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Email marketing is a fast, low-cost means of reaching your customers. It also has the potential to be highly dynamic, discreet and personal.

Too often, however, email falls into the ‘fast and cheap’ category and lacks thought. It’s unsurprising then it’s become a bit of an irritant and its value questioned. In fact, many people have a separate email address set up specifically to receive the 'junk' they don't really care about.

To understand what works, you have to put yourself in the customer’s shoes, giving consideration to context, relevance and personalisation. Delivering an email that’s engaging and feels like it was sent specifically with the recipient in mind can make a real difference for opens, clicks and conversions. The more generic your communications are, the more likely customers will ignore or even resent you in the future.

The travel sector is notably guilty of this. Weekly emails are based around resorts and hotels that aren't selling. In desperation to get bums on seats, the same email featuring the same holidays goes to everyone – because mass emailing is cheap.

But there’s a hidden cost though. Imagine you'd just booked your holiday for £2,500 on Saturday and you get an email on Monday telling you it’s now on sale for £500 less. That's never going to generate goodwill, is it? Worse still, the brand has just alienated a more valuable customer who was willing to pay full price.

It’s naive to ignore commercial realities, but surely taking a more customer-led approach can make the difference to medium- and longer-term profitability.

Typically, the brands that use email best work along the following lines:

  • Email is a form of advertising and it keeps the brand on the radar. However, even when in campaign mode, there's no reason why content can't be dynamic, personalised and relevant rather than one size fits all. Email campaign templates can allow for highly personalised content. Amazon is a case in point – consistent, always on, but more often than not relevant and personalised.
  • Email is most effective in response to different customer behaviours – for example searching, browsing and buying that show when people are in market. It’s vital to understand behavioural context and then serve the most relevant content in response.
For example, car manufacturers will tailor follow-up emails with content that relates to the model and features you browsed on your last visit. Or back to the travel sector: once a flight is booked, airlines will sell ancillary services such as car hire, hotels, insurance and foreign exchange.

The problem is that they tend to cram their emails with everything, rather than focusing on the services that are most relevant to where you're going – fewer people want car hire on a city break for example, but a good deal on a hotel will often be welcome.

  • Aside from selling, email is the perfect medium for delivering personalised service messages cost-effectively. This ranges from useful reminders and confirmations to asking for feedback, a helpful gesture or even a nice surprise such as a loyalty bonus. American Express does this well, leveraging its retail partner relationships to provide bonus offers for members. BMW uses email and SMS with great effect to minimise ‘no shows’ for its service departments.
  • When integrated with social, direct or advertising campaigns, email can deliver an important uplift – whether continuing a brand story that takes you to the website, linking to social media profiles for retargeting or even 'warming the doormat' for direct mail. Email continues the customer journey that ultimately leads to a sale or a donation.
  • The above should result in happier, more valuable customers that like hearing from you. And you will be able to ask these customers to introduce their friends and peers. Email is the perfect channel for creating cost-effective Recommend a Friend programmes, supported by some simple landing pages – personalised, trackable and real time.
  • Running across all of this is email's strength in providing the perfect platform for testing: everything from simple subject line tests or offers to different creative expressions of your proposition. Emails can be tested on smaller groups and then optimised in real-time according to performance as they are rolled out across the wider base.
  • As a final point, once a year, a brand can make contact with customers who haven't provided email permissions – with an invitation to opt in. The key to success here is to quickly show the benefits of opting in and then make it easy to do.
Ultimately, delivering email marketing is a case of working out what people want to hear – not what you want to tell them.

By Mike Cullis, managing director, Soul