Since 2001, Mark Brownlow has been dispensing email marketing insight and wisdom via EmailMarketingReports.com, helping email marketers make better decisions with thought provoking articles and solid advice. Recently, Mark was kind enough to allow me to pepper him with some questions about email and online marketing in general.
How did you get started in email marketing?
I started online with a website about scientific communication in 1998. Back then, online marketing for content sites meant search engines and email. So I launched a plain text email newsletter using one of the early list management tools. The campaign report was basically “yes, your emails were sent”. Helpful!
Can you explain email marketing’s longevity?
The standard answer talks about how email is data-driven, targeted, highly cost-effective and able to serve a variety of marketing functions.
But behind all that are two fundamental characteristics of email that set it apart from most of the alternatives.
First, it’s part of the Internet’s DNA. Social networks, for example, obviously have huge potential for marketing… but not everyone is on Facebook. In contrast, pretty much everyone has an active email address.
Second, an email subscriber effectively invites you to set up stall in a valued, private space that normally offers only limited access to commercial organizations.
So that invitation (the opt-in) is both a privilege and responsibility.
Privilege because people may skim and scan through their inboxes, but it’s still a place where you can earn the increasingly scarce resource that is attention.
Responsibility because that access and attention is easily lost.
What’s the most important thing for someone new to email marketing to be aware of?
Nobody stops a company from doing new TV ads because viewers said they never asked to see their previous TV ads.
But if enough people mark your messages as spam, this can get you into trouble with those managing incoming email (ISPs, webmail services, etc.) and you can find your future emails blocked from delivery.
So newcomers need to understand the special role of permission in email marketing and all the implications for getting email delivered.
It’s that idea of the valued, private inbox. Many people are fiercely protective of that space. Not everyone, but enough to make it an issue. So abusing the space, through uninvited and/or unwanted commercial messages, can lead to negative reactions you don’t get with PPC ads on Google.
We’re moving to a pull marketing model. Can you explain the difference between pull and push marketing in a few words people can understand?
I’ll admit to an ignorance of formal definitions. Mostly because I find they can encourage poor thinking. We like to put things in boxes and then two things happen:
1. We start to prefer one box to another. Then we start to defend our preference and we end up irrationally attacking the other boxes.
2. We forget that most things don’t fit neatly into boxes anyway.
Email traditionally gets lumped into the push or outbound marketing box: we send out messages specifically designed to drive a response. Interruptive messages with a clear marketing orientation.
Now people talk about inbound and pull marketing, where we create or facilitate a presence that lets people find us “organically”, such as through social network activity or good content.
I don’t know if those definitions are accurate or even clear. I’m not sure it matters either. You can’t, for example, pigeonhole email as something for direct response only.
Are we really moving to a pull marketing model?
We talk about control shifting to the consumer. We encourage conversations and word of mouth. We provide value in our marketing (by distributing useful content or creating communities)… all of which leads indirectly to response.
Which is great, but it’s not a silver bullet. Is TV advertising dead? No. Are flyers dead? No.
New tools and concepts don’t imply the old tools and concepts are suddenly invalid or ineffective.
Equally, a lot of “pull” marketing advocates act as if conversations, word of mouth, service, community etc. are new concepts. They’re not new: we just have new ways of working with them.
Bottom line for me as a small business is this. I have a unique business situation: me, my resources, my skills, my product, my market, my location etc. I have a bunch of ways I can do marketing. Which mix of practical strategies and tactics is going to get the best result? Who cares which box or category they fall into?
Now, finding that mix is easier said than done. But why limit myself artificially by discarding concepts simply because they don’t fit some new media mantra?
So what’s your take on the whole email vs social debate?
This is a classic example of the trap I’m talking about. We associate uptake of new tools with rejection of old ones. We’re a little like toddlers. When we discover something new, the old becomes uninteresting. So the “discovery” of social marketing has led to people “undiscovering” (i.e. rejecting) email?
So we have boxes again. This is social. This is email. Social is better. Email is better.
Our business goal is not to “use email” or “use Twitter”, but to lift profits, boost brand recognition or any of a number of potential tasks. Our job is then to find the right mix of tools, channels etc. that is best suited to achieving those goals, given our particular market, skills and resources.
This is why I say we’re not really email marketers, we’re marketers who use email.
So there is no social versus email. It’s not an either/or issue. We just choose the mix of options that works best for our particular situation. That might mean email. It might mean social. It probably means a combination of the two.
Email Marketing Reports is the granddaddy of email marketing resources, but do you have a personal favorite resource for email marketing online?
Not one, because we are fortunate to have so many great resources. A few dozen are on my annual list of personal favorites.
How do you see the future of email marketing and online marketing in general? Is the outlook bright?
The outlook in general is very bright. Online is such an intrinsic part of many people’s daily lives now that you can’t really see offline/online as being rigidly separated. Online marketing is marketing.
Email marketing’s continuing success is no reason to rest easy, though. People’s attention is diluted as they’re exposed to more and more messages and media.
So each year, the quality bar rises. To stand still is to risk going backwards.
Do you have a prediction about the email marketing industry and online marketing in general for the coming year?
It’s hard to see past mobile. I think we’ll get past the technical challenges quickly, but the behavioral ones are going to be fascinating.
What changes when you move from a desktop surfing culture to a mobile one?
For me, mobile means people are online at different times, in different locations, with different needs, goals and expectations. What needs to change in online and email marketing to account for that?
That’s going to be fun working through.
If you could give email marketers one bit of advice, what would it be?
Keep a rigid focus on the subscriber.
A lot of the potential hurdles to successful email marketing fall away when you’re simply delivering content or offers that people are glad you sent.