What’s the Future of E-Mail Marketing?

e-mail communicationsOver the past several years, I’ve begun to hear increasing rumblings about how e-mail is a now-mature communications method that’ll eventually go the way of the FAX machine. 

But I’m not at all sure I believe that.  I think it’s more likely that e-mail’s future will look … a lot like it does today. 

No doubt, texting and direct messaging have cut into some of the bread-and-butter aspects of e-mail communications.  But what about e-mail marketing?  Could we see a similar phenomenon happening?

Recently, I read the comments of e-communications specialist Loren McDonald on this very topic.  McDonald, who is vice president of industry relations at digital marketing technology firm Silverpop, makes an important point concerning the “building blocks” that have to be in place before e-mail marketing will be seriously threatened by alternative MarComm means.

McDonald speaks about the challenge of an “addressable audience” when it comes to alternative channels:  “Regardless of a competing channel’s popularity, marketers must be able to deliver a comparable or replacement message to an individual.  This is where many channels fall short,” he contends.

Loren McDonald
Loren McDonald

McDonald notes that most marketers possess vastly more permission-based e-mail addresses than they do mobile phone numbers with permission to text.  It’s the same story when comparing e-mail addresses to the percentage of their database that have liked their company’s Facebook page.

And there’s more:  For mobile apps, what portion of the typical company’s database has downloaded it and authorized notifications?  The inevitable response:  How low can you go?

McDonald’s point is that for these alternative channels to gain true significance, they need to achieve a certain critical mass in terms of adoption rates – thereby allowing marketers to reach their customers and prospects in a comparable manner as they can via e-mail (as well as at a comparable cost).

Looking into his own crystal ball, McDonald feels fairly confident making three predictions concerning the future of e-mail marketing:

  • He predicts that content-focused newsletters will remain relevant and popular, particularly for B-to-B companies and publishers.  That’s because marketers can push multiple newsletter articles within a single marketing touch, while publishers can attract ads and sponsorships for their e-newsletters (i.e. they’re moneymakers for them).
  • For broadcast/promotional messages, most consumers will continue to prefer e-mail delivery.  “Will mobile app users [really] want their smartphones to ping them all day long whenever a message arrives — and then have to click attain to view it?”, he asks rhetorically.
  • Transactional and triggered messages will be e-mail’s primary challengers in McDonald’s view – especially for bulletin-type messages such as breaking news headlines, weather alerts, flight delay announcements, “flash” promotions and sales, and order confirmations linked to in-app landing pages.

And even on this third prediction, McDonald doesn’t see the transition happening all that quickly.

I find myself in general agreement with Loren McDonald’s prognostications.  Do you have some differing views?  If so, please share them with other readers here.

How the B-to-B Sales Process is Changing

In my 20+ years in industrial, commercial and other non-consumer marketing communications, I’ve witnessed more than a few “big trends” affecting the nature of the selling process in the business realm.

One of the biggest of these is the approach that customers take when evaluating products and services they might be interested in purchasing. Recent research findings about these behaviors has been published that sheds more interesting light on where things are at the moment.

A survey of ~300 B-to-B managers was conducted in late 2009 by e-Research for Marketing (E-RM) for Colman Brohan Davis, a Chicago-based marketing organization. This survey, which was limited to respondents age 35 or younger, found that only a few of the 13 tools used to research products and services represented “traditional media” – print-based resources, trade shows, or consulting with industry colleagues by phone or in person.

Furthermore, the study found that even these four tactics are losing their importance compared to the use of online social networks, which were exploding in usage.

These survey results reminded me of a comment made by Adam Needles, director of B-to-B field marketing at Silverpop, an e-mail marketing company based in Atlanta. “Somewhere around age 30 to 35, you can draw a line in the sand between people who are used to calling around to get everything and [where it’s been] all about relationships face-to-face.”

In contrast, Needles has this to say about younger staffers who conduct a great deal of the buying cycle online: “You have people whose expectation is that companies should put everything on their web sites; they should be getting real-time feeds and information, and companies should be totally integrated into … the blogosphere.”

Younger staffers tend to be influencers more than decision-makers. But this is not to diminish their importance, as they are the ones charged with conducting the research and drafting investigative report summaries and preliminary recommendations. Ferreting out information through resources like webinars and social platforms such as Twitter and blog posts, while it may seem exotic and less consequential to older colleagues, is not at all foreign to these staffers.

And we shouldn’t forget that today’s “influencer” at a company is very likely tomorrow’s “decision-maker.”

Which gets us back to the ER-M study. One big takeaway from that research was that customers are looking into all the corners of offine and online communications to find the information they feel they need to make risk-averse and “CYA” decisions that are also the successful ones that pay off well – hence building their reputations inside their company.

Tactics like direct mail marketing may seem old-hat or even quaint, but they can still be quite effective, while e-mail marketing, while fast and cheap, elicits resistance from some because they feel inundated with marketing materials that are irrelevant to their needs.

I guess it’s yet more challenging news for already-fractured marketing communications program tactics that continue to be under tight budget constraints.