Why Email (Still) Rules the Online Marketing Roost

By Diane Merlino

Email might not be new or flashy, but it’s still the most popular way to communicate with customers online.

That’s a key finding in Subscribers, Fans and Followers: The 2012 Channel Preference Survey conducted by ExactTarget. A whopping 77% of consumers surveyed prefer to receive permission-based marketing messages from brands via email. That puts email light years ahead of the percentage of consumers who prefer to get marketing messages from other channels, including direct mail (9%), SMS/text on a cell phone (5%), Facebook (4%), Twitter (1%), and mobile app push notices (1%).

“Email might be the oldest channel in our toolbox, digitally speaking, but it continues to be the workhorse and the connective tissue of the relationships that we have with consumers online,” said Jeff Rohrs, VP of marketing /uploadedImages/TW_Plus/xTW_Plus_Images_ONLY/Rohrs Headshot.jpgresearch and education for ExactTarget. “For executives, that’s one of the top-line things I would look at. Consumers prefer that channel when given the choice, partially because of the continued control and the consistency of the inbox experience.”

Rohrs covers key pointers about email’s popularity as a marketing channel, and the implications for travel companies.

GOING UP: Consumers’ preference to get permission-based marketing messages from brands via email has actually increased 5% since ExactTarget conducted the same consumer survey in 2008. A key reason: the explosive growth in smartphones.

“When people think about smartphone growth and mobility, they don’t necessarily think about the email channel, but email is one of the default applications on every single smart phone,” Rohrs said. “That’s not true of Facebook, that’s not true of Twitter. Email has bubbled back up to the forefront of consumers’ minds because it’s right there on the home screen on their smartphones.”

There is also ‘the little red dot factor’ to consider. “We’ve all been conditioned by the little red dot on the iPhone, with the number on it showing me how many unread messages I have. There is now almost a Pavlovian response to that little red dot — I have to clear that out, my email requires action.”

TEXT VS EMAIL: “Text messaging is a great alerts channel,” said Rohrs. “It’s a channel the travel industry has used with much success around changes in itineraries, flight delays, and things of that nature. But it’s not a channel you necessarily want to use to deliver links or heavy-duty links content. What’s nice is these two channels can work in combination.

“In the travel space we have to look at the utility of our messaging.  If it’s of an urgent nature we should be giving control to the consumer to tell us which of those personal channels, those one-to-one channels, are going to be most effective to communicate with them. If it’s more promotional, let them dictate, but know from our research that the majority of people are going to say, ‘you know what — send that to me via email’.

WHERE SOCIAL MEDIA FITS IN: “Right now social media is not necessarily the channel where the vast majority of people want to have promotional communications pushed to them,” Rohrs said. “Instead, they want to have brand engagement that’s relevant to them. They want to have conversation around communities that are of interest to them and self-dictate when they’re going to go there instead of having a brand force itself on them.”

DIRECT MAIL POSSIBILITIES: “This is slightly off our patch of land, but direct mail remains a very effective channel for permission marketing — and it’s the only channel where if you don’t have permission it’s still an acceptable way to communicate with the consumer,” Rohrs said. “All of the digital channels — the ones that index positively, and email particularly — require permission to engage. But with direct mail, folks will accept marketing communications they might not have given permission for.

“That’s intriguing from a travel standpoint, because there are still a lot of print opportunities, still ways that direct mail can be leveraged quite effectively in tandem with digital communications to reinforce brand message. That hand-in-hand relationship between offline and online channels can still work quite well. Consumers are indicating a desire there.”

TEEN EMAIL UPSURGE: “A lot of our research has debunked many of the misnomers about teen email usage and behavior. We found that teens are not abandoning email — in fact 60% of teens use some combination of Facebook, email and text messaging in a given day,” Rohrs said. “As teens gain maturity and responsibility, their usage patterns change to use more email and more text messaging, and they begin to use social media in different ways. As travel marketers thinking about the next generation, it’s key to realize they are not so different from us. What dictates channel preference and channel usage are life stage and responsibility.”

DON’T LEAVE MONEY ON THE TABLE: “I think there is going to be a continued move to highly utilitarian messaging once a booking has been made, because loyalty is going to be garnered by the high-touch customer service that is given up until the trip and afterwards as well,” Rohrs said. “About five years ago both the airline and the hotel industries started to push into a little bit of this kind of messaging, but they usually wrapped it in their confirmation emails, so they were almost burying the lead. I bet you they had great click through rates when they first did it, but they set it on autopilot and a lot of that has gotten stale. It’s rote and mechanical, it’s very automated, and there’s nothing personalized to it.

“That’s where there is probably money being left on the table, either in their partnerships or revenue streams. The hotel industry or the airline industry — because they know your destination — those two have got the greatest opportunity in that regard. There is one area where there is opportunity being missed.” 

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