Since the first ever email was sent 46 years ago, the technology has evolved into one of the most cost-effective forms of direct marketing.

The channel has remained to be a stalwart in the digital marketers’ toolbox for years, providing a doorway to customer profiling, as well as an agile method of reacting to and capitalising on the fickle nature of online shopping behaviour.

Still, has the email marketing now reached an end point in innovation, or have we much more to come? We caught up with CommuniGator’s marketing manager, Victoria Dyke, to discuss the channel’s future. 

Victoria, how has the use of email marketing evolved over time?

Victoria Dyke: It’s crazy to think how much the world of direct and digital marketing has changed since the 90s. Suddenly you were able to contact clients and prospects quickly with this brand new tool, and even today it’s more popular than other fads like social media, display, and programmatic advertising. It was tough into the noughties, with the introduction of data protection laws and spam filters making it harder to reach contacts’ inboxes, and having to consider different mediums of email access, with 40% being opened on mobile in 2012.

With the rise of automation, though, things are getting more interesting. We have to be clever, thinking about the importance of data and keeping things personal – mass emailing is a thing of the past! In fact, there are so many things we can do with email now versus in the beginning. There are so many choices with design and layout, and the rising popularity of plain text is actually a surprise to see.

Where do you think email is heading and what are the main changes you expect to see in the near future?

VD: There’s a lot that people are missing out on in their email marketing right now. One big thing I’m hoping to see more of is lead nurturing with emails. The power of inbound marketing channels is clear, and so it’s important to nurture leads through the sales cycle before passing onto sales. By driving traffic from social, PR, and blogging, then placing leads into a relevant email campaign with tiered content, marketers could see a significant increase in sales conversions.

This is even more important with the new EU GDPR [General Data Protection Regulation] laws as well, as this will mean marketing to data that hasn’t double opted in will result in huge fines. We need to focus on getting data opted in now – that includes current customers – then build a strong relationship through nurturing campaigns.

Lastly, it’s essential for companies to integrate email and web into their CRM. Hard wiring both sets of data can bring together sales and marketing for higher conversions. Plus, you can do some really clever sales led campaigns based on their actions.

Is there anything that’s dragging email’s evolution down?

VD: Spam will always cause trouble for email marketing. Email can be so powerful when used correctly, but even the smallest mistake can get you a really bad reputation. We’ve seen problems caused by one tiny human error within a world of automation. Accidents happen, but they can leave a lasting impression – that’s why it is so important to make sure you use email in the right way.

Mass emails are also a big blockade. Old design-led mass-market emails are out, whereas clever automation using personalised senders and content are in. It’s just not good practice to send impersonal emails anymore – it sends the wrong message to your contacts.

In the end, email will always evolve. It has to. It’s been around for over twenty years, and it’s not showing any signs of fading away.

Email success tends to be measured by click-through and open rates, but do you think this might change moving forward? And if so, how?

VD: Open rates are definitely going down in importance. Mobile opens can skew numbers and just because someone opened your emails doesn’t mean they necessarily want to hear more from you, be it further emails or a phone call. Click-through rates, however, are still relevant to marketing analytics. In B2B these numbers can be quite low, generally sitting at under 1%, but in a lot of automated workflows we’ve seen the average of 35% and higher with engaged audiences.

Engagement is the most important thing to define in email marketing, as engaged and non-engaged data needs to be marketed in different ways with different content. New ways of measuring this more reliably would make a huge difference in the marketing world – and replies might be a new metric to think about. This could identify how emails should be formatted for higher engagement; for example, you’ll often find there are more replies from an outlook-style email than other styles.

In your opinion, are there any trends that could be emerging as a result of concerns over privacy and anti-spam laws?

VD: I mentioned the EU GDPR earlier, and it’s definitely something to consider. This is a new data protection act set up by the EU, which, even with Brexit, the UK will still need to abide by. It stops businesses from marketing to any data not “double opted-in” to their communications, and there are big penalties attached if you decide to market outside the law.

It sounds intimidating, but I think it will be good in the long run. We can expect to see smaller marketing lists, for sure, but more engagement from those contacts, and therefore higher click-through rates from less sends. There’s no way of telling exactly how things will pan out, of course, but it will be interesting to see, going forward.

Is it strange to think that we’re still talking about things like personalisation in 2016? Marketers seem to have been told about doing this better for some time.

VD: I don’t think it’s strange at all. Personalisation has definitely been a key focus in marketing for quite some time now, but we’re starting to see different ways of using it for more of an impact. This is especially clear with the conversion of MQLs to SQLs.

We need to take things further than just “Hi [First Name]” as things continue to move along. One great way that marketing personalisation has evolved is through the use of dynamic content, which allows different content to be fed through to different contacts depending on their past behaviour and engagement with different campaigns. Also, campaigns need to be driven by the data you have, namely from your CRM and through discussions with your sales team, so that the emails you’re sending out are as individual and relevant as possible.