Email is still the killer app…no really!

Marketers worldwide rate email the most successful digital marketing tactic. Can anything kill it?

I’ve always loved email and messaging. It’s my business after all. The power of email is in its simplicity, ubiquity and fluidity. Very few communication tactics bridge the physical and digital web as smoothly as email. Your email address is on your business card, and your signature file. It’s a standard for login web-wide. Email is a key part of any strategy for growth and verification. Heck, even my grandmother has an e-mail address!

Despite all recent messaging innovations, growth of the social ecosystem, and predicted demise of email, it remains just about the perfect one to one communication tool. It’s how most of us communicate today. Period.

Business runs on email. Major users of email like Groupon run their entire business using email, email newsletters drive an incredible amount of commerce for Amazon and many other Etailers. Most major and banks transact business using email as an outbound tool and as a tool for their customers to use. Most businesses couldn’t operate without email as their preferred messaging tactic. In short, email is the enterprise system of record.

Perhaps surprisingly, email serves as the connective tissue for today’s social web. Social networking’s real killer apps are fluid account signup/verification/invitation, and they all run on e-mail. So, too, do the other killer apps of status notifications and media sharing. Today’s social networks are fundamentally changing how we communicate and share, but what is remarkable to me is how these new mediums make basic email more valuable and important, not less. The social web is more social because of email, and Twitter and Facebook couldn’t exist without the connective tissue email provides.

And, while email may be one of the oldest online marketing tactics, it is also one of the top performing. May 2012 data from the CMO Council showed a significant majority of marketers worldwide (67%) rated email the most successful digital marketing tactic. June findings from the Direct Marketing Association (DMA) provided further, granular evidence of success, showing improvement in US email open rates and clickthrough rates (CTR) for both in-house and prospect-intended emails in 2012, as compared to 2010.

For house lists, which the DMA defines as an email list of both past and present customers generated from a company’s own database, the average open rate for 2012 was up 2.6 percentage points over 2010, and the CTR was up 1.1 percentage points over the same time period. Meanwhile, the open rate for prospect lists increased only slightly, but the CTR for these emails nearly doubled in the two-year timeframe, pointing to an increased ability to resonate with prospects once they opened an email.

Advances in marketing automation and data segmentation over the past two years have undoubtedly led to more personalized, relevant email marketing programs, and these gains are reflected in increased engagement rates. However, more personalized forms of email communication do not necessarily result in higher sales: Conversion rates for both house and prospect lists declined slightly from 2010 to 2012.

Q4 2011 findings from email and multichannel marketing services provider Epsilon offers greater insight into which industries and verticals are seeing the highest email performance metrics. Apparel retailers in North America had the highest—and a near-perfect—delivery rate, not surprising considering the deliberateness, and often judiciousness, with which consumers sign up for these emails. However, credit card and banking emails from the financial services industry yielded the highest open rates, likely due to the fact that these emails are often tied to a person’s banking or investment account and contain critical user information.

General retail and CPG emails saw the highest CTRs, which is attributable to such emails containing the coupons and discounts that consumer’s value. CPG emails also saw the highest click-to-open rate, again, likely attributed to the inclusion of coupons and discounts.

Even though email remains the Internet users’ most-common communication medium, most users probably find email frustrating. Between spam, formatting problems, synchronization issues, and trying to manage multiple addresses, even longtime users find managing email a frustrating experience. The naysayers have made numerous attempts to unseat email as the Internet’s killer app — but it’s still here with a seat firmly at the table.

Email owes its popularity to its ubiquitousness and low technical requirements. Although a stunning amount of email traffic these days relies on HTML formatting, embedded images, file attachments, and other enhancements, core email technology hasn’t changed much in three decades. The mechanisms for Internet email were first codified way back in 1982 written by Internet legend Jon Postel. Postel laid out the essential messaging framework for Internet-connected computers (what today we’d call ISPs or service providers) to exchange and forward messages.

This simplicity and longevity means it’s easy to build email support into virtually any Internet-capable device or service. And nine times out of ten the work has already been done. Long-standing, well-tested email clients and systems are already out there just waiting to be plugged in.

The result is that email is essentially the single Internet service available to almost any Internet user, whether they’re connected via a notebook 35,000 feet over Nebraska, noodling on a handheld gaming system at the back of a classroom, trying to ignore their mobile phone during a boring meeting, or waiting for a seat at an Internet cafe in Shanghai — almost everyone has access to email.

Clearly, email remains the killer app…no doubt about it.

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