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Email is Dead! Long Live Email!

Our Channels and the Morgue
By Angie Moore
Originally posted June 18, 2013, Fundraising Success Blog

I saw a headline the other day in the Harvard Business Review that just made me laugh out loud. But before I tell you what it is, let’s just think back a few years or maybe a bit further in history. How many of you direct marketers out there remember responding to the concern that “direct mail is dead”? How many of you remember reading those headlines in giant font that said, “Is E-mail Killing Direct Mail?”

I thought about Googling it but just assumed I would have returned a gajillion results for articles titled, “Is Direct Mail Dead?” And look at us now — direct mail is still one of the most preferred methods of fundraising communication with more than just one generation and is still alive and well across marketing for both commercial and nonprofits.

So, after years and years of answering this question at conferences and within meetings, imagine how funny I found it that there is an article in the Harvard Business Review that questions if e-mail is dead.

Granted, the article is mostly referencing the use of e-mail from a work perspective and outlines how much e-mail people receive in an average workday, the type of e-mails they’re receiving, etc. But the irony of it just made me think further about how e-mail is doing.

There have been a lot of reports lately about declining response rates, declining open rates and much more. One recent report looks at the state of e-mail marketing as of the end of 2012. While I chuckled because our industry likes to wring its hands and worry about which channel is dead and which channels are alive, the report from Return Path does show some troubling trends. The headline sums it up nicely: “Engaging e-mail subscribers got harder toward the end of 2012.”

Overall, 400,000 e-mail campaigns from the fourth quarter of 2012 were compared to the prior year. The article has some fantastic visuals, and here are some of the most critical findings:

  1. Consumers read less of the e-mail they received in Q4 2012.
  2. Average read rates worldwide were less than 17 percent, which is a slight decline from Q4 2011.
  3. E-mail subscribers read 27 percent of the messages they received from the top 100 retailers in Q4 2012.
  4. E-mail from social-networking senders was among the least read. The average read rate was 12 percent in 2011, and it declined significantly by almost 50 percent to a read rate of only 6.3 percent in 2012.

It’s hard not to be worried about e-mail marketing and its effectiveness and efficiency with metrics like this. I asked one of my colleagues, Patrick Jeber, director of interactive media at Eleventy Marketing Group , if he thought e-mail was dying and if the metrics were indicative of it heading in the wrong direction. Here’s his feedback:

“The short answer: In my opinion, there is too much information out there that says otherwise. I think statements like this are used to scare marketers and create chaos. People everywhere use e-mail as the central repository for their digital life.

“Some say social media has cannibalized the e-mail communications industry. But the opposite is true; it has helped it flourish. Show me a social channel that doesn’t use e-mail as a way of communicating with its users. There always needs to be a central hub for communicating, and e-mail still plays the part. Plus, e-mail is so ingrained in our daily lives, it couldn’t be anywhere near death.

“A recent study asked consumers which channel they prefer for receiving permission-based promotional messages, reports Janelle Johnson in an article at MarketingProfs. A whopping 77 percent said e-mail. No other channel even scored in the double digits. Another study by Good Technology found 50 percent of American respondents admitted to routinely sending work e-mail in bed.

“Others argue that mobile computing has changed the way we communicate. Some even argue that smartphones and tablets have hurt the e-mail industry. I’m not sure where they’re getting their numbers, but small business owners actually embrace new technology to help them more effectively communicate with e-mail. A recent report from Constant Contact shows of those small business owners using mobile devices, 73 percent said they use their phones or tablets to conduct social-media marketing, and 71 percent said they use their devices to conduct e-mail marketing.

“There may be other channels to communicate with your customers, clients, donors and constituents, but e-mail marketing is still by far the best, far-reaching and deeply ingrained digital channel.”

As you can see, there are reports that can make you feel better and other reports that can keep you up at night. We are a data-based industry, so we know that data can be looked at in a myriad of ways. But in the end, I think the message here is to focus on our marketing. Yes, we need to watch the numbers and the results. But just as direct mail indeed did not die, neither has e-mail. Let’s stop worrying about it and make sure it continues to be relevant to our markets and our offers are successful.

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