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Blog banter and industry experts paint a picture that the toughest email-marketing challenge is something terribly complicated, like inbox deliverability or rendering. The truth? A well-informed marketer, designer, or programmer could solve either of those issues, and most others, between a morning bagel and a lunch-break burger.

Here's the real issue. Most companies are uninformed about email-marketing best practices and suffer from a lack of in-house, expert resources. Very few companies recognize this, however, because even poorly done email still tends to perform fairly well. No harm, no foul, right?

Wrong. On a flight to a recent email marketing conference, I sat next to a woman who runs email marketing programs for a multibillion-dollar consumer products company renowned for its marketing prowess.

For a long time, she had shouldered responsibility for both Web site content and email marketing—until she finally convinced management that each area demanded dedicated staff. Coming from a direct-marketing background, she opted to manage email marketing.

This otherwise savvy marketer knew surprisingly little about some of today's widely published email-marketing best practices—things like how to improve deliverability, how to design emails that render properly, optimum frequency strategies, and how to optimize opt-in pages.

Even her company, which is known for championing marketing and executing brilliant TV campaigns, did not allocate the right amount of resources to the high-ROI email channel. The company could not count on a core group of email gurus knowledgeable and skilled enough to implement commonly accepted best practices.

Such "resource-to-ROI imbalance," as I like to call it, affects the bottom line and brand perception in ways we can no longer afford to ignore.

Why It Pays to Care About the Resource-to-ROI Imbalance

In a February survey by Datran Media, 83 percent of marketers listed email as their most important advertising tactic for 2007—mainly because of its ability to drive incremental revenue.

Have you considered how much money you may be leaving on the table, just by not knowing and not implementing email best practices?

If your email is poorly written, or so improperly designed and coded that it renders like a dropped plate of spaghetti, or it gets snagged by ISP filters before it even makes it to the inbox, you are not getting the conversion rates that you could be getting.

Even if your current email ROI still seems "pretty good," it pays to remember that better campaign performance—whether it's a trickle or a flood—can sometimes tip the scales between joyous bonuses and a simple "thanks for an OK year."

So all this prompts the question: If marketers overwhelmingly consider email their most important tactic, and if most by their own admission feel that it's getting harder to do email well, why does a systemic resource-to-ROI imbalance exist?

The answer is that email has become, in many ways, a victim of its own success.

Email Erroneously Viewed as Cheap, Fast, Easy

Compare email ROI to that of its fellow marketing channels, and email looks like a steal. A recent Direct Marketing Association report estimated that email delivers $51.45 for every marketing dollar spent—nearly 2.5 times the ROI of other forms of Internet marketing and more than seven times the ROI of print catalogs.

Surprisingly, and ironically, it's difficult to convince most company executives that they need to hire new people, spend more money, or change internal processes in light of such rosy numbers.

Here are some prevailing attitudes about email that contribute to the resource-to-ROI imbalance:

  • Email is a cheap, easy way to reach lots of people. The "B" words that many marketers use exemplify this lax attitude: referring to messages or campaigns as "blasts" or "broadcast" email that ignores the channel's precision-targeting capabilities, and calling it "bulk" email sounds as if you could buy a list at your favorite warehouse club. Behind these terms is a belief that email is a quick-and-dirty, one-to-many tool—not a strategic, one-to-one relationship builder.

  • Anyone can use email, so how hard can email marketing be? Every executive has had the experience of effortlessly sending dozens of emails every day, so executives just don't think of email marketing as a complex, specialized skill. It's not like shooting a television ad, which most of them have never done.

  • Any junior staffer can run email programs. This was more or less true in the plain-text days, when the IT department would automate the email and an entry-level person would run the show. Those days are long gone.

  • Email marketing isn't a full-time job. Except for large enterprises, which sometimes dedicate resources exclusively to email marketing, most companies think of email as one in a long list of marketing staff duties. Email programs are generally run by "part-timers," not by people who eat, sleep, and breathe the channel long enough to become experts.

  • Email is important, but not strategic. Executives understand search-engine marketing. It does one thing really well: help acquire customers. They understand PR. It does one thing really well: build brand credibility. But email? It's simultaneously used for customer acquisition, brand building, notifications, news, ecommerce, lifecycle messaging, confirmations, and more. Since most executives can not identify that "one thing" that email contributes to their bottom line, many marketing departments struggle to gain addition resources.

Righting the Resource-to-ROI Imbalance

The old prevailing ideas about email marketing persist in part because no one has communicated clearly and emphatically to the men and women in the boardroom.

Executives do not know the strategic role that email marketing plays in your organization. They can't translate email metrics into revenue generated or expenses reduced. They can't grasp the threat to bottom-line results if business as usual continues.

The time is now to figure out that "one thing" that email marketing does well for your company. Once you've identified email marketing's killer role, it is a lot easier to make a strong case to executives.

In my next Marketing Profs article, I will explain how to turn your email statistics into business metrics every executive can understand—so you end up with the right amount of the right skill sets to catapult email ROI from "good enough" to "great."

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image of Loren McDonald

Loren McDonald is vice-president of industry relations at Silverpop, an email service provider for B2C marketing initiatives and B2B lead-management processes. Reach him via