Email is not dead: why a 40-year-old marketing tool is still highly relevant

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Now more than 40 years old and often vilified as spam, direct email campaigns are still thriving in the age of social media. In fact travel brands like KLM and Thalys still see email as a top online channel. Andrew Hennigan takes a closer look at how travel businesses are using email today and finds out how to create and run an effective campaign.

Social media may be more fashionable, but very often it’s the much less glamorous direct email that still brings in more business. This is true today, even when marketers can choose from a much wider range of tools. 

That email still plays a major role in today’s marketing communication mix was thrown into sharp relief during the 2012 US presidential campaign. Most observers focused their attention on how President Barack Obama campaign effectively mobilized social media. It was only after the campaign that staffers revealed the role of email. “Email might not be the newest kid on the block, but there’s little doubt that it was pivotal in the president’s re-election,” says Toby Fallsgraff, email director for the Obama 2012 campaign. “The Obama campaign raised more than half a billion dollars online and a majority of that is directly attributable to the email programme.”

Still a top channel for travel

Many travel companies have also discovered the effectiveness of email, including the airline KLM, well-known for its leading-edge social media marketing. “The email channel is very effective and brings a great contribution to online sales,” says Viktor van der Wijk, director of E-acquisition at KLM. “It belongs in our top three online channels though it is not possible to say that the email channel is more effective than our social media channel because both channels have other goals which makes them hard to compare: email marketing is mainly conversion driven while social media is creating a dialogue with our customers.”

Email is certainly effective, but since it can also annoy customers it must be used very carefully. KLM approaches this issue by separating the two main email streams. “We make a distinction between transactional and commercial emails,” says van der Wijk. “Transactional emails are sent to all the people who book a ticket online and commercial emails are only sent to our subscribers. It’s important that the notification emails are not too commercial because this will affect the deliverability rate; some of our notification emails contain a few marketing triggers, but these are carefully selected.”

Precise messages mean detailed testing  

Another travel company with an effective email marketing strategy is Thalys, the European high-speed train operator. Thalys avoids the perception of spam by targeting precise messages to existing customers. “We have intensified and refined our e-marketing strategy with a segmented approach, offering products and messages that are adapted to the profile and needs of the client,” says Catherine L’Olivier, Thalys’ Commercial Actions & Partnerships Manager. Often these campaigns are tied to the Thalys loyalty card so the company can build a personal relationship based on the frequency of travel.

Thalys adopts a similar strategy to the Obama campaign in testing emails. “We test several approaches,” says L’Olivier, “in terms of the message subject, segment and details like mentioning price or percentage differences.” KLM also tests email concepts on a small scale first. “For our commercial emails we use A/B testing to test the best possible subject lines and send the most effective to the largest group”, says van der Wijk. “In the future we will take this to the next level and start with more multivariate type of testing”.

But there will still be room for some improvement. Social media writer Shel Israel whose new book The Age of Context: How it Will Change Your Work and Life is out in October sees a fundamental flaw in most marketing: that it is not based on relevant contextual information.

“Advertisers think it is contextual when they can post an ad to someone who has stated an intent,” says Israel. “For example, I asked on my social networks for recommendations from people I knew who could recommend places to stay on Cape Cod in June. A few hours after I made my reservation the ads started coming for places to stay on Cape Cod. They kept coming for nearly three months.”

Context matters

This is a problem familiar to anyone who has received marketing emails addressing yesterday’s problem and it is an interesting challenge for marketers to identify what we will be looking for next.

 “It is a good idea for advertisers to understand where I am, where I am going, what my intent is en route and after I arrive. This could improve response rates and actual transactions”, says Israel. “Advertisers know that. What they don’t know is when to stop. Once I have selected my destination hotel for Cape Cod for this trip, it will probably be five more years before I need to find another hotel. Not knowing when to stop damages relationships and diminished the possibility of future sales. In short there is an unrecognised and significant downside to not using contextual technologies to know when to stop.”

No sign of slow down

So there are still plenty of ways to make email marketing more effective that have been barely explored, and at the same time there is no sign yet that email will be eclipsed by something else. It’s not hard to see why email still persists. Everybody has an email account – you even need one to open a social media account – and standardisation means that anyone can send an email to anyone else, while you can´t message a Google+ user from Facebook, nor are you ever likely to.

In the travel business the consensus is that the email marketing business shows no sign of slowing down and for many the opposite is true. Both KLM’s van der Wijk and Thalys´L’Olivier see the email channel as growing though L’Olivier sees a possible decrease in future as social media grows in importance. And will email play the same role in the 2016 US presidential election as it did last year? “I don’t like to make predictions,” says Fallsgraff, “but if I were building a team for 2016 (I’m not) I’d be investing in email.”

Andrew Hennigan is a freelance writer, speaker and consultant who writes about social media and other aspects of business communication. He teaches social media at the IAE Aix Graduate School of Management in France and lectures in other business schools in Europe. Born in the UK, he is currently based between France and Sweden.

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