Email marketing is dying: 3 actions to help it survive (and thrive)

Email is the most effective marketing channel for many things. It's also the one customers feel most overwhelmed by. Here's how to change that.

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Email marketing is a fundamental element of marketers’ toolkits. New Gartner research shows it as the most effective channel across multiple stages of the buying journey, from demand generation to driving conversions and customer loyalty.

And yet, this critical channel is too often left unloved, with more focus going to the fast-changing advertising or social media landscapes. For years, marketers have gotten away with that dynamic, but we’re seeing cracks emerge which, left untreated, will cause an irreparable decline in the channel’s performance.

Dig deeper: 6 tactics to create recession-proof email marketing

One key signal is that average email open rates are declining, as inboxes filter out promotions and consumers stop bothering to check those folders. Through surveys, Gartner has found that the vast majority of both B2B and B2C customers feel overwhelmed by the number of emails they receive from brands. Worryingly, these customers say that if they perceive emails as irrelevant, they will unsubscribe – something easier than ever to do.

To maintain clicks, many marketers have fallen into the trap of sending more campaigns, but this only papers over the cracks. To avoid continued worsened performance from the channel, sending more (or fewer) emails is not the answer. Instead, marketers need to send better emails. Let’s unpack three ways to do so:

1: Build your email strategy on the ongoing value

First, if you want to send better emails, you need to focus on the value that you seek to provide over time. It might sound obvious, but oftentimes, marketers fall into a pattern where they acquire contacts by giving them something they want initially, like a one-off discount, but then don’t know how to keep them interested over time, and eventually have to start again.

Avoid this by being clear on the digital value exchange you’re offering your customers. In fact, signup incentivization needn’t be a cost center. It can be as simple as being more explicit upfront about the benefits of a newsletter or account at the point of signup, collecting topic preferences and including the privacy policy up front. Gartner’s Genius Brands, or those identified to be best-in-class according to key digital marketing elements, are more likely to have mobile sites that do this.

Of course, if you’re clear on the benefits provided by saying ‘you won’t benefit much’, then people won’t sign up. So defining the value proposition for your target audience and building a long-term plan to resource that is what will make the difference between email marketing success or failure.

2: Prioritize before Personalizing

When it comes to personalization, marketers normally start in one of two places: where it’s easiest, such as subject lines, or where it’s the most obvious use case, such as abandoned cart messages. Often, it stops there – because anything more gets really hard.

Messaging timing matters (e.g., receiving an email after forgetting about items in your cart), but tailored help matters even more for driving business value. If you can do both, even better. Look for signals that a customer isn’t ready to buy yet and needs help learning how a given product might fit. This kind of “triggered nurturing” is so powerful because it positions your brand as helpful, not just reactive. 

In the past, marketers have struggled to create and manage enough content to support increased automated or triggered learning pathways via email. Today, AI projects like ChatGPT have the potential to change that, but will still require time and effort. In the meantime, marketers should prioritize the areas they automate based on the business value generated from emails to specific segments of audiences.

3: Optimize your emails using the best-fit KPIs

Gartner’s most recent Multichannel Marketing Survey revealed that marketers who use three or four KPIs are most likely to exceed their goals. Too many and you’ve got too much to focus on; too little and you don’t have enough insight to spot issues and close gaps. 

The question becomes: What are the ones you should focus on? For email marketing, it’s easier to say what you shouldn’t focus on. Open rate data is more inaccurate than ever, to the point it isn’t fit for reporting without heavy adaptation. Instead, lower-funnel metrics like conversions or clickthrough rates are more valuable, given these are fundamentally the objectives for this channel.

The best-performing marketers don’t just use channel-specific metrics though. Instead, they combine them with broader business objectives. Gartner has found that marketers using return on engagement metrics (e.g., revenue generated per email, cost per click) and relationship metrics (e.g., customer satisfaction score, or CSAT) are far more likely than peers to outperform their performance targets.

Email marketing will probably never truly die, but it will diminish in value to businesses if we continue down the path we’re on. If nothing else, as other marketers fail to change, taking these actions should mean you can outrun your competitors.



Matt Moorut is a Director Analyst in the Gartner Marketing Practice, presenting live on this subject and others at the 2023 Gartner Marketing Symposium/Xpo, taking place May 22-24 in Denver, CO.

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Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily MarTech. Staff authors are listed here.


About the author

Matt Moorut
Contributor
Matt Moorut is a Director-level analyst for Gartner for Marketers, based in London, UK. He is the KI Leader for the Industry Marketing Strategy and Execution KI in the marketing practice and serves as the marketing officer and multichannel marketing track manager for Symposium.

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