There is abundant proof that email, after over a decade of successful use, is not only the connective tissue of all data-driven marketing but also the revenue-producing heart of digital efforts.

Yet, despite claiming the highest ROI of all direct marketing channels at $28.50 in sales generated for every $1 of spending (DMA 2012 Response Rate Report), the highest driver of online conversions, and the number two spot (behind only search) in new customer acquisition, email marketing is still too often swept out of sight, called upon only when we need miracles worked.

In over a decade of experience with the channel, I am too frequently surprised and dismayed that email is not receiving nearly the attention and investment it deserves.

Like Cinderella in the classic fairy tale, email dutifully goes about its business, quietly completing a wide variety of marketing tasks without complaint—from prospect qualification to lead nurturing to direct sales.

It also does plenty of less-attractive, more menial labor in the transactional messaging realm, such as conveying confirmations, notifications, reminders, and alerts; and, just like Cinderella, it is frequently under-resourced and kept out of sight until needed.

But when it's needed... you'd better batten down the hatches, for email will be heavily (if not impossibly) leaned upon to achieve quarterly or annual revenue goals, save jobs, and launch new products.

Also like Cinderella, email marketing professionals will be expected to work nearly 24 hours a day with barely enough energy to stumble into bed long after midnight only to wake before sunrise to do it all over again.

I recently led a training workshop for midsize businesses on integrating inbound marketing channels, a lynchpin of which was email. When showing the many campaign examples in my teaching materials, I was surprised at the reaction from some of my audience members. "But so-and-so is a well-known company/brand with an army of marketing staff," said one. "They're a big retailer with far more people to do email than we," moaned another.

What most marketing professionals don't realize is that even large, glitzy retail brands that pump out the highest volume and most visible of email marketing campaigns are often thinly staffed with professionals in the trenches. True, their budgets for email software and tech services might be heftier, but the staff responsible for executing email campaigns and triggered messaging is often fewer than five people.

To their credit, retailers have always been among the earliest adopters of the channel, largely due to their e-commerce nature, so investing in the marketing and automation needed for high volume messaging isn't news to them; they know well the (usually) linear connections between email message frequency/volume/segmentation and revenue.

However, even they don't sufficiently invest on the professional side—budgeting for adequate staff, providing email marketing strategic direction and support from agencies and consultants, and ensuring employee mindset and skillset training and professional development.

The crux of the problem?

In many companies—even the heaviest users of email marketing—email is still thought of as a "batch and blast" marketing channel that is inexpensive and easy to do.

Upper management sees it working "well enough" but doesn't realize that with in-depth results analysis, better targeting and automation, and a detailed road map for how email can support strategic initiatives, it can contribute exponentially more revenue or ROI. However, without increased budgets and resources, it remains unlikely that such companies will have the means for more analytics, automation, and strategy. Thus the catch-22.

So, how do you migrate email out of the servants' quarters and up to the manor house without causing a Downton-Abbey-style upheaval?

Focusing on these five objectives will take you more quickly down the road to obtaining the attention, resources, and budget email marketing deserves—without having to rely on a prince to come to the rescue!

1. Benchmark email performance over time AND against other marketing channels

We all know we're supposed to be bench marketing email performance over time (by campaign, year-over-year) or against itself, but are you also measuring and benchmarking key metrics such as AOV (average order value), ROI, and RPS (revenue per subscriber—whether email, social, mobile, or print) by channel?

How does the economic value generated by your email in terms of cost-per-meaningful-action measure up against that generated by other marketing channels?

Challenges in channel-attribution aside, if you can assign a monetary value even to an email click, or if you know what an email subscriber is worth to you in a year (revenue per email, or RPE), then you have a way to demonstrate email's economic efficiencies over offline marketing, social, and search—and, as a result, you also have a means of justifying more budget for email.

Better yet, if yours is an e-commerce-enabled company and email directly drives sales and revenue, you have an even more compelling story for email to tell.

2. Earmark funds for email strategy and performance improvement

When budgeting, don't forget to include funds for strategy and for performance improvement, separate from basic email marketing operational and deployment needs.

You want the latitude to bring in a strategic, analytical, or deliverability expert if performance deviates from the norm or the unexpected occurs.

Plus, don't assume that your current ESP or agency can handle the kind of testing you might need for performance optimization. Give your company the latitude to engage an outside testing/optimization service.

3. Invest in an email marketing coach, strategic adviser ,or expert mentor

Like email marketing fairy godmothers (but far less reliant on magic), coaches and consultants are priceless in a host of both anticipated and unanticipated circumstances.

Program expansion in the form of new publications, types of email, or more advanced triggered messaging can cause growing pains that an outside impartial professional can ease you through. Reorganizations, mergers, and acquisitions can create new demands on limited resources, and can overwhelm; a dedicated outside resource can be focused on and alleviate those demands. Additions or changes to staff can mean that key stakeholders responsible for the day-to-day of "getting email marketing done" might not be as up to speed as you need, so having an expert on call ensures you're never leaving them without guidance and education.

4. Create a formal email/digital marketing training protocol for new employees and an annual refresher for teams

Speaking of education, with evolutions in digital marketing and email technological advances accelerating, continual learning is a must for staying up to speed. Most students at my certification seminars and training workshops are so inundated with the day-in, day-out deployment of email campaigns that they have little time to focus on either strategy or learning. Unless their company makes education a priority, they often don't receive any.

So, budget for both funds and time to send key employees to outside training and conferences; or, better yet, contract with an outside professional to create and conduct your own customized training and education program in email and other digital channels for entire groups at once. If yours is a company at which email marketing is a cross-functional and cross-departmental responsibility (product managers, channel managers, brand managers, and creative staff may all be collaborating), team and group workshops become an even greater priority.

5. Celebrate successes to create cultural change

Finally, giving email the true royal treatment it deserves will take a grassroots approach to changing upper management mindsets about it. If we're to dispel management blind spots about email, we need to promote our successes and make some noise about them!

I realize it can be challenging to find the time to do so, but it's well worth using your benchmarking data to document compelling success stories or create performance dashboards that spotlight ways for busy managers to see desired results and positive trends.

Writing-up case studies on successful campaigns and promoting them internally is an excellent precursor to also promoting them externally. Most email-centric conferences and publishers are hungry for client-side marketers to tell their stories, and they offer complimentary conference access to speakers who do.

* * *

If after reading this article you're recognizing that email has been or still is the hard-working Cinderella of your marketing, take heart! Remember, Cinderella—like most fairy tale heroines—is actually a princess in disguise. My goal is to inspire and guide you to take email from servile to royal status faster and with a minimum of hardship, all the while remembering that the hallmark of true nobility is to lead by serving the good of not the few, but of all.

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Your Email Marketing as Cinderella: Treat It Like a Princess, Not a Servant

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Karen Talavera is the founder of Synchronicity Marketing, a company specializing in digital marketing training, coaching, and education.