The arrival of web 2.0 means email marketers are having to reinvent the medium if it is to stay competitive, says Alex Blyth.
In just a decade, email has transformed the way we communicate with each other. In 1997, the primary means of social and commercial interaction was still the telephone, and email was little more than a new icon on a few desktops. Now it is central to how we keep in touch with friends, arrange social events, learn about products and interact with brands.
Yet, in the dynamic online landscape, it appears that email might be replaced by web 2.0. As Nathan Cook, senior web 2.0 account manager at Cheeze, puts it: "Web 2.0 is shifting the traditional connections of friendship away from email as a personal communication tool. News, offers and updates are all accessible through RSS feeds to your PDA, PC desktop, Facebook profile, car and so on. They're fresh, up to date, and cheap and easy to install on the fly. This is certainly a challenge for email," he says. "Social networking sites are drawing friendships and relationships out of inboxes, which are left as barren marketing landscapes where cut-through, share of voice and pride of place are becoming ever more difficult to acquire."
If social networking sites, instant messaging, widgets and all the other developments that we bundle together under the web 2.0 banner are rendering email redundant as a marketing tool, it is a seismic shift that no marketer should ignore. Yet these predictions may be a little over-hyped. Although its role in the marketing mix is changing, those marketers who understand this change and act on it will be well placed to benefit from the coming convergence of email and web 2.0 marketing.
Web 2.0 is having a profound effect on consumer behaviour online. Graham Robinson, director at Peppermint Digital, says: "People now regularly tell me they'll Facebook me, rather than email me. Increasingly, people are using social-networking sites as their primary interaction with the internet."
Skip Fidura, email partner at OgilvyOne Worldwide, gives another example of the rise of web 2.0: "Consumers have become much more willing to listen to perfect strangers rather than to brands that they've trusted for years. When booking a holiday, a consumer has no idea of the true agenda of the person leaving negative comments about a hotel, and they don't seem to question it."
However, email is still far from finished. A 2008 study of consumer attitudes towards email and online interaction conducted by Ipsos for Habeas found that the medium is still the "primary method of communication in personal and business capacities".
Grant Keller, director for EMEA at Acceleration, agrees: "Email remains a key medium for even the most avid users of social networks. If (they) were going to take over entirely from email, we would have expected our clients to shift all or some of their business in that direction. This is not happening."
Rather than web 2.0 replacing email as the way in which people and companies interact online, it is instead changing the role email plays. It is no longer the whole conversation with the consumer, just the catalyst for it. Email is the universally recognised means by which companies direct consumers to web 2.0 applications - a complementary medium where they can have a more engaged interaction with each other.
Lucie Follett, director of Maven Metrics, describes how this is working in practice: "We're developing an email-marketing campaign which will be sent to all past customers of Arome Createur Floral, a London-based florist, alerting them to a Facebook group, and to the 'gift bouquet' application we are working on which will allow Facebook users to give bouquets as gifts."
According to Emma Church, account director at Mailtrack, email has unique characteristics that web 2.0 applications cannot hope to emulate. "Email can be targeted and customised to each recipient," she argues. "Most importantly for brands, emails are trackable. Email is fully under the brand's control and it should be used to initiate a conversation with the consumer, which then may move on to other channels. Marketers need to plan for email to be part of their communication plan, not the whole of it."
Developing campaigns that successfully integrate email and web 2.0 is a challenge. Web 2.0 is essentially a consumer-to-consumer conversation, so persuading customers to talk positively about a brand is far from easy, though it potentially brings enormous rewards. Email can help make this process happen.
Georges Anidjar, EMEA managing director of internet marketing at Unica, gives an example of how this can work: "Marketers can use email to send a link to an online voucher, a reminder to spend it, and a satisfaction survey on the user experience. These actions are considered marketing communications, but feel like a service to the customer. This can lead to customers recommending products to their friends via web 2.0 applications."
Steve Lomax, managing director at Experian CheetahMail Europe, adds: "Some of our more progressive clients are including user ratings and review-type content in their emails to further promote their products. So, instead of openly selling the product, the email is steering recipients to review sites where customers can view comments and ask questions, and so make informed purchase decisions based on feedback from other customers."
We can expect to see more brands make their first tentative steps into this area. Hiro Kozaka, account planner at Touch DDB, offers this advice to those who do: "Be consistent across media. Email, social networks, widgets and instant messaging can all be combined to convey a single, stronger message to the consumer, but the message must be consistent across formats, and the content has to be relevant to the medium in use."
Engaging content increases open and click-through rates, cuts unsubscribe rates and minimises the threat of unsubscribers. And now marketers are realising just how much web 2.0 can help make their emails relevant to the recipient. Deborah Daley, marketing manager at Simply Media, gives an example: "There's a quiz on Facebook where you can say which movies you enjoyed, which you didn't, and which you're still keen to see. The hook for the user is that it compares their answers to their friends. However, for a DVD retailer or a cinema chain this type of data would be ideal for delivering relevant offers by email."
Web 2.0 applications are a goldmine of information which brands can tap into via email marketing. So web 2.0 will not replace email as the primary online marketing medium, but the two will become more closely entwined, each helping the other in the mix. As Follett at Maven Metrics concludes: "In combination with on-site optimisation and web analytics, as well as judicious use of social media sites such as Facebook, email marketing can be incredibly powerful and cost-effective. The marketers who realise this will be the ones who will succeed."
XBOX ON ITS SITE
Xbox sends out an email newsletter using segmentation modelling, allowing it to customise newsletters to individuals. It also communicates with existing customers via newsfeeds delivered through the Xbox 360 console itself.
Until recently, this has been a highly effective way of serving the core audience. Yet the 'typical' console game-player is changing, and Xbox is keen to reach this wider audience.
With this aim, Xbox looked at how it could use social-networking sites to engage with the new gaming consumer. UK Xbox fans can now interact on all three of the major social networks - www.facebook.com/xboxuk, www.myspace.com/ukxbox360, and www.bebo.com/xbox360uk.
Users can pass on their recommendations, see product news, download profile skins and wallpapers, and interact through viral applications, such as the "My Rock Band" app, which has just launched on Facebook (http://apps.facebook.com/rockbanduk).
Having launched on Bebo in September 2007, Xbox now has 10,500 friends; a month later it launched on MySpace, with 5,000 friends to date; and within two weeks of launching on Facebook in June, it had acquired 2,200 friends.
Xbox worked with online agency Digital Outlook on this project. Jens Bachem, managing director, comments: "The work Xbox has done on sites such as Bebo ensures that both existing and potential Xbox consumers can choose how they want to be engage with the brand."
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