Back in the early 2000s I wrote loads of email marketing campaigns. It was bread-and-butter stuff, a cash cow, a reliable way to delight clients. My work drove really good open rates and we enjoyed some exceptional conversion rates. Life in email marketing land was good. By 2017 everything had changed beyond recognition, and I decided to give up writing email marketing campaigns for good. So what went wrong?
Direct mail, junk mail and email marketing
Back in my old direct marketing days, in the late ’80s, we’d get ‘below-the-line’ response rates of 0.3%, and that would easily cover the costs of the design, the print, the postage, the VAT, the free gifts, everything. I’d send out a 7 million-strong financial services mailing to the customers of a high street bank, get 21,000 responses and drum up an impressive return on investment. Result.
By the mid-1990s things were starting to look iffy. Response rates were falling, conversion rates were plummeting, our 0.3% had dropped like a stone to an average of just 0.1% and the proliferation of ‘junk mail’ was in the news, dreadful PR for a medium that had worked so well for so long.
Junk mail versus direct mail
Marketers hated the term ‘junk mail’. The theory was that a mailing that drops on your doormat is only junk if it bears no relevance to your life. Relevance was everything. If you were into snowboarding and a snowboarding holiday offer landed on your doormat, happy days. For many, many years it worked like a dream… until everyone and his dog started doing direct mail, people got fed up of the constant stream of offers – relevant or not – and the rot set in.
These days direct mail languishes at the bottom of most marketers’ toolboxes. It’s as rare as hen’s teeth, and few brands still do it. Even the big ones. I must admit, if I get a direct mailing of any kind through our door, relevant or not, I feel chuffed to bits. It’s like being singled out. It feels like you’re wanted. And that’s exactly how email marketing felt in the early days.
No wonder some of today’s savviest marketers are seeing such awesome direct mail response and conversion rates. When something good is shoved through your letterbox, it’s probably the only thing that’s been shoved through your letterbox for days and days. It stands out. It feels genuinely personal. You feel noticed and valued, and it feels good.
Spam versus email marketing
Email marketing is as cheap as chips. It costs next to nothing to distribute, and that means you can literally mail millions of prospects without breaking into a sweat, never mind breaking the bank. In my opinion, that simple fact alone has transformed what was originally a powerful marketing medium into something so widely abused its reputation is in tatters.
Plenty of us suffer from email spam overkill. This morning I had fifteen spam messages in one email box, nineteen in another. It comes and goes in waves. Until three weeks ago I hadn’t received ‘find girls for sex in your area’ emails for years, now I’m getting loads. The occasional email I get from a company I’ve interacted with at some time in the past, no matter how relevant, gets caught up in the rubbish and deleted unread. It all feels like junk. My virtual doormat is perpetually littered with crap and I really can’t be bothered to wade through it to find the rare nuggets of good stuff.
Direct mail and email – Interesting parallels
I suspect email marketing has close parallels with direct mail. The more email campaigns are sent out, the lower the response rates and the worse the overall performance. The less crowded the landscape, the more room there is to breathe, the better your campaign stands out.
One day spam might die. And pigs might fly. Until then, I’m steering well clear of a medium that’s so badly abused, so often, that I can’t make it work for my clients any more. If you want web pages and blog posts, yes please. Email marketing? Hm, that’s a no!