My personal relationship with email marketing started way back in the mid-1990s. At the time I was building some of the very first websites (or portals as we rather ambitiously called them) for the newspaper industry.
Even back then we were chanting the mantra “Content is King”.
From the earliest days of online publishing we understood that the content distributed via these simple newspaper sites had to go way beyond that of the traditional print product. I needed to take the content from a weekly newspaper and turn it into a 24/7/365 news and information product. Long before The Huffington Post started disrupting the media world, we worked our socks off aggregating, re-writing and creating added value products which were unrestricted by page numbers or print deadlines. However, turning this extended digital content into page views and unlocking the advertising dollars from this precious online resource ultimately proved more difficult than we initially envisaged (it might also be argued that it contributed to the rapid decline in the fortunes of the newspaper industry – but that is perhaps best left for another book). Some 20-years on and, at times, it seems like everything and nothing has changed.
Pre-Google, pre-Facebook, pre-Twitter, the Internet was a very different environment. The original online directories didn’t really understand the concept of relevance that we enjoy from today’s search engine experience. It could take weeks or even months to get your website indexed, only to find it pushed out of sight by unscrupulous, black hat wearing, SEO dudes. Generating traffic from these spam-filled directories was difficult. Making money from onsite banner advertising was virtually impossible.
It was plain old email (I hadn’t even heard of email marketing at the time) that came to my rescue. People valued the content I was distributing – they just struggled to find it and needed gently reminding as and when to return if I was to maximise the bang for my (albeit limited) advertisers’ buck.
I started collecting readers’ contact details via a simple subscription form placed on the home page of the website offering a daily news service via email. Initially, I managed these subscriptions via a spreadsheet and outlook but this process was both time consuming and messy. I then upgraded to a desktop-based bulk email solution, downloaded for free from Download.com. I thought this solution to be fairly slick until my IP address was blacklisted as a potential spammer (it only takes a few complaints to do this) and I struggled to distribute a single email message beyond my own system. Finally, I discovered a low cost, online bulk email solution via a site offering DIY tools for amateur and small business website builders. It didn’t feature any bells and whistles – but it helped me manage my lists and ensured the bulk of my newsletters arrived at their destination.
As my list steadily grew in numbers, I realized I had created something of far beyond the value of the simple traffic generating tool I had originally envisaged. Subscribers started contacting me regarding advertising on my daily news alerts. Because my newsletters were text based, advertisers didn’t have to worry about building complicated animated banner adverts. Just a couple of lines of text and a direct link to a website (or even just a phone number) would suffice. Adverts could be written and ready to run in seconds. Just one advertising placement paid the monthly costs of my bulk email distribution tool. In a matter of weeks, email had provided me with a profit center in an era when online profits were virtually unheard of.
A Valuable Lesson in Failure
My next (mis)adventure with email came while I was consulting for a large catalogue company. I had been tasked with building their online marketplace (eBay and Amazon) business but the company, which was in severe financially difficulty, needed quicker results. I suggested email and the IT Director took the lead. After a period of several weeks he produced a lengthy list of every single customer email address ever entered into our (rather cumbersome) ecommerce system and insisted the send was managed by an outside agency. Several products were lazily pulled together by the various catalogue managers, who despite teetering on the brink of unemployment, did not want the Internet to eat into their quickly declining direct mail order business. Over several days, several hundred thousand completely untargeted emails were delivered to a list which had never really been in tiptop condition. Sales were disappointing to say the least.
I learnt four very valuable lessons from this experience:
- Your IT Director should never be allowed to influence marketing decisions.
- Whenever possible, work with people looking to build a bright future and not protect a glorious past
- Advertising agencies don’t always add value
And most importantly:
- Unless email marketing is relevant, timely and engaging and sent to a clean, targeted list – it simply doesn’t work.
My relationship with email marketing was formalised when I discovered iContact (a company I would later work for) following a series of brief affairs with a range of other solutions. I stumbled across iContact whilst working as the marketing manager for a large US-based software company. iContact provided a more robust version of the online bulk email marketing tool I was using back in my newspaper days. I had used other low-cost email marketing solutions in the past but their support was either extremely clunky or simply non-existent. iContact seemed to provide the ideal mix of software and people which meant when I occasionally had a problem, I was able to find the help to get my campaigns firing from all cylinders.
In my attempt to drive “warm” leads into the organisation, I employed and experimented with a wide range of online and traditional marketing techniques, including paid search, print advertising, trade shows, PR, etc. etc., but nothing came close to the success of email. I loved the fact that once I had built a series of templates, I could create and distribute a targeted campaign and start seeing real results within minutes of hitting the send button. Email would consistantly drive downloads of whitepapers, sell event tickets and create opportunities for a hungry sales team. I also employed email marketing to deliver detailed thought leadership for an (at times) overburdened account management team.
It was clear that email could help me acquire and retain customers and I soon became something of an evangelist. This went somewhat against the grain of what was in vogue at the time with paid search and the burgeoning social media scene stealing the limelight.
When the chance came to work for iContact, I leaped in with both feet. At the time, many technology pundits were predicting the demise of email marketing and as a result a lot of people were confused that I would choose to go work in a “dying industry”. I knew different. Email marketing may be one of the most mature online marketing technologies but it continues to pack a punch way beyond its weight (or cost). While paid search became a more complex and expensive solution as more people jumped on the bandwagon and the social environment failed to deliver on so many different levels, email went from strength to strength.
The fact is that email marketing, if you treat it right, works better than any other marketing technique I have tried. It is a relationship I value and one that continues to go from strength to strength.