Revolution: Special Report - Social Media - Email's social evolution

In light of social media's prevalence, it would be easy to write off email, but both channels are being used mutually to boost marketing effectiveness.

'We have a new measurement for our email campaigns,' says Guillaume Brocart, digital marketing manager at shirt retailer TM Lewin. 'We call it the forward metric. It's the measure of how many of our customers forward our emails to friends.' TM Lewin

As Brocart acknowledges, it is a metric born of the social media age. Traditionally, email was a relatively private and personal communications channel, with the content of messages aimed primarily at customers on the marketing database, but social media has changed the game.

Over the past couple of years, greater numbers of the emails sent out by brands have contained 'like' or 'share' buttons, a development that has enabled companies to reach beyond their existing customers and put newsletters and special offers in front of a wider audience.

Changing habits

Anything that increases the reach of email marketing is probably good news for marketers, but social media is also changing the messaging habits of consumers.

Once upon a time, the humble email was pretty much the only game in town when it came to messaging friends and associates. Today, internet users have an ever-expanding range of messaging options to choose from. Friends that once kept in touch via email may now prefer to communicate via Facebook, Twitter or BlackBerry Messenger. Email remains the universal channel, but for some internet users at least, it is much less important than it was.

You've got mail

Potentially, that's a challenge for brands that have invested in sophisticated email campaign strategies. Yes, you can make your emails timely and relevant while segmenting your audience to the nth degree, but can you be sure that your core audience is paying sufficient attention to unsolicited messages piling up in their inbox?

Viewed in that light, social media represents something of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, 'like' and 'share' buttons can potentially extend the reach of a campaign. But set against this is the fact that emails are competing for attention against the other messaging options. So how do you accentuate the positive?

Universal channelRyan Hickling

The first thing that has to be said is that email itself is not going away. 

'People do use other messaging channels,' says Ryan Hickling (right), head of email at digital agency TMW, 'but email is different to social media. It's a universal channel - it has the feel of an official channel - so people continue to check their email even if they are communicating with friends via social networks.'

Even for those whose social lives centre on Facebook or Twitter, email plays a complementary role in their social media interactions - not least through the notifications that tell them of the latest activity on these platforms. According to research carried out by digital marketing agency e-Dialog, 68% of Facebook users opt to receive email notifications. That figure is much smaller for Twitter (13%) and LinkedIn (11%), but the numbers show that email and social media are being used in tandem - and that email clearly remains highly relevant to social media users.

Data opportunityJill Brittlebank

As Jill Brittlebank (right), director of strategy at e-Dialog points out, the social media space can be a useful source of intelligence for email marketers. 

'Passive listening can play an important role in developing email marketing strategies,' she says. 'By listening to what the communities on social networks are saying, you can find out what is interesting and relevant to them.' All this increases the data available to email marketers, providing information that can be used to increase the relevancy of mailshots to customers.

Increasingly, the symbiosis between email marketing and social media is carried over into the email campaign with 'share' and 'like' buttons providing not only additional reach but also an opportunity to acquire new customers. According to Brocart, TM Lewin's customers are sharing its marketing emails with Facebook friends. 'We email to customers who are already on our database,' he explains. 'However, when the recipients share the newsletter, what we find is that their friends on Facebook (often) go on to sign up for the newsletter and become customers themselves.'

Sharing driverRichard Evans

The key is advocacy. When an email recipient shares content, it isn't an anonymous process. The information is going out to friends and followers within an online community. 'So what you have is a brand loyalist who is endorsing the product to people that he or she knows,' says Richard Evans (right), head of marketing, EMEA, at email technology provider Silverpop.

In other words, rather than undermining email, social media is injecting new possibilities. What was a highly effective CRM tool but very poor acquisition channel has been given the potential to drive new business when harnessed to a social media platform. 'Social media is breathing new life into email,' adds Evans.

There is a caveat here. Simply mailing out a weekly newsletter to existing customers won't necessarily generate much in the way of share-button action. E-Dialog's research found recipients were most likely to share email when the content was a special offer or competition. It is a strategy that TM Lewin has adopted, and email now plays a central role in driving customers to competitions and discounts promoted via its Facebook pages.

Fit for purpose

It is also important to tailor all or some of the content within the email to the social media audience - posts on social media sites tend to be short, so succinct content is more likely to get shared.

But, of course, all email messages are not the same.

Some will be suitable for sharing on Facebook or disseminated on Twitter, others won't.

Jonathan Williams (right), group consumer marketing director at Trader Media - the company behind AutoTrader - warns against overusing social media buttons. Jonathan Williams

'You have to know what is appropriate for the audience,' he says. 'Simply putting all the social media buttons - Facebook, Twitter, etc - on an email tends to confuse people and you don't get a big response. We identify Twitter users and send emails tailored to that group. In other cases, we will send emails to Facebook users. The key is to have the data that allows you to know your customers.'

Measure for measure

Email marketing offers some simple and compelling metrics. Open, click-through and conversion rates provide a relatively straightforward means to measure the relative success or failure of a campaign. However, with a hybrid of email and social media, things get more complicated. 'Email is about conversions,' says Tom Bailey, head of new business at email marketing company eCircle. 'Social media is about reach and levels of engagement.'

The good news is that once an email message has made the leap from the inbox to the Facebook page or Twitter feed, everything can be tracked, from how many people shared the content to the conversations that happened as a result. According to Trader Media's Williams, this data can be used to fuel more targeted marketing. He cites the example of brand advocates. 'You can see who is sharing information about your brand,' he says. 'These are the influencers and, once you know who they are, you can send them tailored emails.'

This might involve incentives to encourage their continued engagement with the brand. 'For instance, you might invite them to become guest editors or write reviews,' adds Williams.

He stresses the importance of sweating the asset of social media data. 'Technically it's very easy to gather and collate, but not many people act on it,' Williams concludes. 'A lot of businesses stop at tracking the number of shares and likes, but you can get a lot more out of social media and email if you use the information.'

 

INNOVATIVE EMAIL TACTICS

Tailoring emails for mobile Working with e-Dialog, British Airways Executive Club identified members who were most likely to open emails on their mobiles, and collected details such as type of device used - Android, iOS, BlackBerry, etc - before segmenting the mailshot accordingly.

Behavioural analysis Car-hire company Budget uses behavioural data (via technology provided by Redeye) to target customers and trigger emails. Emails are triggered when customers abandon a shopping cart, for example, as well as when customers register. The goal, of course, is to drive purchases. Further emails are sent post-purchase.

Finding the influencers Vehicle market intermediary AutoTrader's emails are used to support advertisers and stay in contact with buyers through the 'ownership cycle'. Selected emails can be shared on Twitter and Facebook. The data collected is used to identify influencers, who are then sent tailored emails with a view to keeping them onside in terms of promoting the brand.

 

BEST TIMES FOR SENDING EMAILS

  • According to research by email marketing agency Pure 360, web and mobile users are most likely to respond to consumer promotions between 7pm and 10pm, with offers on clothes and leisure activities (such as gyms) being particularly popular during this slot.
  • Some parts of the working day are better than others. 9am-10am is the second-best slot, while, between 3pm and 5pm, workers are losing interest in their job and seeking diversions - such as promotional emails.
  • Property and financial services communications are particularly welcomed at this time. For holiday promotions and B2B messages, 5pm-7pm is the optimum slot.

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