Mark Twain famously uttered the words, “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” The same could be said of email. As newer digital marketing techniques have become more fashionable, it has become widely assumed that email is on its way out.

For most businesses, however, the numbers tell a different, more positive story. In fact, 59% of B2B marketers say email drives the highest ROI for their businesses, and despite the emergence of new digital channels such as social media and instant messaging, the number of emails is set to increase. In fact, 60%  of consumers prefer to receive promotions via email vs. 20% via social media.

According to Statista, the number of emails sent and received worldwide is expected to reach 333 billion by 2022. According to Quicksprout, email generates greater spend per user than other marketing tools: for every $1 spent on email marketing, companies can expect $32 in return.

So, given all these positive statistics it might seem that email is a no brainer when it comes to your marketing tool kit and it is, if your strategy is steeped in customer insights and your execution aligns to best practices.

For most email marketers the cost of the channel is such that the returns make it worthwhile to inundate the customer with any and all promotional messages on deck. The challenge, however, is that over time customers become increasingly immune to these messages and start to tune them out. Many may go further and unsubscribe, depriving you of a critical strategic asset – a customer’s permission to engage. 66% of consumers unsubscribe from emails because they aren’t relevant.

Becoming more relevant and targeted in your communications with customers is critical because customers typically only opt in to receive email communication from a relatively small group of organizations. According to Statista, more than 50% of US consumers subscribe to email from 6 or fewer brands. You have to work hard to ensure that you are one of these.

The whole opt-in/opt-out issue is becoming more critical as email distribution providers move to a best practice opt-in approach that is increasingly being integrated into legal standards around the world – Europe’s GDPR regulations and California’s Consumer Privacy Act being two prime examples.

If that permission is not obtained, an initially expansive email list can get whittled down very quickly, leaving fewer and fewer email addresses to target. In addition, while not officially unsubscribing, some users may designate an email as spam (a survey by MarketingSherpa suggests that could be as high as 18%). The ISPs and email providers monitor spam and may eventually code as ‘do not mail,’ further reducing the list size. Add to that the advent of the pre-sorted ‘Focused’ inbox in applications, such as Gmail and Outlook, and the risk of not being seen only increases.

So, relevancy is key, and this puts a high premium on not only who to talk to, with what message, but also with what tone of voice. Marketers have made tremendous advances through technology in being able to target highly specific messages to groups of customers and some even to individual customers, but there is often a rear-view mirror aspect to this type of targeting. For example, a customer bought a pair of headphones last time, so the company sends them more of what they liked—more promotional messages on headphones. The reality, as we all know from personal experience, is that with many categories, once we have bought an item, we may not buy another in the category for months or even years. The art is in identifying the affinity or complementary categories in a manner that is not so broad or niche as to be irrelevant.

The creative within the email itself—including content, tone of voice and design—is critical for standing out and resonating with the audience. There are so many emails in a customer’s inbox that are nothing more than email ads with little personality and a very similar look. Getting the tone of voice right and understanding that the email composition contributes strongly to brand perception requires skilled copywriters and designers who understand the channel. Sometimes, it even requires a little bit of risk taking by the organization. Bland copy lacking engaging imagery may not get you fired, but it also doesn’t optimize the medium.

We also need to be aware of the risk of message saturation in the era of the omnichannel digital experience. Email is not the only channel our customers see. If we think of where customers are spending their time—on desktop, in mobile apps, scrolling social media—we need to keep in mind that email is only one of many channels in which your customer may see your messaging.

This is an opportunity if handled correctly. For example, there is strong evidence that customers share email messages on social media. In fact, research shows that messages with social sharing links generate a 158% increase in click-through rates. There is also evidence that email subscribers are 3 times more likely to share content on social media than leads through other channels.

The goal of email marketing must be to provide meaningful, relevant communication with appropriate frequency. That requires a holistic understanding of the experience across channels, not just within email alone. Technology can increasingly help us assemble a view of the journey, but the more nuanced judgment of the experienced marketer is still required to design the rules of contact and content.

To keep it simple, if email is to be a venue for a dialogue with the customer, we should observe the rules of any positive real-world conversation: talk only when you have something interesting to say, say something relevant to the person you’re talking to, and above all, listen.


James Vila

Principal, Strategy & Analytics