Listen to the full interview.

Email hasn’t worn out its welcome – yet. It still holds the title of most effective (and most used) digital channel, according to CMI research.

But how long will the good times roll? Even as we send messages to our growing (we hope) email databases as marketers, we’re also email consumers. We know how full our email inboxes have become.

With so much competition inside (and outside) the inbox, are email marketing’s days numbered? At ContentTECH Summit, Godfrey’s senior vice president and chief creative officer Michael Barber presented a session about the convergence of content and email. Afterwards, I talked to Barber about email’s enduring popularity – and whether an end is in sight.

Why is email still such a go-to for marketers and consumers?

MB: I think the answer comes down to familiarity. If you look at what’s dominating the conversation right now with social media and apps, there’s a level of unfamiliarity there with the older demographics. They’ve been on email for 26 or 27 years.

We’re starting to see an impact of privacy on whether people are spending time in social media or not. People believe there is an element of control and privacy that they have in the inbox that they may not have on social media.

Are marketers making mistakes that threaten to ruin the channel for everyone?

Where do we start? I think the biggest challenges that marketers face is delivering experiences that are timely, targeted, and relevant for their subscribers.

Too often, marketers deliver one blanket message to their entire subscription base. They don’t realize that every time they deliver something annoying or not seen as personalized or not seen as directly targeted to that subscriber, then the subscribers start to ignore their future messages. If they feel their time is being wasted, they’re not going to go back to that brand consistently.

Every time we deliver a message to the inbox – whether it’s transactional, promotional, or a newsletter – and we’re not as timely, targeted, and relevant as possible, we’re slowly erasing the relationship [we’ve built]. That can create a challenge to repair later on.

Make every #email timely, targeted, relevant, or risk erasing your relationship with your audience.@michaeljbarber Share on X

We’ve all been doing this for so long. Is there anything even experienced email marketers might be surprised to learn about email?

I don’t think this will come as a surprise, but there’s no perfect time to send an email campaign anymore. For years that was the question we all tackled: What’s the optimal time to deliver it so someone will open it?

People are reading and interacting with email at all different times of day in really strange places. They’re having second-screen viewing experiences, they’re going to the toilet, they’re doing any number of things in their daily lives, multitasking around the inbox.

To get people’s attention, we have to make sure we’re doing the best we can from a from-name and subject-line perspective. And, if they do take the time to open the email, we have to respect their time through the content experience we’re delivering.



What tips can you offer to help marketers get attention in the inbox and make their email messages more open-worthy?

Focus on the elements that people see first. Focus on the from name. If you’re running anything that’s sales-based or account-based, those from names need to include the people who are building that relationship to that customer. It could be your CEO. It could be a thought leader. Test your from names because that’s going to be the first line people see when they encounter your campaign.

Then it’s the subject line. It’s not about the length – it’s about sentiment, diversity, and the sophistication of that message. Depending on the demographic you’re targeting, you might want to include things like emojis and more culturally relevant language to get them to open. Focus on the elements that move the needle.

All the internet services providers are agreeing on a set of standards called Brand Indicators for Message Identification (BIMI). These standards give brands the ability to use images (like a brand icon) right next to the from name. If you’re using these, make sure they represent the brand in a way people understand.

It’s all about the elements someone’s going to see right off the bat: from name, subject line, and any visual cues that can help create that open.

Does marketing automation help? Are there parts of the process where marketers shouldn’t rely on technology?

Technology is never going to give us a true insight into a customer. It’s going to give us data outputs. It’s up to a human being, or a team of human beings to determine the insights that come out of them. Marketing automation can provide us with a bunch of data, but it can’t take out the process of making adjustments based on that data.

It’s getting there. There are platforms getting much more intelligent around helping us as marketing teams make decisions. But it can’t replace a human saying, “Is this the right change to make,” or, “This is how we want the drip or campaign or process or customer experience to go.”

That’s always going to take some qualitative elements we understand as human beings. Whether it’s questions asking for feedback from customers or the experience people have on digital properties or in a store, [technology is] never going to replace the ability to take that data inside the automation tools and apply it to deliver even better experiences in the future.

In terms of figuring out what works in email marketing, A/B testing remains the gold standard. Are there other techniques email teams should be using?

I still think A/B testing rules. It lets you make very granular decisions. If we get into multivariate testing, we often conflate or correlate data that might not give us the insight we’re looking for. A/B testing lets us say very specifically when we do x, this is what happens.

The one item I’d add is that it’s important we don’t take the common slice of, say, 10% of our entire subscription database and do the A/B test on that. We’ve got to look at a particular segment and test within that segment.

If we just slice off 10%, you could have non-active subscribers, people who just subscribed, and people who have been in your email database for a decade in the set. Those are very different relationships. If we’re making decisions based on an A/B test of our entire database and then applying the result on someone that’s been in our database for 10 years vs. someone whose been in for a couple of hours, that could have detrimental effects on email performance.

A/B testing is the best way to test and find out how we have an impact from a content perspective inside the inbox, but make sure you’re doing segments before you do the test.

What about measurement? Are we looking at the right metrics? Are there any we’re overlooking?

If there’s one macro metric we need to spend more time with, it’s the deliverability rate. If it’s not getting into the inbox, then why are we working on this channel?
Focus on email deliverability. “If it’s not getting into inboxes, why work on this channel?” @michaeljbarber Share on X

But it’s not just about the aggregate data we have. It’s getting to know your active subscriber segment and what they do in the inbox. They’re driving a lot of our interactions. What can we do to change our individual subscribers to get them to do even more?

We also should be thinking more holistically about the impact of the email on the organization. What’s the direct business impact of this channel in the short term and the long term so we aren’t just siloing email as a channel that’s just a single-click attribution or single attribution model. It’s part of everything we’re doing inside the different channels and how we’re delivering them for consumers.

Are there any contenders likely to unseat email as the channel nearly every marketer uses?

Messaging and the idea of one-to-one experiences. This conversational opportunity is one place where email could get dethroned. We’re seeing competition from chatbots and messaging services on websites or in social media. What will dethrone email is something as equally one to one, where people feel like they have an element of privacy and some sense of control.

We’re starting to see Facebook unify the ecosystem of their messaging platforms (WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and Instagram Messenger). I think that’s a challenger.

But I don’t think we could turn around tomorrow and something would completely dethrone email. This is a channel that’s been around so long, it’s institutional. It’s pervasive in our lives, and it’s the way we get business done around the world.

What about GDPR regulations? Have they changed email marketing? Have any practices become more effective as a result?

I haven’t seen any concrete impact the General Data Protection Regulations have had around the elements of what we see in email (from name, subject line, the content of the campaign).

The impact has been around the experience of getting someone to become part of your email subscription database. What are we required to say? What do we have to divulge? I see it as a big positive to be as transparent and honest as possible with consumers, giving them granular control around what they give to brands and having a very transparent relationship in the ownership of that data.

That’s probably the biggest impact of GDPR and regulations we’re seeing pass in states like California. When we give up something as a consumer, we should have just as much ownership of that data as the brand does.