Why Emails Still Matter

Cross-functional marketing revolves around email.

Think about it:

  • Email is the most direct way to reach audiences 1:1
  • People keep their email addresses for years
  • An email address can tell you whether a user is at work or at home
  • Emails let you connect with users no matter what device they’re using
  • People use their email addresses to create accounts all over the web (like Pinterest, Facebook, Twitter, and even your website)
  • Email can help you kickstart your company’s lead nurturing flow

The goal of this post is to help you (1)understand how companies track users online, (2)use email addresses as a core unit of analysis, (3)start collecting email addresses to kickstart your marketing funnel. Let’s get started.

A Brief History of Email

Here’s the short story—marketers ruined email.

The long story?

Email marketing dates back to the earliest days of the internet. Somewhere, along the road, marketers realized that they could email consumers with advertisements. Then the abuse began. Consumers found themselves bombarded with more emails than they could handle.

“Zero-inbox” became something nearly impossible to achieve. We started becoming more and more dependent on our spam filters. We just couldn’t take it anymore, so we stopped listening.

We started opening emails at lower and lower rates. We demanded a high value from our advertisers and refused to settle for anything else. If advertisers wanted our attention, they would have to respect our needs.

Ben Legg, CEO at Adknowledge, provides a great overview of email “then and now.”

Here is a summary of his most important points:

Historically, email has been one of the most important channels for driving ROI. Think back to a decade ago—email was the #1 channel used by marketers. Targeting was, at first, very broad, but over time, marketers became more refined in their targeting capabilities.

Over time, email became less prominent as a marketing channel. People started thinking about email marketing as spam. Unsubscribe rates reached a record high. Consumers began putting pressure on companies to back off.

Adknowledge believes that email is an incredibly valuable and responsible targeting channel. Ben Legg encourages marketers to stick to the following best practices when developing their email campaigns:

  1. Consolidate your view of your customersEmail addresses are the core unit of analysis for identifying customers. All other consumer data points can be attributed this fundamental targeting component. You can combine mobile, social media, and email data using an email address only. This consolidated customer view will be invaluable to your ad targeting moving forward.
  2. PersistenceOther forms of identification—like web cookies—are temporary at best. These disappear and deteriorate over time. Email, however, is something that users keep checking for the long-haul—typically, years. This means that email databases will be relevant for longer than any other tracking capability.
  3. Integrated MessagingYour customers’ and prospects’ identities follow them all over the web. Email is the heart of this targeting journey. Marketing databases allow advertisers to segment users based on historical data. The result? It’s even easier to reach audiences with the right message, at the right time, on the right platform. Facebook’s Custom Audiences ad product, for instance, allows targeting of ads to consumers from their email addresses.
  4. Integrated MeasurementTrack how much you’re spending and how much revenue you’re generating over the long-term. Email addresses can help you combine this data picture across marketing platforms. Your marketing automation software can help you consolidate these touch points across channels.

Understanding User-Level Tracking

Traditionally, online advertisers and marketers have used browser-level data (through cookies) to capture visitor information. The challenge with cookie-based data, however, is that it’s unreliable. For one, cookies can be cleared. Users can also block them.

The biggest problem with cookies, however, is that they might not be tracking users correctly. Browsing experiences aren’t limited to peoples’ home computers. We browse the internet from our phones, tablets, work computers, home computers, Google Glass devices—and everything in between.

That’s why email is such a powerful unit of analysis. It’s the one identifier that consolidates all of our browsing experiences across social media, our favorite websites, our mobile devices, and everything else.

Marketing automation treats email as the basic unit of analysis, no matter what platform you’re using to target your audience.

Email will always matter.

Email can help you

(1) group your customers and prospects into user segments and

(2) reach these audiences at natural touch points throughout the marketing funnel—on social media, on your blog, and 1:1 via your inbox.

Hold Up. Why Reach Audiences at Multiple Touch Points?

There are two reasons why your company needs to reach audiences across engagement channels. Reason #1 is the conversion funnel and reason #2 has to do with measurement and attribution.

Let’s start with #1.

It takes approximately two minutes to buy a product or sign up for a service online. But keep in mind that the path to reaching that point is far more complex. There is way more htappening behind the surface, beyond what you see.

Users may spend hours on your site reading blog posts, analyzing case studies, comparing products, and testing demos before they decide to spend money.

The decision-making process may take several weeks and span multiple marketing mediums. For instance, a user might find your product through a Facebook ad, subscribe to your email newsletter, read your blog everyday, and then decide to call you for more details. The actual transaction may happen online or over the phone.

The process looks like a funnel because there’s drop-off at each stage of the process. Only a portion of your website visitors and blog subscribers will want to do business with you.

What’s important to understand about conversion funnels is that customers may not be ready to buy the first time they browse your website. So stop trying to sell, and focus on engagement instead. Treat each stage of the conversion funnel as a sales checkpoint.

The conversion funnel can be broken down into the following stages:

Funnel Stage Marketing Goal Key Actions
Discovery Brand-building New Visits
Realization of Need Generate action
  • Liking a Brand Page on Social Media
  • Email List Sign-up
  • Sharing a Blog Post/Piece of Content
Consideration Maintain interest
  • Return Visits
  • Retargeting Ad Click
  • Researching a product on a third-party site
  • Reading product reviews on-site
  • Comparing items with competitors
Conversion Drive purchases Orders/Sales
Retention Encourage repeat business Repeat Orders/Sales

Each part of the conversion funnel falls into one of five brand marketing categories:

  • Awareness:
    • Prospects find out about your brand for the first time.
    • New customers learn about a product or service that you’re selling.
  • Consideration:
    • Prospects realize that they’re interested in your company.
    • Prospects return for more information.
    • Prospects download a resource or get in touch with a company sales rep.
  • Engagement:
    • Prospects and customers engage with your brand by returning to your web site and interacting with more marketing materials.
    • Prospects and customers share your products (and marketing messages) with their friends and family through social media
  • Conversion:
    • Website visitors buy a product for the first time.
  • Retention:
    • Customers buy a product again.
    • Customers come back to your website to continuously re-engage.

Understanding Context

Context is key to successful marketing automation. In addition to figuring out how to reach audiences and how to line up with specific stages of the conversion funnel, you need to understand what your audiences are doing.

Step 1 of this process is to categorize your marketing automation.

Are you driving business-to-business growth (B2B), or are you trying to reach consumers (B2C)?

The answer to this question will drastically alter your approach to email marketing and automation.

In a B2B setting, audiences are driven by incentives to perform well in their jobs and help their employers grow. These prospects (and existing customers) are likely at work, at home thinking about work, or consuming content on their phones. The key is to reach these audiences during business hours—peak times when they are thinking about, well, work.

In a B2C setting, audiences are in a major need of a brain break. They’re probably also at work, shopping during their lunch breaks or checking their phones between meetings.

Step 2 of this process is to understand your audiences’ incentives.

Here is a table that breaks down customer incentives in B2B and B2C contexts:

  • How can I make an impact on my business?
  • How can I advance as a decision maker?
  • How can I justify my worth and role?
  • What steps should I take to becoming an expert in my industry?
  • How do I make my boss happy?
  • Will I get my bonus this quarter?
  • How can I earn a great performance evaluation?
  • What can I do to get a raise?
  • How can I do my job better?
  • What products will help me excel in my role?
  • How can I maximize my family time?
  • How can I stay healthy and sane?
  • What can I do to become a better parent?
  • What products will make my life more fulfilling?
  • How do I make more out of my income?
  • Am I getting the best bargain?
  • Do I look and feel great?

Step 3 of this process is to align Step 2 with specific stages of the conversion funnel.

Get ready for some awesome examples…

B2C Inspiration: HP’s Slate Campaign

Email can help guide users through all stages of the conversion funnel. Here is an example that shows you how — from Kathryn Aragon

At the heart of her blog post, Kathryn Aragon explains that traffic acquisition is only part of the marketing equation.

Marketers need to look at the overall campaign, which includes the sales message that leads up to the landing pages and messages that marketers are using to follow up with their audiences. Cohesion is key to the success of your marketing automation strategy.

The point of Kathryn’s message is elegant and simple: focus on how email fits into the entire journey. This one simple technique will position your campaign as valuable instead of spammy.

Let’s jump into Kathryn’s example:

She starts with a breakdown of a campaign from HP. As you can see, there are three stages—user acquisition, conversion, and purchase intent. The conversion funnel here is extremely clear. The deeper the user travels through HP’s marketing funnel, the more likely they will be to make a purchase.

  1. Smart Move One: Branding – Kathryn emphasizes that HP has delivered a well-branded experience that is centralized around subtle details, including HP’s simple color scheme. She explains that “all three pieces use a modular design with lots of white space, creating an open, interesting design that draws people deeper into the sales copy, even if they already like what they see.”Kathryn points out that big brands and small businesses alike need to maintain a similar attention to detail. No matter how big or small your business might be, you need to reinforce your brand throughout the conversion process. Over time, consumers will start to associate your brand with psychology —a milestone that is pivotal to the conversion optimization process.
  2. Smart Move Two: A Clearly Defined Sequence – In this campaign, the path from discovery to conversion is frictionless—the steps that consumers need to stake from start to finish make sense. HP has been thoughtful about user psychology, fully understanding how audiences respond to each touch point in the conversion funnel. Rather than focusing on email alone, HP examines the email within the context of the full user flow. This process is crucial to the marketing automation process.Tip: Diagram your user flows. Map everything out on a whiteboard (literally) to outline your sequence, marketing goals, and actions that you want consumers to take. UX is something important to outline at the conceptual level. Once you have a clearly defined strategy that explains what and why, you’ll be well-positioned to execute on your tactics.
  3. Smart Move Three: Optimizing All Touch Points – Each and every touchpoint of this campaign is mapped to a specific stage of the conversion funnel. Rather than bombarding consumers with a one-size-fits-all sales pitch, HP’s campaign is incredibly thoughtful about what audiences are thinking about and at what stage.As Kathryn points out in her post, the email is the first touch point in the campaign. It’s purpose is to capture readers’ attentions. The email was sent specifically to HP customers—an audience with a potential interest and affinity with the brand.The email is equal parts personable (the headline) and compelling (the pitch & picture). It’s short, sweet, direct, and to the point. Readers have a black and white option here—they’re either interested or they’re not. The information is optimized for users to make a split-second decision:

    Inevitably, there are going to be some audiences who perceive the world in shades of gray, not black and white. These readers will need more information before deciding whether to click-through to learn more. What’s important to keep in mind is that these audiences might also be on their smartphones.

    These consumers would much prefer swiping down on their devices than clicking through to a new webpage. Readers can scan the full list of benefits in the email itself:

    Everything on the email is clickable, which is important for facilitating movement through the user flow of this campaign. Which brings us to step 2: the landing page.

    If you thought the email was thorough, wait until you see the landing page that HP designed. It’s a centralized location for audiences to learn about everything Slate. There is a tab on the landing page, which makes it easy to navigate and learn about features.

    Ready to buy? Just click through to the sales page to make your purchase, right then and there. While the email is optimized for attention-grabbing and the landing page is optimized for educating, the sales page is clearly optimized for selling.

  4. Smart Move Four: Being Astute to User Intent – Could you imagine of the user intents were somehow jumbled? For instance, imagine that the email was optimized for selling and that the sales page was optimized for educating. The entire marketing campaign would fall flat. That’s why sequencing is so important. Remember that email is, ultimately, just one part of the sequence.
  5. Smart Move Five: Tapping into Specific Parts of the Conversion Funnel – The core strengths of HP’s campaign are where #1 through #4 converge to align with specific parts of the conversion funnel. HP has obviously been thoughtful about what users are thinking at each stage.If you’re inspired by the HP story, don’t copy it directly. Instead, think about how the principles apply to your own unique conversion funnel and marketing strategy. You may end up designing a totally different user flow. That’s fine. The moral of the story is to be in tune in with your users.

Email Is the Foundation of Everything Online

We’re circling back to our earlier interview with Ben Legg, CEO of Adknowledge. This point is extremely important, so we really want to drive it home.

Email marketing does not need to be spammy. In the past, email and spam were one in the same, but today, opportunities are much more value-oriented.

What’s more important is that email is the most efficient way to reach audiences across multiple marketing channels—especially paid channel advertising.

Take Facebook marketing, as an example.

Facebook’s advertising platform launched as a very basic display advertising channel. Advertisers, quite frankly, thought that the channel was highly ineffective.

“Who wants to browse ads when they’re on Facebook?”

That was the pressing questions that had marketers questioning the worth of social media advertising.

Here’s the thing—Facebook has proved us wrong. The company has a wealth of psycho-graphic data that they’re using to targeting audiences in a focused and compelling way. Ad units have evolved to be more than what you see in your sidebar.

Just take a look at your News Feed. What you’ll probably find is that the ads are actually kind of awesome. They’re visually compelling and targeted to exactly what you love.

  • Here is an example of a compelling News Feed ad from Shopify, a platform that helps people launch their own ecommerce websites:
  • Here is an example from ModCloth, a women’s clothing boutique that is targeting potential customers with clothing items that they are likely to absolutely love:
  • Here is a Facebook ad from BuzzStream, a PR management platform:
  • Here is an ad from The Summit, a tech conference:
  • Here is an example from BetaBrand, a company that makes “office appropriate” yoga pants for women:

At this point, you’re probably thinking—“Hey wait a minute. These are Facebook ads. What do they have to do with marketing automation and email?”

The short answer? Everything.

Facebook runs two advertising products that help marketers custom target their audiences 1:1:

These products are called “Custom Audiences” and “Lookalike Audiences.”

Custom audiences allow you to target your existing users on Facebook, via their email addresses. Lookalike audiences allow you to take your existing customer/user/subscriber emails and then extend your targeting across audiences who fit a similar criteria.

The ModCloth ad was probably targeted to Ritika because she is an existing customer who shops with the store quarterly. She frequently browses the website for dresses and jewelry—and she’s frequently re-targeted with images of the specific products that she’s browsed. She clicks on these ads multiple times a day and loves them. While she rarely makes an immediate purchase, she will typically come back to the site directly and make a purchase.

The BuzzStream ad was targeted to Ritika because she has signed up for a free trial in the past. She had a paid account for a few months, which she canceled. It’s likely that BuzzStream wants her business back.

As for Beta Brand and The Summit? Ritika has never shopped with them or visited their websites. She has, however, purchased similar products in the past. She suspects that both companies are targeting her via Facebook’s ‘Lookalike audience’ feature. She definitely likes these ads and will probably buy a pair of pants from Beta Brand.

There is more data associated with your email address than you probably realize.

“There are so many different signals that Facebook provides. You can talk to your existing customers, and you can create Lookalikes to target. This is an awesome way to drive engagement among your existing customers and similar types of people.”

Gareth Smith, director of ad operations at AdParlor (via Interview)

The beauty of automation is that it can connect your marketing across channels from email to social media (like Facebook). There are opportunities to target all parts of the sales conversion funnel. You can use Facebook Lookalike audiences to build early-funnel awareness and Custom Audiences to target new —and repeat– buyers later on in their unique buy cycles.

“The great thing about Facebook is that it fits into all parts of the conversion funnel. You’re able to connect with audiences at different parts of their buying journeys. As a marketer, it’s up to ou to ask what you want to achieve.”

Gareth Smith, director of ad operations at AdParlor (via Interview)

The success of your Facebook targeting strategy depends on targeting the right messages to the right audiences at exactly the right time.

AdParlor, one of a select few Facebook preferred advertising partners, is constantly looking for ways to amplify the performance of Custom Audience and Lookalike ads.

The company recently ran an experiment to determine a high performing targeting formula. Their conclusion?

Step 1: Locate your audiences on Facebook

  • Segment your CRM database to find your customers on Facebook (with Custom Audiences)
  • Use attribution data from website/marketing activity to create granular segments
  • Create Lookalike Audiences based to identify new customers who are likely to take interest in your business

Step 2: Deliver the right creatives

  • These should be personally relevant
  • Test rigorously and in real-time—every moment counts
  • Don’t throw darts in the dark—test creates based on past user behavior

Step 3: Be specific in your message

  • Don’t show generic landing pages to your audiences
  • Marry product/service specific creatives to corresponding landing pages

The AdParlor team found that when they married product-specific creatives to product-specific landing pages, the cost-per-acquisition (CPA) costs were 50% lower, with 60% higher conversion rates.

Relying on Partners

What’s important to keep in mind about AdParlor’s case study is that it’s wholly reliant on technology. AdParlor taps directly into the Facebook API and runs these ads through algorithms. This is a powerful marketing automation strategy—one that you won’t be able to try at home with your own tools.

As you build your cross-channel marketing automation plan, you may realize that you don’t have the tools, budget, staff, or resources to do everything in-house — in which case you’ll be relying on managed services to oversee this process for you.

These services will use their proprietary technology to manage your marketing automation for you. If you choose to pursue this route, be prepared to test more than one opportunity and ask lots of questions.

It’s important that you choose partners that truly understand your business and excel in areas where your business needs the most support and guidance. Don’t be afraid to ask for help or run a test. These companies can help you effectively automate everything—beyond what a small team could do with ‘plug-and-play’ resources.

Don’t be afraid to keep your options open. When in doubt about your own technology capabilities, remember that there are plenty of companies, people, and resources to help you do it better.

Key Takeaways

  • Email is the most direct way to reach audiences 1:1. People keep their email addresses for years.
  • Emails let you connect with users no matter what device they’re using. People use their email addresses to create accounts all over the web (like Pinterest, Facebook, Twitter, and even your website)
  • Email can help you kickstart your company’s lead nurturing flow (which will also span multiple devices).
  • When it comes to marketing, email has a bad rap—advertisers have taken over the channel with shady marketing activity. It doesn’t have to be this way.
  • Email is the core unit of analysis for connecting disparate marketing channels together. It’s the low-hanging fruit for retargeting users—and finding new potential customers—on Facebook, for instance.
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