Email Undervalued, Works Best In Symphony With Other Tools

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MEDIA POST by Erik Sass, Thursday, Feb 14, 2008 7:45 AM ET

EMAIL IS A POWERFUL TOOL for reaching consumers, and it works even better in conjunction with other disciplines, both online and offline. But marketers are still running up against obstacles.

Marketing executives identified some of the main culprits in two panel discussions at the Direct Marketing Association’s Email Evolution conference in San Diego on Wednesday.

First of all, email doesn’t get the credit it deserves because it’s sometimes distant from the purchase, even if it influenced the decision. “Email suffers from bad press relating to search in particular, because while email is tremendously helpful for keeping people engaged, it’s not often the last thing they do before they make a purchase,” said Ian Thomas, Microsoft’s director of customer intelligence.

In general, online usage is evenly split, according to Aaron Kahlow, managing partner at BusinessOnLine, citing a Jupiter Research study which found 41% of total time is spent browsing (often with search) and 48% with email. Social media overlap both these categories.

Jeanniey Mullen, founder of the DMA’s Email Experience Council, which put the conference together, is also the global executive vice president and chief marketing officer for Zinio and Viv, an online magazine. She extolled the potential for contextual search data to inform email marketing, including brand advertising. Looking beyond the Internet, Sunil Bhagwan, senior director of sales for BusinessOnLine, reminded the audience that often “search is capturing demand that you’ve created through other channels, be it TV, radio,” or other traditional media.

The problem of attribution is especially complex as the Internet commerce has a frenetic, intermittent quality reflecting consumer convenience and the desire for instant gratification. Brian Ellefritz, senior manager of global direct marketing for Cisco, recalled that “four or five years ago, the buying cycle was orderly. Now the buying cycle is not linear–it’s ad hoc, sporadic, and always on.” This complexity is compounded by the plethora of influences and options for researching products.

Undaunted by this consumer kaleidoscope, Thomas said Microsoft is creating a “more sophisticated attribution model for a more realistic picture of what media is driving conversion,” including blogs, social media, microsites, display ads, email, paid search, organic search, and offline media.

While Thomas did not divulge the inner workings of this system’s online aspect, moderator David Hendricks, vice president of marketing strategy for Datran, explained that “you do it with cookies.” Thomas agreed “that’s the key technical challenge,” warning against “cookie churn,” including both gaps and duplication of data. But he also looked forward to a time when all big advertising campaigns are treated as “giant experiments” using multivariate testing to tweak creative content and delivery as the campaign unfolds.

Even with a clear understanding of attribution, panelists agreed that organizational inertia in marketing makes it hard to coordinate search and email with each other, let alone other media. Ellefritz described preliminary efforts to get search and email teams working together, which produced “wonderful” results within their respective domains, but left “vast grey areas” in between–failing, for example, to create landing pages that were directly relevant to the email link that sent the customer there in the first place.

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