Email Marketing in a Web 2.0 World
By Dax Hamman

2006 was the year of Web 2.0, as online social networks, blogs, RSS, podcasting, wikis, and all forms of consumer generated media exploded across the Internet. By most accounts, Web 2.0 encompasses the range of technologies that allows consumers to control how and when they access information. Forrester Research defines Web 2.0 as social computing, or a social structure in which technology puts power in the hands of individuals, not institutions. Overall, most agree that Web 2.0 represents a relationship shift between established firms and their customers.

But what about email? We’re now well into 2007 and these “emerging” Web 2.0 channels are becoming pretty mainstream, so mainstream in fact, that many email marketers are wondering how emerging digital media will impact their email marketing programmes. You might think that email marketing has been passed over by its new media cousins, but this workhorse of digital communications continues to outperform all other digital channels. Far from being relegated to the slow-lane, email marketing is now critical to your Web 2.0 strategy. How so?

First of all, it’s important to note that email does not seem to be losing share to newer technologies; a Bluestreak study from November 2006, titled Emerging Digital Channels: Consumer Adoption, Attitudes & Behavior, indicates that 100 percent of respondents currently use email compared to 63 percent using blogs; 36 percent using podcasting and 28 percent using RSS. In addition, 84% of respondents receive up to 30 email offers per week, and 72% of respondents open more than 60% of permission-based offers.

But how does email fit into, rather than compete with, Web 2.0 technologies? Again, it’s all about using consumer’s choice and putting power in their hands. Remember that email marketers are well-advised to let users change their email preferences (which newsletters do you want, how often do you want them, and in what form: RSS or email?). Start by making sure you have a great preferences centre.

Next, you should start to integrate email with social applications, like mapping sites for example. A classic Web 2.0 application, mapping sites are where consumers can overlay travel directions with information about products and services located along their route.
So, let’s say you’ve used a map site to plot out a ski trip to the Alps. Users can also input directives like “show me hotels, petrol prices, theme parks etc along this route.” Therefore, the user is signalling to a Ramada Inn marketer that she’s open to special discounts, via email, for their local area hotels). In using a mapping application, the consumer is pulling information in lieu of the marketer pushing it, but email becomes the logical follow-up for information requested.

Many people equate Web 2.0 with AJAX technology, incidentally, which is a relatively new technique used in web application development that allows more interactivity between web sites. For example, when on a mapping site, consumers no longer have to click away to other pages to find hotels, reviews, prices, etc (it wasn’t so long ago we were all clicking away to multiple sites!). AJAX is very prevalent on mapping sites, where users are constantly configuring content according to their personal travel needs. This type of interactive capability is a big aspect of social computing and there’s plenty of “community sharing” on mapping sites in which people trade itineraries and driving directions with others (refer a friend for special offers, invite peers to do reviews, invite people to join prize draws etc). And they do this by email.

Now, as you plan that ski trip to the Alps, some people will want to turn all that good information – e.g. personalised driving directions - into an individual RSS feed. While most people think of RSS feeds as standardised news or entertainment titbits fed to thousands of users, highly personalised RSS feeds like this are possible through some email service providers. Forrester Research’s latest report on Social Computing points out that a marketer’s approach to the two media (email and RSS) should overlap, because both deliver direct communications electronically, can be customized, and in many cases rely on a single technology vendor. Forrester’s report also reminds us that companies can start marketing via RSS without creating new content (e.g. email newsletters or on-site programmes can be easily repurposed for RSS delivery).

RSS is very well-suited to travel information because travel plans inherently need to factor in frequently changing content (e.g. weather alerts, hotel discounts etc) and need to be pushed quickly to the user. Feeds about petrol prices, and where one can find the cheapest petrol station near their destination, is a great example.

And where does email work into these communications? The consumer first pulls information by setting up an RSS feed, and a hotel marketer, for example, reacts by incorporating content from individualized RSS feeds into follow-up emails….usually resulting in pretty high click-through thanks to the message’s extreme relevance.

Note, when giving out their email in the Web 1.0 world, users were often asked to complete a checklist of preferences (hobbies, affinities) so the marketer “could send them relevant offers.” It became quickly apparent that very few people wanted to tick all those boxes. But today, simply through the course of interacting with a Web 2.0 site like a mapping website, you give up that kind of information anyway. After all, you’ve identified your hobby (skiing) and are busily checking out certain types of restaurants or hotels on the way. This kind of information lends itself perfectly to up-sell emails later on.

So we’ve established how personalized RSS feeds can inform email marketing communications. What about the reverse? Web analytics programs track shopping cart behaviour and subsequent email conversions and that information may then alter the content a marketer attaches to a personalized RSS feed. Check and see if your email service provider offers a shared RSS–email profile for the multi-channel consumer.

As previously stated, Web 2.0 is all about social computing. Now we all know about email marketing’s classic “refer-a-friend” technique. Social computing has enhanced “refer-a-friend” programmes: technology changes have evolved traditional “lead capture” techniques into a more Web 2.0 “involve a friend” approach. The traditional referral program just asked for friends’ names. Now you involve them. I know one such example in which a DIY chain in the US allowed customers to design a room online (paint colours and all) and then email different versions to friends. Those friends then voted on the décor choices, and in the process, received an invitation to opt into the company email newsletter. And as a great side benefit, the marketer was able to glean some of their personal preferences based on the décor choices they rejected or selected!

Overall, email was crucial in the Web 1.0 value chain. For example, the marketer would decide what product was “on offer” that week and push out email offers to the opt-in email list. Or, the marketer would use the website navigation hierarchy to drive purchase (e.g. promotions on the home page). Product relevance to the target email list was not necessarily high, it was simply what was being promoted that week.

In the Web 2.0 value chain, the consumer decides which products are most interesting to them through keyword searches or blog recommendations. The purchase is then initiated from deep inside a website – where the search navigation drops the user – and hierarchical web site navigation (i.e. starting on the home page) is ignored. If the shopping process is abandoned, remarketing emails can push a consumer over the finish line. Therefore email closes the “search loop.” Other places a marketer can use email is to encourage a customer to retrieve forgotten shopping bags, or share wish lists with family and friends.

So it’s not that email is no longer relevant in a Web 2.0 world, quite the contrary. It’s simply shifted position….which might be interpreted by some as a demotion. However, the better way to look at it is that email now completes the conversation, or prolongs the marketer/consumer dialogue, rather than starting it.

For further information please contact
Joanna Burton
International Marketing Manager
0845 029 1414

Published on: 12:00AM on 12th April 2007