“Email marketing is underappreciated and underfunded” – Chad S. White

Chad, you’re an expert on email marketing strategy and a big advocate of the importance of email marketing as a channel. How did you end up in this industry, and when did email start playing such a big role for you?

I’m a journalist by training and worked at Dow Jones and Conde Nast before making the transition into the email marketing world in 2006. That’s when I started the Retail Email Blog, which reported on more than 100 retailers’ email campaigns on a near daily basis. Shortly after starting that blog, I joined the newly-launched Email Experience Council and have been in the email marketing industry ever since, serving as lead email marketing researcher at great companies including Responsys, ExactTarget, Salesforce, Litmus, and now Oracle.

Over the past 15 years, I’ve written more than 3,000 blog posts about email marketing, plus three editions of my book, Email Marketing Rules. So, I’m definitely all in on email marketing. It’s a dynamic industry full of great people.

It’s clear that email marketing is an important channel in the marketing mix, yet it often feels like marketers somewhat overlook email marketing. Why do you think this is?

I absolutely agree that email marketing is underappreciated and underfunded. I think that’s because of two reasons:

First, lots of very wealthy companies like to position their service or tool as email-killers—most famously, Facebook and Slack, but plenty of others, too. They say email is old, outdated, and hasn’t evolved to meet the needs of today’s consumers, especially the youngest ones. And there’s really no one to defend email, because it’s an open platform that isn’t owned by any one company and it doesn’t have a trade association that defends it. So, email has taken a beating in terms of PR. It’s a great punching bag.

But the truth is that it’s just plain jealousy that drives all of these attacks. All of these other channels and companies wish they were as widely used, as trusted, as versatile, and as inexpensive as email is. In reality, email is just as popular with young people as it is with older people, and email has stayed relevant thanks to unceasing waves of innovation in terms of design, content, and targeting. And those are just a few of the reasons why email is a thriving channel. It’s really no contest.

Second, email marketing’s return on investment is probably too high. I know that sounds counterintuitive and perhaps even sacrilegious, but email marketing is rarely the squeaky wheel that needs your attention. It’s rarely the channel in crisis. Even when you underfund it, it still generates a positive return. If you ran other channels as poorly as some companies run their email programs, you’d lose money like crazy and things would change.

Unfortunately, too many companies settle for good enough email results when they could be serving their customers and themselves at a much, much higher level.

For those teams that are struggling to get the resources they need to improve their company’s email marketing, what is a great starting point? How do marketing teams effectively put more focus on email marketing?

If your company is one of those that isn’t giving email marketing the attention it deserves, then try positioning the channel as part of the broader customer experience and part of an omnichannel approach. You have to break email out of it’s silo and integrate it into broader issues. Relatedly, try to tie email to sexier technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning. Also, make sure that your email team is touting its successes, and doing so in business terms like increases in revenue or customer satisfaction. Those are just three approaches for increasing executive buy-in for larger email marketing budgets.

How do you think email marketing will develop over the next few years? What opportunities do you see?

First, let’s acknowledge that we’re living in chaotic and turbulent times. The consumer behavior changes caused by the pandemic will likely continue to drive business changes at least through the end of 2021. That means that many businesses will likely continue to focus on improvements to efficiency, like switching from traditional email templates to modular email architectures, and on better omnichannel experiences, such as curbside pickup.

Hopefully in 2022, we’ll be able to start establishing an enduring new normal in a post-COVID world. At that point, I anticipate that marketers will put a heavy focus on better personalization, segmentation, and automation driven by artificial intelligence and machine learning, as well as leveraging the advantages of 5G wireless, which should be widely available by then.

Given those changes, what skills do you foresee becoming more and more important for email marketers to develop?

Email marketing as a standalone silo is slowly declining. While there will always be a need for designers, coders, deliverability experts, and strategists who understand the channel’s Byzantine nuances, email marketers of the future will need to understand how email works with other channels to create a cohesive omnichannel customer experience. That will require some cross-functional training, as well as better collaboration, communication, and project management skills.

A comfort and familiarity with analytics will be another valuable future skill. Performance-driven decision-making will be essential. The increasing use of AI and machine learning will make analytics more important, not less.

Speaking of analytics, what metrics do you feel are particularly important when it comes to email marketing?

I think of metrics as falling into three camps: health metrics, optimization metrics, and success or business metrics. All metrics have their place, but marketers sometimes use metrics for the wrong purposes. For instance, email open rates are a great list health metric, but it is often misused as a success metric when doing subject line A/B testing. For success, you’re better off focusing on metrics that are as far down the funnel as you can measure—ideally email conversions, revenue, and other business-centric metrics.

While email marketers need to keep a close eye on health and optimization metrics, we’d do well to keep our eyes on those bottom-of-the-funnel metrics. Those are the ones that executives really care about. They don’t care about our open rates—and our colleagues who are managing social media marketing and SEM don’t either. As we work to create that cohesive omnichannel customer experience I mentioned earlier, focusing on common performance and business metrics will keep everyone aligned.

Among email KPIs, deliverability seems to be coming up more frequently in discussions. What trends do you foresee for the coming years when it comes to inboxing marketing emails?

A wide spectrum of factors impact email deliverability, including infrastructure, volume, content, bounces, spam traps, complaints, engagement, and reputation. All of those factors have become more complicated over the past decade, and that trend will continue over the next decade.

In particular, engagement will remain key, so inactivity management will be a critical tool in keeping inbox placement rates high so brands can maximize results. And it’s here that we’ll see a significant expansion of our toolbox. Recency-frequency-monetary (RFM) analysis and other predictive analytics will be much more common in the years ahead, and marketers will use them for segmentation as well as automation triggers. Along with better artificial intelligence and machine learning, brands will be able to much more accurately manage their engagement levels, removing what is today a major deliverability pitfall from the equation.

For marketers focusing on deliverability, it can be a daunting topic with many technical implications. What tips would you have for marketers on how to start impacting their deliverability in a meaningful way?

In addition to managing their long-term chronic inactives and their never-actives, which are new subscribers who never engage, brands should scrutinize their subscriber acquisition sources. You should track the positive and negative performance of the subscribers you bring in through each source—whether it’s the signup on your homepage, a signup form on Facebook, a coregistration page, or a list rental.

I like to say that when you choose your subscriber acquisition sources, you’re determining your email marketing destiny. Choose high-value subscribers and you’ll thrive. Choose disinterested and complaint-prone subscribers and you’ll struggle.

Focus as much as you can on choosing your existing customers to be your subscribers. Those are always going to generate the most value and the lowest number of complaints. And then be increasingly careful the farther you go away from your fulfillment and customer service operations to recruit subscribers. Often, deliverability problems can be tracked down to one or two subscriber acquisition sources that are generating the majority of your bounces and spam complaints.

Brilliant! Thanks so much for these great insights. To wrap things up, what is the No. 1 article on email marketing strategy that you would recommend our readers to read?

I’d recommend that people watch this 26-minute webinar on The Hierarchy of Subscriber Needs. That’s a framework that I discuss in my book that’s about how subscribers need email experiences that are respectful, functional, valuable, and remarkable. If you address those four needs, you’ll not only avoid deliverability problems, but you’ll have a successful email marketing program.