Email is NOT Dead. Stop Asking.

Episode #020: Chad White, Head of Research at Oracle Marketing Cloud Consulting

How many times have you seen a headline claiming that email is dead? You’ve likely seen this headline countless times and probably have clicked on a few articles about it too. However, the truth of the matter is that email is NOT actually dead and is very much alive. In fact, email is driving a 38 to 1 ROI making it one of the most effective channels available to marketers today. In this episode of Mobile Matters, we talk to the Head of Research at the Oracle Marketing Cloud Consulting, Chad White, about how mobile has transformed email marketing, why email campaign metrics don’t tell the whole story, and so much more.

If you’re interested in hearing more of Chad’s insights, visit emailmarketingrules.com, check out his latest book, or follow him on Twitter.

Key Takeaways

  1. Email is NOT dead. It’s merely a clickbait headline. Email is very much alive and driving a 38 to 1 ROI.
  2. Mobile has truly transformed email marketing, but many marketers aren’t making their emails mobile-friendly.
  3. It’s time to stop thinking about campaign metrics to measure email marketing effectiveness and looking at individual subscriber lifetime value instead.

Interview Transcription

Stephanie Cox (VP of Marketing at Lumavate): You have an extremely impressive background in email and are really one of the go-to guys for everything about email marketing, so can you tell me how you got started? 

Chad White (Head of Research at Oracle Marketing Cloud): I think my story is like a lot of people’s stories. Like, very few people set out to have a career in email marketing. I feel pretty strong and safe in saying that most people don’t think, “Oh that’s that’s what I want to do: email”. So, like a lot of people, I sort of fell into it and I started my career. I’m a journalist by training, I have a master’s in journalism from New York University and I was in New York City early in my career working for media companies including Condé Nast and Dow Jones. And we used to cover retail pretty extensively and we would sign up for retailers’ email marketing and use that as a way to generate leads for stories because they would announce, you know, new initiatives and delivery options and new things via their emails to their customers. And so that was my first taste of of email, and it was this was sort of early days when blogs were sort of first coming on the scene and they were shiny and new. And I’ll be honest, my brother started a blog, a personal blog, and I saw it and as many younger brothers would have the thought, “Oh well if my older brother is doing this all I could do that better”. And so, I started thinking, “Well what would I start a blog about?” And I decided I didn’t want to do a personal blog but, hey, I see emails all the time–retail emails–I’ll start a blog about that! And so I did! I started the Retail Email blog and I wrote it for six and a half years. Every day, I would blog about what I saw from retailers. I did a lot of observational research where I would track how many emails they were sending, what those emails were about, tracking seasonality–you know, when people would start mentioning Valentine’s Day or the holiday season or back to school–and so I did that for a number of years. And it was after I started that, that I got the attention of the Email Experience Council, which at that point had just started up. I soon joined the EEC as Employee No. 3, and that was really my entry point into the email marketing world. Thank you Jeannie Moen, the founder of the EEC, for hiring me. I went on to join the DMA, Smith Harman, which was an email marketing agency, which they got acquired by Responsus, then all of a sudden, I found myself at one of the top ESPs and from there went on to ExactTarget and Salesforce and Litmus, and now I am at Oracle. So many, many years talking about email! I really love it, and in more recent years, have transitioned from doing a lot of observational research into more survey work. Asking marketers how they do their jobs, what are their priorities, what’s important to them. So it’s been great. As a journalist, I love email. Email is always changing and so there’s always a new story to tell.  

Stephanie Cox: Well, speaking of stories, one of the things that I’ve seen in the headlines a lot is this whole concept around, is email really dead? So what is your take? Is email dead? Is it a lie? What’s going on? 

CW: I think this is the most ridiculous storyline ever and I don’t know why this storyline isn’t dead. You know, this really all started with social media. It started with Facebook, with Sheryl Sandberg and Mark Zuckerberg and them making pretty disparaging comments about email and how email was dying as a way of self promoting. All right? They were kicking email to make themselves look better. And I think it’s really interesting to me, that this story continues to have traction given what has happened over the years. 

So, first of all,  social has morphed from earned media very strongly into paid media. So, like the whole premise of social media has shifted gears and during this time, email’s value prop is largely the same despite a lot of changes sort of underneath the surface. So, compared to some other channels, email has a lot of really powerful strength and we just prattle off just a few. Which is why I think this conversation is kind of so ridiculous. First of all, ubiquity–everybody has an email account and there are more email accounts than Facebook accounts by a longshot, and there are quite a few Facebook accounts! So ubiquity, it’s the account of record. Everybody has an email account. That’s where all their receipts go. That’s where all their password resets go. It’s the status quo. More importantly, and I think this sometimes gets lost in the conversations about other channels and particular social, email is the channel that consumers want. It’s a channel through which consumers want to engage with brands. Other channels are preferred channels for interpersonal communications, communications with friends, but if you ask people how they want to receive updates, notifications, and other types of messaging from brands, the vast majority of them say email. It has been that way for a decade! It’s undisputed that email is the channel through which brand communications are most welcome. 

So while brands have spent a ton of time trying to make themselves welcome on social and other places and tripping over themselves in the process and having some pretty embarrassing moments over the years you know. Email is that place where brands have consistently been welcomed. Where brands have not had to, kind of like, awkwardly kind of shove their foot through the door. The other thing that’s really super powerful about email is that nobody owns it. You know Gmail, you know Apple, you know Yahoo (which is now a part of Verizon). There are a lot of different players–Microsoft–that all have a piece of email and so, no one controls it which means that no one can put up a giant paywall. There’s lots of ways to get to email and so that has kept the costs really low, which means that returns are really high for brands. Research that I did while I was at Litmus Software showed that on average brands are getting a 38:1 ROI on their email marketing. That’s insane! It’s one-to-one channel because of mobile, it’s highly immediate. There’s just so many awesome things about email that other channels can’t really match. 

SC: One of the things, I think for me that I really–I’ve loved email for a long time, so you’re preaching to the choir here! But, as a consumer I love when I want to look at something on email and I don’t want to respond to it or I don’t want to buy like an offer from one of my favorite retail brands, I just keep that email in my inbox. On social, if I see it in my Twitter feed or my Facebook feed, it goes away and I swear, I can never find it again! 

CW: Yeah, yeah. No, and I think this is one of the things that sometimes confuses brands. You know, sometimes they see that like oh my open rate is only, you know, 20 percent! That means a lot of people aren’t aren’t opening that email and that’s and that’s bad. And I think some of these brands don’t fully understand how consumers use email. There is a whole class of consumers who like to stockpile, you know, promotional emails from retailers and other brands. And then when they are in the market to buy, they go and they search their inbox and they look at the latest email from that brand or the latest one or two, and see, you know, what’s on tap, what kind of discounts can I get, what are they promoting. You know, a lot of people use it that way. So, it’s really kind of important to understand, you know, consumer behavior when you’re kind of like setting your goals and expectations. 

SC: That’s it. That is exactly how I use it! I literally have a coupon folder in my email inbox. I don’t open them, they all go in there. And then when I’m ready to buy something, I go sort through them. 

CW: I think this is the genesis of the promotions tab. And Google is really smart about observing user behavior, and I think they saw that–hey, this is how a lot of people are using it, so let’s put all those promotions in their own tab, to make it make it easy for people to be able to see those most recent promotions, you know. And now that Promotions Tab is even a better place to be because of the microdata and the other stuff that they’ve now built in, where you can have really cool stuff show up on the envelope copy.

SC: So, in the last decade, what trends have you seen that have really impacted how brands think about email marketing? 

CW: So number one is mobile. But I don’t want to talk about that just yet. We’ll come back around to that, but some other really big trends over the last decade have been engagement-based filtering. That’s a real biggie. It used to be that if you were a sender, all you had to do is keep your complaint rate low. And what that incentivized senders to do was to bloat their email lists with a lot of inactive people who didn’t do anything, who didn’t unsubscribe, who didn’t report spam, but just kind of didn’t do anything. And the inbox providers were eventually kind of onto this game and now they are requiring, for quite some time now, have required senders to send e-mails that their subscribers not only tolerate, but engage with and that has really I think then sort of the kind of knife’s edge of the beginning of a trend where we’re becoming more subscriber-centric. And so, I think that that was really a lot of the kind of genesis of that. Where we need to focus on is how are we serving individual subscribers. Are they engaged? What kinds of offers are are they engaging with? What kind of content are they engaging with? And do I need to adjust my behavior accordingly? And so, I think that’s been a very, very painful transition, frankly, for a lot of brands. But I think has been ultimately long term like super positive because that’s what we need to be, we need to be focused on subscribers. Sort of dovetailing with that, you know, we’re seeing stronger permission and privacy laws, GDPR, of course. You can’t talk about email without talking about GDPR. And, of course, the CCPA in California, which is mimicking a lot of this stuff that’s in GDPR. 

And because of CCPA we’re now having a national discussion about having a law that would be at least somewhat in line with GDPR, here in the U.S., which I think would be really wonderful. I think that CAN-SPAM is a joke. And the and the joke really is on brand. You know I think that when it was passed I think brands thought, “Awesome! Now we don’t have any cumbersome regulations to worry about”. I think they were all patting themselves on the back. And unfortunately what happened is that the world continued to change because of the weak laws, the inbox providers were driven to be more assertive. And the inbox writers have really changed all the rules, you know, the engagement based filtering is certainly being, you know, one of those things. And so CAN-SPAM has really done brands a huge disservice because they’ve set all the wrong expectations for brands. There are a lot of senators who think you know “Oh this law says I can do X Y and Z and all of those things will get you in trouble”. You know taking 10 days to unsubscribe someone, that’s going to get you in trouble. Sending people, you know, cold emails and not giving them the option to unsubscribe. That’s going to get you in trouble, like it just sets horrible horrible expectation. So I’m I’m thrilled about GDPR and I think again we’re in for a sort of a little bit of a painful transition that’s going to get marketing in a much healthier place, and it’s going to kind of weed out a lot of the bad actors that make the inbox not such a great place to always be and interact. So I think for brands that value email they should all be applauding these changes because it’s going to make the inbox a more pleasurable place to visit and spend time. So, let’s get back to mobile. 

So, mobile! Obviously, I can’t go without it, but it’s also been a huge change. I feel like we’re definitely at the back half of mobile’s impact on email. But you know back in 2007, when the iPhone first came out, before that you couldn’t render HTML emails. So it’s had a profound impact on how we design emails. It’s had a profound impact on the context in which people read emails. It’s had a profound impact on how we message in emails because people now can be anywhere at any time, doing anything. So yeah, I definitely don’t want to gloss over mobile as definitely one of those big, big changes too! Along with automation, which I think here, we’re probably maybe only halfway–maybe–through the arc of automation, which is really all about making that one-to-one promise true. And so, I think we’re well on our way there. We’re seeing some really exciting things in terms of what’s possible with triggered messaging and transactional messages.  

SC: One of the things that you mentioned there was this idea around how horrible CAN-SPAM is and how it really didn’t incentivize the right behaviors I think is really the gist of it. Yes. So, do you think that looking at what Google specifically has done and other email providers and how they’ve kind of had to, to some extent, put restrictions on marketers because we’ve made bad choices, do you think part of the problem is not just the law but also marketers wanting to jump ahead instead of taking a step back and saying, what’s the best customer experience? What’s the best thing that I should be doing? And using that as their guiding light as like what can I legally do. 

CW: Yes yes absolutely yes. Yes and yes. Yes. Yes. For every brand that laments something that an inbox provider is doing, they should know that we have driven them to it. You know, all the things that Gmail does around deliverability that drive us crazy, we as an industry have driven Gmail to do those things. This is our fault. The reason that, you know, GDPR got passed is because of us. Because we, because self-regulation has failed. And we like to think that we’re good stewards, but all the evidence is to the contrary. And so, you know, tough love for brands, but I mean that’s the truth. It’s that we don’t make the best decisions. We have ignored the norms and now we need firm, legal guide rails to keep us, you know, behaving how consumers and users want us to behave. 

And that’s what it all boils down to is, you know, these laws and the behaviors that Gmail and other inbox providers have sort of ensconced, you know, are all in response to what consumers, what subscribers want, and behaviors that they expect. We have ignored what they expect, how they expect us to behave and that’s why all these things have happened. So, that’s kind of why again I’ bullish on GDPR, is because I feel like GDPR is in line with what people want. And when we give people what they want, when we interact with them in ways that they expect us to and are on the up and up, that makes the strong relationship. Which is the whole point of email and the whole point of business is to craft relationships! So I don’t know how if we can craft a good relationship when we’re not aligned with consumer expectations. 

SC: That’s a great transition to my next question, around how should you measure the effectiveness of your email marketing programs? Like how do you know what consumers want?

CW: Yeah, so this is a little bit of a messy question because I’m sure a lot of people really think of email marketing as being a highly measurable channel. And I think to a certain degree, it’s true certainly relative to some other channels, it’s true. But the more multi-channel you are, the messier this equation gets. And I think this is actually a little bit of a missed opportunity for email, because I think so much of what email does gets measured in an A to B to C fashion. Where people are measuring, oh someone opened an email, Oh oh yeah they’re interacting with the body content, oh they’re clicking through to the landing page, and OK I see them doing stuff on the landing page. All right. That’s my email driven interaction and that’s not how consumers behave. Consumers are weird and they don’t follow the golden path that we lay out for them. They’re constantly wandering off the trail into the woods and then reemerging in some unpredictable place. So they’ll get an email and they’ll see a subject line with something that interests them and they won’t open the email, and instead they’ll tell their spouse about that brand and that deal or that thing and that spouse will go onto their computer, fire up a browser and discover more information or go to a store. 

Email is a is a bucket that is just full of holes, and so, you definitely have to kind of try to see where all the holes are and have a little bit of faith when sometimes the metrics don’t match up with what you thought was probably going to happen. But I think, in terms of how we go wrong in measuring things, I think the biggest thing that we do wrong is that we’re still too campaign-centric. We’re still too focused on sending an email looking at the opens from that email, looking at the clicks from that email, looking at the conversions from that email and then calling it a day. We need to look at our metrics from a subscriber point of view. That’s where the future is! The brands you’re going to have the most success with on email are already shifting over to a lifetime value approach where they are all about nurturing an individual subscriber. You know, I mentioned earlier that I played in the retail industry for quite some time covering that. A number of years ago, many years ago, I heard someone talking about how, you know, old time retailers like the retailers of the past, viewed their products as their inventory and the retailers of the future view their customers as their inventory. So it’s not about, “I’ve got some products, let me see who I can sell it too”. It’s, “I have some customers, let me see what they’re interested in buying”. It’s flipping it upside down and I think that we still have a lot of people who are still viewing their businesses managing products instead of managing their customers. And so, the metrics need to be aligned with that way of thinking.

SC: What would be your recommendation for people that need to transition over to managing customers more than just managing products?

CW: Well, they need to kind of get everybody in the room. I think part of the reason why we have this kind of behavior, is because a lot of orgs are still really siloed, right? The social team doesn’t work with the email team and the email team doesn’t work with the Web team. Only roughly about half of email marketers have control over landing pages.  

SC: That’s crazy, by the way! 

 CW: Which is completely insane! I mean, it’s completely crazy. There should be much more partnerships. Instead, I feel like you know, because of attribution models and like there’s there’s competition between the channels, when really the channels shouldn’t be competing with each other! They should be working collaboratively together to serve, you know, each individual customer. You know, I’m reminded of when I was in Chicago recently and they have a really cool architectural cruise that goes along with the Chicago River and they go by the old Montgomery Ward building there and our tour guide was talking about how Montgomery Ward had a setup just like very sort of adversarial relationship between its various departments and they thought that like, you know, competition would drive them to succeed, and the exact opposite happened! Like the various departments just tore each other apart, they undermined one another and it was to the detriment of the entire business. So, I mean the future of channels within brands is collaboration, because again, you know, it’s all about the customer, all about the subscriber and serving them best and you can’t do that if everybody has their own lens of that subscriber of that customer.

SC: We talked about mobile earlier and you mentioned a couple of things that have changed in the last decade on mobile–specifically, since the iPhone–about thinking differently about how you design for mobile, thinking about how you message. What are the best practices marketers need to think about when they are sending out emails that are primarily consumed on a mobile device? 

CW: Yes, so let’s ignore some of the cool interactive stuff you can do on mobile platforms for a minute and let’s just kind of go back to basics. I do feel that we still could do better. I feel like this conversation about mobile, I think some people think that like, it’s over. Like, we’ve done this mobile thing. Like we’ve been talking about mobile optimization in a serious way since like 2009, right? So, this is now like a decade of talking about mobile. Surely, we’ve got it all sewn up now and I can’t tell you how many emails I see in my own inbox where the email is responsive but the email isn’t mobile-friendly. 

SC: And there’s a difference, people! 

CW: There is a difference! There is a big difference. Responsive is just a tool, responsive design is just a tool, but mobile friendliness transcends that. Responsive is a means to an end. So, let me just be clear about what I mean by that. I still see in my inbox text that is too small. I still see in my inbox links and buttons that are too close together to be accurately tapped without frustration. I still see in my inbox contrast ratios that are not good enough, especially if I’m reading it outside on a sunny day.

These are all sorts of fundamental issues. There’s too much copy in a lot of emails still. And we’ve had that discussion for quite some time and, you know, when I was with Litmus, we would do these live optimization sessions at Litmus Live, where we would get up on stage and we would, you know, people would submit emails to us and we would show them up on giant screens. Very intimidating! All the people who submitted emails were very brave and very appreciated. And you know when we when we did these last year I think, nearly every single email we brought up, we would talk about all kinds of issues, but I think conciseness and brevity was was a theme that came up. In almost every single email, there were places where you could remove this sentence, where you could smash these two sentences together, you could cut a bunch of words, maybe cut this section. There’s just too many words, too much going on, not tight enough. If you don’t have a good copy editor, try to see if you can invest in one or to, you know, find someone that you can pull a little bit of time off of another team to help, kind of, like just clean that up, squash it down. You know that brevity and being succinct is super, super powerful and so you know, that along with link densities and font sizes and contrast ratios are all like really simple things before you get to, again, more advanced functionality and stuff that you could do on mobile. 

SC: But to your point, it’s surprising that even a decade later, how many people aren’t doing that. You’re comment around, like button size, like that’s one of my number one frustration is, why do you put your buttons so close together?! I have an adult finger, I cannot tap them!

CW: So, I am a very average sized person and I’d like to think actually my fingers, you know for a man are not terribly big, but like I have friends who just have like bear paws and I imagine them trying to navigate through some of these emails where their finger is–if it’s not hitting two buttons or two links to take three. Some people have really big hands, and you know, you’ve got to kind of think about that. I still see like navbars on mobile that are like six links across, like that’s not gonna work. So yeah, and it seems like just really basic but I think that’s where we’re just not putting ourselves in our subscribers’ and our users’ shoes.

SC: Have you seen anyone doing a good job around wearables? I’m thinking about like my Apple Watch as an example. So I can now get obviously email on my Apple Watch, which is another layer to the whole conversation. Have you seen anyone paying attention to that yet?

CW: Yeah, so wearables are tricky, right? Because, and again, I’ve talked about how email is not as measurable as we would like to think that it is. And I think that the Apple Watch and other smart watches are a great example of this, because none of them render HTML, we have no idea what the open rates are like on these things, just like no clue. And because we have no clue, because it always turns up a zero because it’s not measurable. I don’t think there’s been a lot of emphasis on it. Now that said, smart watch usage does seem to be relatively low and I think for like, commercial messages, I think it’s mainly just used for triage, right? So, so the focus is, if this is something that people are concerned about and then it’s all about making sure they’re using that recognizable center name, having a clear subject line and some good preview texts. Those are the things you should be focusing on because people are, you know, with these messages from brands for the most part on an Apple Watch, they’re really just deciding, OK, am I deleting this email or not? Or am I saving it for later?  

And it’s interesting because I feel it’s a little bit of the same conversation that I would say is happening around voice assistants right now. No, it’s a little bit of a kind of a buzzy area where people are now suddenly concerned about Alexa and how she reads emails and Siri, how she reads emails. And that is also similarly a little bit of a black box because we do not get opens on those either. So it’s really tough outside of like surveys and talking to customer subscriber panels to try to figure out what that usage is like. But I imagine that what’s happening there is it’s very similar to the Apple Watch and that it’s a lot of inbox triaging that’s going on because voice assistants, like the Apple Watch, don’t have a browser, so there’s no way to click through which means for most brands, there’s no way to convert. So people because of the limitations of those platforms have to save those emails for later on, in order to truly engage with them.  

SC: So, I’m thinking back in my career so when I’ve run email marketing teams and sent out, you know, hundreds of thousands of emails, you always have that moment of panic right before you send it. Is everything done correctly? I’m gonna send you it, and you kind of like hold your breath. Do you think marketers still experience that today? Or are consumers more understanding if you send something out and there’s a mistake?

CW: Yeah, so my old boss Justine Jordan, she calls that “The Fear” and “The Fear” is completely real. I think that’s actually a good thing! Frankly, if you go and you hit the send button and you don’t have the tiniest amount of fear, it probably means you shouldn’t be pressing that button because it means you’re not really respecting what you’re about to do, which is like sending a message to a ton of people. I think that’s good. You know, I do a fair amount of speaking and I get nervous before I speak and I think that’s a good thing. I should be nervous for a speech because it means that I’m taking it seriously and and realize that what I say and how I say it is important. So, you know, a little bit of that fear, I think, is a good thing. It means you still care. But in terms of whether or not people are understanding about mistakes, that’s a little bit of a different topic altogether and it’s actually one that I feel very strongly about. I feel like there’s a little bit of a notion that email should be this mistake-free channel and I feel like that’s an overly high bar. Email is super complicated. It’s got a lot of different moving parts and that’s just on the email side of the house not including how email might interface with merchandising or with other aspects of marketing, where things could get messed up. 

There’s just a lot of opportunity both technical and operational, a lot of opportunity for things to go wrong. And I think that I don’t think that there is this expectation on the part of customers for, you know, completely error-free lives from brands. I mean, they’re people, too, they understand that. And I think that as long as there’s not like a pattern of certain kinds of mistakes, you should not be afraid. You have to fess up to a mistake. You know a lot of times corrections and apology emails are kind of superstar emails to send if you’re not sending them very often. And I think another sort of angle to this is that if you’re never making any mistakes there’s evidence to suggest that you’re just not leaning forward enough in terms of personalization or dynamic content. 

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