Email Needs to be Better

Email marketing for big brands isn't hitting the mark for customers

For retail marketers, the holidays are a time of intense pressure and scrutiny. Most retailers see their revenue numbers soar during the holiday season. And online and interactive channels are increasingly driving those numbers. Marketing teams have carefully planned and coordinated for months to ensure customers get maximum value and a better experience.

So when the Wall Street Journal published a piece Monday headlined “Retailers’ Emails Are Misfires for Many Holiday Shoppers,” it was a punch in the gut not just to staffs at the brands the Journal called out, but to everyone in the email marketing industry. The article cited sobering stats and quotes from customers who are apathetic toward the personalization efforts those brands’ email marketing teams undoubtedly put months of work into planning, writing, designing, segmenting, testing, and painstakingly setting up through their ESP. It was painful, but it might have been necessary for those of us who care about the industry to see. I’ve been in this space for close to 15 years, most of it in online retail. And I’ve felt myself becoming increasingly defensive while reviewing the text and the accompanying reader comments.

The premise of the article is the email marketing efforts of recognizable brands with significant resources often miss the mark. They’re sinking tremendous amounts of money and time into identifying the right marketing technology partners. They’re using every tool in their arsenal to create highly targeted, personalized messages to their subscribers. But, despite these efforts, their customers don’t feel catered to. They don’t think the emails they receive are relevant to their interests or buying preferences. They don’t feel like the brands get them. And that’s a problem.

According to Brendan Witcher, a principal analyst at Forrester Research Inc., while retailers say they are customizing their emails, consumers don’t see it that way.

“Nearly 90% of organizations say they are focused on personalizing customer experiences, yet only 40% of shoppers say that information they get from retailers is relevant to their tastes and interests,” Mr. Witcher said. “The ugly truth is that most retailers haven’t done the unsexy work of understanding how to use the data.”

How did we get here?

For an industry that prides itself on being at the forefront of the battle for the customer, something isn’t connecting. Email is a permission-based, direct line to the customer. But it seems we’re not taking advantage of it like we should. How did we get to this point?

For one, consumers are less loyal and more demanding than ever. There’s been a behavioral shift in recent years thanks to technology advancements and leading tech-first companies (like Amazon in retail) that make marketing really difficult.

Sari Rogers browsed Lord & Taylor’s website earlier this month, looking for a pair of tall black boots, but left without making a purchase. A day later, the retailer emailed her, but instead of beckoning her back with a boot promo, it advertised 25% off dresses.

“It’s kind of annoying,” said the 47-year-old Fanwood, N.J. resident, who is the parish coordinator at a local church. “They focus on products I’m not interested in.”

It wasn’t long ago when many consumers found it creepy to find out brands were “watching” them. Yet today, they not only expect it, it’s off-putting if companies don’t do it well enough.

Marketers are also likely drowning in an endless sea of customer data, technology “solutions” promising the world, and an over-reliance on automation. All of that has ironically caused many of us to become increasingly disconnected from understanding what our customers actually want. And we know to know how we can do it better. Are we going through the motions with email because people expect us to, and not thinking strategically how to improve?

The answer isn’t perfectly clear. But it’s important to take a look in the mirror and see where we can get better as an industry. The Wall Street Journal piece should be a gut check to everyone who sends marketing emails for a living. That’s especially true for those at the enterprise level.

(This is Part 1 of a two-part post in response to the Wall Street Journal’s article. To read Part 2, click here)