Does email marketing actually work?

At least half the small business owners I’ve talked to recently have no active email campaigns in place, much less a robust email strategy with segmented lists and trigger campaigns. They’re missing out on one of the biggest marketing opportunities, particularly since many of them have long lists of past customers and clients. Why are business owners reluctant to invest in email?

Email marketing does indeed work, when done correctly. The truth is that email has a bad rap—and it’s partially marketers’ fault. Email marketing has been around nearly as long as the technology to send electronic mail has existed. And guess what? So has spam. In fact, savvy consumers have a spam account and a personal account (or several), and they’ll never divulge their personal email to a brand or store. That could mean that your carefully crafted messages are never seen at all! But you can't discount the entire channel just because you can't reach all of the people all of the time.

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Marketing related, of course!

To clarify, I’m not saying that all marketers send spam. Reputable marketing professionals wouldn’t send it on behalf of their clients, and we work hard to provide real value in email campaigns that customers actually want, whether it’s special offers and discounts or uniquely curated content. But spam continues to persist in the market, as do intrusive marketing emails. In fact, the CAN-SPAM Act was created by the Federal Trade Commission to combat spam on behalf of consumers; if you do any kind of emailing for your business, you need to understand and follow the CAN-SPAM rules.

All of this has given us a distrust of email, which has been exacerbated by the difficulty of breaking through cluttered inboxes. Several years ago Gmail instituted a tabbed inbox that has challenged marketers further since marketing-based emails get shuttled off to secondary sections and may not be seen in the primary view. And mobile behavior created an entirely new challenge for marketers since many customers judge an email by the summary on their smartphones to determine whether to open or delete it—meaning you have even less real estate to convince someone not to swipe it into the trash.

Still, email has been and will continue to be an effective marketing tool in both B2C and B2B environments. Here are some of the most recent stats and figures:

  • Email has a higher penetration rate than social media, particularly within older demographics; the Pew Center reports that 92% of online U.S. adults regularly use email. Furthermore, while social usage varies by demographic and changes as platforms fall in and out of favor, email service providers have remained relatively consistent and widely used.
  • 54% of marketers rate email as their most effective tool, and 58% plan to increase their investment in email this year, according to a recent report from the AMA. Email open rates vary by industry and can reach up to 30%; click through rates are lower, but email is still an important piece of the marketing funnel. People read emails in bed, over coffee, while commuting, even on the toilet
  • Email is one of the few opt-in methods of advertising. While many channels are based on interruption, people who’ve signed up for emails actively expressed interest in hearing from you, making them more receptive to your content and offers. That becomes more important as developments like ad blockers and Google’s kill switch come into focus, potentially opening up creative avenues by shifting investment away from digital ads.
  • Trigger campaigns are still under-utilized: Personalized, action-triggered emails such as those sent to convert customers who abandoned shopping carts is widely regarded as a successful tactic, yet less than a third of online retailers leverage it. It’s a big area of untapped potential for e-commerce businesses, where competition is fierce and the right follow up with a compelling offer can help you make the sale.

The first step in improving your email campaign performance is to sit down with your team and analyze what’s working and what isn’t, reviewing content, segments, subject lines, day of week, time of day, open rates and click rates for each campaign. Take a look at your list’s overall dynamics too; how many are opening on mobile devices, how many new subscribers are you getting, when are people unsubscribing, and how many are bouncing? Most importantly, how do your emails perform across a wide range of mobile devices? Responsive design and mobile optimization are critical factors for success given the U.S. frequency of smartphone use.

Then, start talking openly about your customer journey—and be honest. When is the right time to email, with what message? What kind of content and offers might be valuable to the different kinds of people on your list, and how could you segment it accordingly? What’s a typical path to purchase, and where are there opportunities to re-engage consumers who visited your store or site? Brainstorm some ideas, and think about how email fits into your attribution model and overall marketing mix, online and offline.

Whether you decide to tackle an email upgrade yourself with an in-house team or hire an outside expert, doing the brainstorming and knowing the answers to those questions can help you grow and leverage your list to improve your bottom line.


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