Some say email is “old” technology, a dinosaur from the 70s, which could rival the face of Joanna Lumley for having not changed in 40 years. If this is your view on email, then you may need to reconsider.  

I have been working in email for nearly a decade and I have seen more innovation in the last year than the rest of the time put together. 

Email is becoming the key to cross-channel marketing, connecting not only the different facets of online advertising but bringing offline into the mix and, most importantly, linking device usage by an individual. It’s created a more efficient way of advertising that is better for the consumer as well as the advertiser.

So what’s new? There is programmatic advertising, smarter interactive email designs and technologies arising out of the recognition that email is the best digital ID connected to a person. In this article, we explore each of these areas and highlight some of the companies changing the face of email.

Programmatic buying

The digital space is moving towards buying media online, either through automated bidding engines or through a portal.  This is called programmatic buying and now accounts for more than 50% of media being purchased.  

Whilst the rest of the digital space went programmatic, email remained in the old world – stuck to Excel spreadsheets and rudimentary online ‘email count’ tools.  

If you wanted to run an acquisition campaign via email you would have to search for suppliers, contact them directly, buy a list (without a clue about how clean or active the data was) and then wait for the supplier to send you a spreadsheet with results. This was time consuming and in no way transparent, meaning there was no wonder ‘email advertising’ accounted for less than 1% of online advertising spend.

However, this is changing and platforms from LiveIntent, Criteo and Lolagrove are focused on revolutionising email advertising to make it programmatic.

All these platforms are combining elements of programmatic buying seen in the display world with retargeting, making it easier for media buyers to include email in their overall plan. The combined strength of the high ROI that email can deliver and the ability to use the email address to retarget consumers on other channels means that these offerings are quickly building momentum. 

The other benefits of these platforms is that email does not need to rely on probabilistic assumptions but use deterministic information to target users. Email does this by linking demographical information like postal addresses, genders and salary bandings to an email address, which it can then be linked to online behaviours like click activity and cookie IDs. 

This can be particularly beneficial when it comes to location targeting, where selecting a user by IP address is wrought with issues, especially given the rise of cloud computing. 

Tapad, one of the leaders in cross-channel marketing uses ‘probabilistic’ assumptions to power it algorithms, claiming a ‘70% to 91% accuracy’. This delivers some great results for advertisers.  

The company announced at their annual conference that they saw 2x the industry average click-through rate for banner ads. But compare this to using deterministic targeting using programmatic email combined with retargeting and 2x a 0.1% average, this doesn’t appear to be so great. 

For example, Experian found a 315% increase in site traffic for a renewable energy client when using email combined with retargeting on Facebook. In another example, Criteo has seen average CTR of 31% when retargeting website visitors with an email. ESBConnect, which harnesses email and custom audiences, has seen average CTR increase by 350%.

The innovation in programmatic email, has now made acquisition via email more accessible and allowed brands to integrate it seamlessly into their other marketing activity, knowing the insight into the consumer is more accurate than ever.

Cross-channel marketing

Most consumers are accessing the internet with multiple devices.  It can be any mix of phone, tablet, desktop and now other devices such as TV.  The problem is how can an advertiser know that it is the same consumer on each device? The truth is that it hard to know and this has resulted in advertisers bombarding the consumer with the same message over and over again.  This is costly and does nothing for the image of the brand.  

The industry has been using probabilistic assumption to resolve this with some success, however it is now becoming the norm to harness the value of email as a digital identifier. 

By using the email address in this manner, we can start to move towards a single customer acquisition journey, and away from channel roadmaps. Research shows that consumers expect brands to know who they are at all touch points, which makes this increasingly important.

Cross channel marketing is made possible by trying to understand what devices a consumer uses by creating an identity graph. An identity graph maps a consumer’s social identity (Twitter handle, Facebook ID), with their demographic identity (gender, postal address) and device identities (mobile, laptop). These graphs are built in a way that ensures a consumer’s privacy is not compromised.

Facebook and Google are leading the way in creating identity graphs but not everyone wants to be beholden to these two titans. A number of Data Management Platforms (DMPs) such as those provided by Oracle and Rocketfuel and Acxiom’s Liveramp to cater for this need.  They use a hash (encrypted email address) to build an identity graph.  Acxiom’s LiveRamp is probably making the greatest headway because of its neutral ‘Swedish’-like persona. 

LiveRamp enables advertisers to link data without passing data between competitors. It connects online data with offline data, first-party data with third-party data, known customers with anonymous internet browsers and is integrated with all the major DSPs and exchanges to allow for this data to be purchased, making one-to-one marketing more accessible for all.

This allows email to essentially tie anonymous IDs to a person, linking different devices and channels to each other, allowing brands the ability to build out an effective identity graph, which in turn allows for effective one-to-one marketing.

Email design

Lastly, we must touch on a couple of the advancements seen in email design. This has always been hindered by HTML restrictions. However, recently there has been some impressive innovations. 

Companies such as Moveable Ink, are creating some novel approaches to make our emails slightly more interactive.  There is now the ability to include ‘carousel’-like banners in the email, countdown timers, dynamic content and the enhanced GIFs. Litmus has also found a way to pull in live Twitter streams into email and Amazon has embedded review and rating requests into their email.

Back to the statement, there has been no innovation in email. The mechanism of how it is sent has stayed the same, but there has been a vast amount of innovation in how we use it.