By Dr John Yardley, Managing Director, Threads Software
John Yardley, Managing Director of Threads Software, a Cloud service which enables easy searching and retrieval of data by collecting, aggregating and indexing all written and spoken digital business communications, discusses the issues around email marketing for small businesses
Before considering the role of email in marketing, it is worth thinking about why email has defied all the predictions of its death, and continues to grow in the face of other messaging methods such as SMS, Skype, Twitter, WhatsApp, and so on
There are basically three reasons for this:-
- Open standards
The process of delivering an email to its intended destination(s) is not dissimilar from a that of a regular letter. The email, which like an envelope must contain an address of the recipient(s), is delivered to an email server which is responsible for finding the best route to the final recipients. The email server is just like a regular sorting office except that the messages are digital.
The email, just like the letter, will pass through a series of email servers (or sorting offices) until it reaches its final destination. These email servers are simply computers that are connected to the Internet. The first email server through which the message passes may be located inside a company’s premises, or it may be located at some unknown location in the Cloud. Either way, the email senders and recipients and the email servers must communicate with each other in a predictable way using an email protocol. A protocol is simply a set of rules which email clients and servers must use to correctly route or display the email.
The crucial point here is that for email, this protocol is open – that is, published so that any computer program can use it. This means that there are programs to send and receive email on almost every sort of device or computer – from cell phones, through to laptops and mainframes – and any device manufacturer that follows the protocol can write their own email program.
This contrasts with a closed (or proprietary) protocol where the user relies entirely on the protocol owner to support different platforms.
This is an important distinction because, if we wish to automate the sending of emails – for example when creating mailshots – then we can write (or buy) a program to do it for emails, something we could not do with other messaging systems such as WhatsApp or Skype.
But the openness of the email protocols does not just affect who can send and receive email. It also affects what can be sent. Protocols cover such things as formatting the message, including web links, and the inclusion of attachments.
Hence the fact that email uses open protocols means we can communicate with any computer and automate the sending of emails – as we must for mailshots.
As we all know, finding an email when you need it can be a challenge. However, this task is eased by the fact that we can use a folder structure to organise our emails and also that we can search our emails for particular metadata such as date, time, sender, recipient, and so on. Again, it is the fact that the protocol is open that allows users of email clients on one type of device to search for emails stored on another device.
Last but not least, we can add attachments to our emails which can be documents, images, spreadsheet, music or video files, almost any type of file you can think of. Yet again the ability to add and extract attachments no matter which device is used to send and receive the email, arises because of this open protocol.
The combination of these basic features means we do not simply use email as a communication tool, but as a database in which to search and store all kinds of data. We don’t have to worry about whether the recipient can receive email and we can automate the process of sending it.
This is why the use of email continues to grow.
If a company decides to use WhatsApp, say, as their preferred way to exchange messages, it will be restricted to communicating only with WhatsApp users and only in a way that WhatsApp supports.
Advertising – Mailshots
The most obvious email marketing tool is the mailshot. This is simply a process for sending the same message to many contacts. However, to perform a mailshot, you must have a list of email addresses of all the contacts to whom you wish to send the mailshot and herein lies the biggest obstacle to this use of email.
We can choose to use our own list or we can purchase a list from a specialised vendor. However, in either case, we need to ensure that the contacts are valid and that they do not mind receiving an unsolicited email – the latter is of course protected by some quite hefty international legislation.
The consequences of getting this wrong does risk litigation, but equally important, it increases the chances of the sender being blacklisted by the numerous spam filters that most email clients sit behind. Once the sender is blacklisted, it can prove impossible to send individual emails to genuine customers and the process of getting un-blacklisted can be tortuous.
Of course, there are companies that will undertake the management of mailshots for you, and they will use various techniques to prevent your own domain being blacklisted. However, spam filters nowadays can recognise these and while your mailshot may be sent to a lot of people, relatively few may see it.
Does Email Marketing Work?
So much for the technicalities of mailshots. If you can avoid getting blacklisted, does it work?
There is an enormous temptation to think that because the cost of sending an email is so little, one may as well send as many as necessary to make a sale.
The Universe contains 100 billion galaxies and each galaxy contains 100 billion stars, so it is easy to assume there must be intelligent life somewhere other than Earth. Yet the conditions necessary for life are so special, that it would be wrong to make this assumption. So too with emailshots. Given you can get the email addresses for 1,000 contacts in the market for your products/services, you may indeed be lucky to make a single sale by mailshotting them all. How does this get whittled down? It is impossible to give percentages, but see how they compound by asking these questions:
- Does the email address exist?
- Will the email go into spam?
- Is the contact a real person?
- Will that person see it?
- Are they in the market for the product at all?
- Are they too busy to look at unsolicited email?
- Will they unsubscribe?
- Are they in the market for the product at the time they receive the email?
- Will that person read it?
- Will they start a dialogue?
- Will they buy the product?
When you compound all these variables, it’s easy to see that the conversion rate can be incredibly small. Furthermore, by keep sending mailshots, you risk alienating the prospect for good.
So much for the downside. Emailshots can have a place and, like all marketing activities, it is rarely a single one that generates a sale.
While it cannot be stated categorically that emailshots are not the way to sell products and services, they can still have a powerful role in branding. And to achieve this they must appear to be worth reading and when read, not result in an immediate unsubscribe – especially if the recipients are existing customers. No company should risk cutting off their main line of communication with customers or qualified prospects.
And the best way to avoid that is to provide information that will strengthen the brand and not just sell the product. There will always be an area of business commonality that has nothing to do with the product or service sold but which will be of interest. By piquing that interest and letting the prospect know that they are not simply being sold something, you can build up confidence in the brand.
Some years back, my company ran a series of email shots called “top up your knowledge”. Each email provided a non-technical explanation of the technical aspect of one topic in information technology. We covered ADSL, the Internet, databases, VoIP, and many other subjects. Each member of our technical staff would be tasked with writing a short article so it never became too demanding.
We never quite realised how important these were until we stopped them. We received many messages asking us to continue, and at shows, people would often drop by to say much they learnt from them.
And the subject matter does not have to directly relate to the business. Some useful statistic which could not be easily found from a web search, may be enough to hook a regular reader.
This is the area where email stands head and shoulders above the more direct marketing applications such as mailshots.
With the advent of the internet, our old office practices have fallen by the wayside. Clunky as they were, filing cabinets had one major benefit – they were shared. All customer and prospect correspondence could be kept together in one file that anyone could look at.
With digital messaging, vital documents are often locked up in individual employee email accounts and unless the supplier has only one employee, it becomes almost impossible to get an overall picture of the customer relationship.
Allowing automatic email sharing amongst employees – that is not relying on the employee to cc or bcc everyone relevant – is the first step to rectifying this. Not only does it avoid duplication, contradiction and give the customer a far better view of the supplier, one-to-one emails contain a massive amount of market intelligence that can be used to improve workflow and profitability.
The meteoric rise in the use of so-called Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems bears witness to the value to be gained by electronically managing sales and marketing processes. Tracking the progress of a lead; passing it on to a specialist; seeing the customer’s buying or enquiry patterns or simply knowing who works for a company and what are their contact details are all vital tasks. Computers are much better than humans at remembering which hot prospect is due for a follow-up call.
Yet a major failing of many CRM systems is that the company that uses it fails to add the data the CRM needs to do its job. And where does most of this data come from? Emails of course. Very little goes on without some email detailing it – maybe as a direct message or in some attached document.
So an essential part of any CRM system should include the automatic sharing of communications. This not only keeps everyone in a team up to date – systems can be programmed to only share certain emails with certain teams to avoid them being deluged with irrelevant information– but it is easy to see at a glance which customers have been communicated with recently and who has responded.
Business is starting to realise that digital text is one of the most important ways to gain marketing insight and, without question, email is one of the most abundant and accessible sources of digital text. However, the traditionally obvious ways of using it are becoming less and less efficient in terms of generating business and in some cases, can be positively counter-productive. If you must use emailshots then be very careful where your list comes from. Vendors of these lists commonly make all sorts of claims about the accuracy of their lists and the fact that they are regularly cleansed. But the bottom line is that it is difficult to verify this information, and also that many contact details have been sold to many companies eager to do the same thing. The damage caused from emailing just one wrong contact can take a long time to repair.
That is not to say that emailshots are of no value. Provided you can build up confidence in your audience by not bombarding them with irrelevant information to clutter up their inboxes and they come to trust your communications, then you can start to drip feed the information that might just result in a sale. It is still a risky business though.
Unfortunately because email marketing is wrongly perceived as free, it has been grossly overused. The result is that very little of it is read particularly when it is unsolicited. It is far better to use email to manage your brand and image and your marketing and sales processes.
For the reasons outlined, the adoption of email is likely to continue to grow, but not always in the most obvious directions.
Dr John Yardley is a Managing Director at JPY Limited and Threads Software Ltd.
John began his career as a researcher in computer science and electronic engineering with the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), where he undertook a PhD in speech recognition. In early 2019, John founded Threads Software Ltd as a spin off from his company JPY Ltd to commercialise and exploit the Threads Intelligent Message Hub, developed originally by JPY Ltd.
Today, JPY represents manufacturers of over 30 software products, distributed through a channel of 100 specialist resellers.
John brings a depth of understanding of a wide range of the technologies that underpin the software industry.
John has a PhD in Electrical Engineering from the University of Essex and a BSc in Computer Science from City University, London.
In his spare time, he enjoys playing jazz saxophone and debating astrophysics.
About Threads Software
Threads Software Limited was founded in February 2019 by Dr John Yardley to commercialise and exploit the Threads Intelligent Message Hub. Threads software allows for easy searching and retrieval of data by uniquely collecting, aggregating and indexing all required digital business communications – both written and spoken. These are gathered from a range of sources including emails and VOIP calls, intelligently into one seamless, highly intuitive, secure and very easy-to-use dashboard. The system stores these communications in a secure Cloud database so that authorised users can share and search any form of digital message to gain as complete a view as possible of their organisation’s dealings with third parties.
Benefits: Threads not only makes employee collaboration much easier, but because it facilitates very rapid message storing, searching and information-sharing users gain a complete overview of all projects, greater efficiency, better-decision making and improved revenues.
Customers include PropLogix, suppliers of real estate due diligence, and Urban Volt, an eco energy company. Web: https://threads.cloud/