Email Is Dead. Long Live Email!

Despite new methods of communications, email remains a strong channel for organizations to communicate with their customers. This means that rather than being yesterday's news, email is here to stay.

With social media and advanced technology opening multiple new ways of communication, business leaders have questioned whether email's reign as one of the most important methods of communication was over.

Since the first email was sent by American programmer Raymond Tomlinson in the early 70s, the pinging sound of a new email being received has become as commonplace in offices as water cooler gossip. But in the era of social media, full of Facebook messages, Tweets, and mobile notifications, we are no longer dependent on a few official ways of communication but can choose the channel that makes the most sense and is most convenient to us.

Over the past years, as new communication channels gained traction, we've seen the more traditional means of interacting with each other lose popularity. The postal service is a prime example: In the United States alone, mail volume has gone down from more than 202 billion pieces delivered in 2003 to 160 billion last year. The question is: Will email suffer the same fate?

According to experts, this is not the case. In fact, Craig Fitzgerald, editorial director for IMN, notes that social organizations, for example LinkedIn and Facebook, are among the highest email users, using the medium to present users with information they might have missed.

In fact, most experts argue that email's popoularity is greater than ever before and especially because it's regularly being used as the key to signing on to many social and online platforms. Therefore its relevancy and value will only continue to increase in direct proportion to the popularity of these new channels. As Katherine Lyman, product marketing specialist at Outsell, puts it, email is "almost the digital equivalent of a physical address." Further, as Rama Ramakrishnan, CEO and founder of CQuotient, notes, email has become "a core part of a person's identity." In fact, even when a person changes his physical address, email remains the same, meaning that organizations have the opportunity to remain in touch with customers even after they move. "While emerging channels like social and mobile may seem sexier, email is still the workhorse of the digital marketing mix, bringing in more than $40 for every dollar spent on it," notes Rich Fleck, vice president of strategic services at Responsys.

Especially important for organizations is email's ability to give them tangible information about customers' interests. "Customers can like or retweet, but what they click on and engage with over email is more effective at telling us what customers want," Lyman believes. This digital body language is giving organizations important clues that will help them be relevant to their customers. Anthony Wilkey, strategic client director for Emailvision, agrees. "Email has helped marketers identify the offers that customers are most likely to respond to, providing the power to increase brand loyalty and drive revenue," he says.

Further, email addresses are being used to match key cross-channel communications, allowing organizations to create a comprehensive profile of customers using their behavior across different channels. "In many ways, email is the connective tissue across all the marketing channels," Ramakrishnan says.

Understanding the mobile phenomenon

Mobile technology is allowing organizations to interact with customers at anytime and wherever they are. In fact, a report released by Knotice shows that more than 40 percent of emails were opened on a mobile phone or a tablet in the second half of 2012. "This means that marketers can reach consumers even when they're away from their desks," Lyman says.

But while this phenomenon presents an opportunity for organizations to connect with customers, it also means that brands have to optimize their emails for mobile devices. According to research by BlueHornet, around 80 percent of customers will delete emails that aren't mobile optimized, and this mistake can really harm organizations since almost one-third of customers say they will unsubscribe entirely.

Wilkey agrees that mobile-friendly content is a key practice that marketers should be applying to their online campaigns. "Providing optimized content enables brands to accommodate the ways in which customers like to digest content, delivering a better customer experience."

Leveraging email for relevant communications

CQuotient's Ramakrishnan argues that although email is a mature medium, it is still highly underutilized and under-optimized by organizations to establish a good communication with customers. "[Organizations] tend to send the same email message to everyone," he notes. Instead, organizations need to invest in the right technology and resources that allow them to send the most personalized emails that are relevant to the recipients. "People acknowledge this intellectually but struggle to go from theory to practice," Ramakrishnan says.

IMN's Fitzgerald notes that the crucial element in email communications is content, and brands need to focus on providing the right content. "Customers make choices based on their current interests whether or not to open an email message," says Jessie Mamey, media director for WebMetro. As Outsell's Lyman stresses, organizations need to provide value to customers. "Email is designed to be interactive," she says. Further, having a customer's email address is an opportunity for organizations to develop a lasting relationship through this medium, Ramakrishnan says. For example, a brand can start by sending a welcome email, and then as the company learns more about the customer, it can send communications that are relevant to specific points in that particular customer's buying journey. "As the customer engages more, communications become more relevant and companies create a one-to-one relationship," he says.

Netflix is one company doing a great job in understanding customer behaviors and using email to alert members to content that interests them. For example, Netflix will send an email to a customer who has watched a popular television series to alert her that a new season will be available soon and includes recommendations to similar shows, Lyman says. Further, the email's formatting is very consistent with the look and feel of the website, providing a seamless multichannel experience.

Emailvision's Wilkey notes that the past few years have seen a movement towards these truly personalized communications, even when it comes to recommendations. He says companies can utilize knowledge about their customers' preferences to send personalized emails that will be welcomed by subscribers, fans, and followers. "For instance, your travel brand alone might not be compelling, but a specialized deal to fly from San Francisco to Paris for customers who frequent this route at least twice per year is sure to attract attention," he says. Similarly, a footwear retailer can direct offers about sports shoes to athletes while emails showcasing designer shoes can be sent to more fashion-conscious customers.

Responsys' Fleck stresses that there is tremendous opportunity to layer new communication channels on top of email to get great results. He uses the example of online retailers that have seen about a 30 percent increase in conversions after integrating display retargeting with email, with similar results possible with both mobile and social. "Similar results are possible with mobile and social," he says. "We are in the relationship era of marketing, meaning that customers are increasingly demanding a more cohesive and relevant experience with their favorite brands, across channels," he says. "As marketers adopt this integrated, relationship-based approach, email will maintain or perhaps even increase its relevance."