Adam T. Sutton

Email Marketing: Avoid the pitfalls of a direct-mail mindset

February 7th, 2012

New technology is always bewildering. We get a newfangled tool. We play with it. We relate it to other stuff. We try to understand it.

The problem is that new technology is new. You can relate it to older stuff at first, but you have to move on. Thinking about it in old ways can hold you back.

Take email marketing, for example. Companies used it as a digital form of direct mail for years. We now know email is not direct mail, but some companies continue reliving the past. Here are a few examples:

Sending unsolicited email (spam)

Aside from a rare catalog, never in my life have I requested direct mail. Yet, every time I go to the post office, I pick up a few bills and toss out a horde of unsolicited junk.

Companies brought this tactic to email marketing, and we gave it a new name: spam. Under the CAN-SPAM Act, it is legal to send unsolicited commercial emails in U.S. But, just because something is legal does not make it a good idea (it is illegal in Canada and the EU).

When you send an unsolicited email, the person does not toss it into a recycling bin at the post office. Sure, they can delete it. They can ignore it. But they can also report it as junk to their ISP or webmail provider. All they have to do is click “junk” and a complaint is registered.

This complaint is a strike against your reputation as a sender. If you get too many strikes, your delivery rate will drop and more of your emails will land in the junk box. This is like having the post office preemptively throw your direct mail in the trash to save customers the trouble.

Some companies get results from renting lists and sending unsolicited email, which is why billions of spam emails are sent every day. However, in my eyes, this is a carry-over from the direct mail world, and it’s not a good way to build an effective email program.


Avoiding email segmentation

In direct mail, segmentation is used to keep costs down. Rather than paying to print and mail 100,000 postcards, marketers will identify a segment of the list that is more likely to respond. They might mail 50,000 people and get a similar number of responses at a significantly lower cost.

When email came along, direct mail marketers saw a bonanza. An email cost less than a penny to send. Companies stopped seeing the point in segmentation. They thought, “Why not grab every address we can get our hands on? We’ll email everyone in every campaign. It will cost less than a cup of coffee!”

And, spam surged into the market. ISPs and webmail providers fought to give customers a better service. They filtered billions of unwanted emails from the handfuls of wanted ones. They started tracking sender reputations, making sure to punish companies that routinely sent unwanted email.

Then, the email marketers came around. They realized they had a reputation to maintain. They started segmenting. They removed irrelevant contacts from their campaigns. They spoke directly to each segment to increase response and cut spam complaints. Suddenly, email was no longer direct mail.

So keep this in mind: email segmentation is not direct mail segmentation. The point is not to save money on printing and postage. The point is to maintain your sender reputation, improve relevance, and keep response rates high.


The next tool will be new

Discovering how a new technology should be used is hard. Marketers took at least a couple years to figure out social media. We’re still working on mobile marketing. And, there’s bound to be something new around the corner.

When the next great tool comes down the pike, remember the assumptions companies held onto when email came to life. Those assumptions might help you get your feet wet, but you’ll find your feet stuck in cement if you hold them for too long.


Related Resources:

Analog Designs in the Digital Age

Trigger Happy: Why emails are the magic bullets of marketing automation and shopping cart recovery

Email Marketing: A toxic misunderstanding that could kill your response rates

Email Relevance: 8 tactics for leveraging timing, segmentation and content


Adam T. Sutton

About Adam T. Sutton

Adam T. Sutton, Senior Reporter, MarketingSherpa
Adam generates content for MarketingSherpa's Email and Inbound Marketing newsletters. His years of experience in interviewing marketers and conveying their insights has spanned topics such as search marketing, social media marketing, ecommerce, email and more. Adam previously powered the content behind MarketingSherpa's Search and Consumer-marketing newsletters and carries that experience into his new role. Today, in addition to writing articles, he contributes content to the MarketingExperiments and MarketingSherpa blogs, as well as MECLABS webinars, workshops and summits.

Prior to joining MarketingSherpa, Adam was the Managing Editor at the Mequoda group. There he created content and promotions for the company's daily email newsletter and managed its schedule.

Categories: Email Marketing Tags: , , , , ,

  1. February 7th, 2012 at 08:37 | #1

    Interesting article and thought provoking as we are looking to be using outbound mailers to generate leads.


  2. Karen
    February 13th, 2012 at 11:17 | #2

    While you raise interesting points you also illustrate your lack of understanding of direct mail. To compare the excesses of spammers to the core principles of direct mail shows you do not know theses basics. Good direct marketers always segmented and focused on their customer’s needs. And that is the reason that GOOD email is just like GOOD direct mail. To leverage what is new, it is best to understand the old, take what is good in it and grow with the new opportunities as they arise.

  3. February 14th, 2012 at 08:51 | #3

    Hi Karen — I appreciate your comment, because you are not likely the only person to feel this way. I apologize if I gave the impression that I consider the entire direct mail industry to be a loose association of thieves and bullies. I do not feel this way about direct mail, nor do I feel this way about email. However, abuses exist in both areas, even if they are exceptions to the accepted best practices. This piece correlates those abuses, but I now realize that I did not draw a distinct enough line between “abusers” and “professional, honorable marketers.” I will be sure to make that line very clear in the future.

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