There's still room for innovation in email marketing.

Many are quick to write off email as old-fashioned, but think about the customer experience: Members of your audience no longer sit down to check their Hotmail account once a day or once a week; email is now a habitual part of the consumer and customer experience.

People refresh their email while waiting in line at the grocery store. Bills and informal updates alike are filtered through their inbox. Social media updates are delivered to the email inbox, even as social is predicted to overtake or eclipse traditional email.

Speaking to a group of marketing executives at Yes Lifecycle Marketing's Innovation Day, Chris Marriott*, vice-president of services and principal consultant at The Relevancy Group, said innovation in email is tied to the customer conversation. Email marketing geared toward driving sales is formulaic, yet the conversation shouldn't stop after a sale. If marketers don't keep their end of the conversation up between purchase cycles, they risk becoming irrelevant or forgotten.

The solution is what Marriott described as a permanent campaign, or a never-ending customer conversation. Here's how to initiate that conversation.

Ask the right questions

"Ask questions. Ask what you want the customer to do after he or she has done what you originally wanted them to do," Marriott said. He then compared the ideal marketing campaign to former President Bill Clinton's approach to politics some 20 years ago: As soon as he was elected to the presidency in 1993, he began campaigning for his second term.

"The media dubbed it 'the permanent campaign,'" Marriott said. "Think of your customers as part of your permanent campaign. If you want to keep the dialogue going, what do you do after they've opened, clicked ,and completed a purchase? You have to continuously be campaigning and setting the stage for the next purchase."

Embrace the Three Cs

Most marketers are so focused on their goal that they've forgotten how to talk to customers, Marriott said. "'Buy-now' messaging quickly becomes tired and turns to noise," he said.

Campaign emails can be divided into three major types: content, context, and conversations.

  1. Content emails are straightforward: They may not be geared toward driving customers toward an immediate purchase, but they provide information (not necessarily related to the brand) that readers might find interesting. An example for a millennial clothing retailer might be a roundup of major music festivals attended by that demographic. Content emails are an easy way to keep the conversation going, so long as they're timed appropriately and they remain relevant.
  2. Context emails tell consumers why they should care. They're a soft sell for the brand and what differentiates it from competitors. A spa might share the sorts of products it uses and how they tie into its philosophy of serving customers.
  3. Conversations are key. Conversation emails make an ask (or the ask, if the end goal is a sale). Conversation emails mobilize subscribers, asking them to share feedback, share photos of them using the product, make a purchase, etc.

Marriott described the "permanent campaign" as a fourth, underutilized type of email communication.

"Permanent campaign emails fit into the lifecycle marketing model," he said. "Most importantly, permanent campaign emails are, by their nature, perfectly timed when customers may be ready to purchase again."

Watch for smoke signals

The consumer conversation is a two-way street. Although marketers should tailor the types of emails they send to their customers and their stage in the purchase cycle, they should also be on the lookout for signs that a customer is ready to purchase again.

"In a permanent campaign, marketers can readily and easily respond to 'smoke signals,' or signs that consumers are about to purchase again," said Marriott. "Here, data is key. Unusual website or social activities are indicators that a customer is ready to purchase and that email communication should be adapted as a result."


Marriott maintains that at least one-third of emails should be automated based on customer behavior. He described targeting as one of the most underutilized tools despite being a fixture of a permanent campaign.

The Relevancy Group tested welcome campaigns and abandoned shopping cart campaigns for major brands. It found that few are acting on two of the most basic signals that consumers are interested in a brand: offering their email address and placing items in their shopping cart.

To capitalize on the rapport established by content, context, and conversation emails, set up processes to act upon signs that a consumer is close to purchase. If you don't succeed, use that piece of the customer's history to influence future messaging. If items are left in a shopping cart, feature those products in follow-up emails and retargeting programs.

Although continuously communicating with customers, marketers still have an end goal: Don't let permanent campaign efforts go to waste by failing to act at the appropriate time to achieve that goal.

Consider the consumer perspective

From the consumer perspective, all communications coming from your brand should be natural and seamless. If you're engaging in a conversation about mutual interests, they won't be surprised if you eventually make the ask.

Beginning the conversation anew, however, can be jarring. "If a brand contacts me every three months with only an ask, I'm going to wonder why they deserve to be in my inbox—even if I've purchased before," Marriott said.

Fundamentally, a permanent campaign is a never-ending conversation that happens to have a periodic end goal. When you mix the appropriate types of communication and automate your reaction to customer signals, your customer won't be taken aback by a hard sell so long as they "know" the brand.

*Chris Marriott is an experienced digital marketing executive with a focus on creating data-driven experiences for customers of leading brands. He has been in the email marketing space since 2004, and he serves as vice-president of services and principal consultant at The Relevancy Group. In addition, Chris sits on the on the Board of Directors for eDataSource, a marketing services company that provides competitive intelligence and analytics to the email marketing community.

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How to Innovate Your Email Marketing: Unlock the Fourth Type of Campaign

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Michael Fisher is president of Yes Lifecycle Marketing, where he is responsible for conceiving and deploying integrated multichannel solutions. His 20-year career in relationship marketing includes positions at Alterian and Epsilon.