rates are actually going up in some B2B industries, now 
that most marketers have stopped overusing it.  There's life in print, after all.  My secret  
weapon:  using FedEx to get to the prospects and customers that really matter.

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