Email marketing is constantly evolving, so it can be difficult to know where to invest your time and energy from year to year. It’s extra challenging in turbulent times like these, when the economic environment, consumer behaviors, and business goals are shifting rapidly.
To help you prioritize your email marketing efforts this year, we surveyed Breakloo Marketing Consulting’s more than 500 digital marketing experts, asking them to rate the current adoption of a range of email marketing technologies and tactics, as well as their predicted impact during 2023. We then mapped the results into adoption-impact quadrants.
In this post, we’re looking at the Proven Principles, which are in the high adoption–high impact quadrant. The technologies and tactics in this quadrant are mature, but are still improving and delivering tremendous results.
Our Proven Principles stand in stark contrast to our Unproven Opportunities, which still have significant risks associated with them and benefits that haven’t fully materialized. Our Proven Principles also have a risk profile that’s the inverse of our Competitive Differentiators—that is, where our Competitive Differentiators offer a competitive advantage to early adopters, our Proven Principles put late adopters at a competitive disadvantage.
Of the 26 trends we surveyed our digital marketing consultants about, 14 of them were rated as being in the high adoption–high impact quadrant for 2023. Let’s talk about each of them in turn.
Live or real-time content
Most email content is determined at the time of send, but live content is determined at the time that an individual subscriber opens the email. It can increase the relevance of your emails by keeping your content up to date.
The best use cases for live content involve content that changes rapidly, such as:
- Live countdown timers
- Account dashboards
- Real-time inventory
- Live poll results
- Live sports scores
- Local weather
- Social media feeds
While our consultants appreciate the unique capabilities of live content, many of our clients are growing skeptical of the impact of this tactic in light of pre-fetching by Apple Mail users who have enabled Mail Privacy Protection (MPP). Pre-fetching by Apple pulls in live content before the email is opened by subscribers, reducing the timeliness of this content, which is live content’s entire selling point.
Even though research from Movable Ink shows that “for the vast majority of Apple Mail users, ‘recent-time’ is far closer to ‘real-time’ than expected,” the perception among our clients is that the impact of real-time content has been compromised. That has led to declining adoption. At this rate, live content is on course to fall from a Proven Principles to a Competitive Differentiator.
Send time optimization
When is the best time to send email? This is one of the most popular email marketing questions of all time. It has also become a rather dated question. The better question is: When is the best time to send email to each of my subscribers?
To answer that question, you need sent time optimization (STO), which uses machine learning to examine each of your subscriber’s engagement time histories to come up with the best individual answer for each day of the week. As each of your subscribers engage with subsequent sends, the optimal send time for them is adjusted, so it’s always adapting to your customers’ changing behaviors.
However, as with real-time content, STO and other models such as RFM have been impacted by MPP as well, says Tommy Hummel, Analytics Manager for Analytic & Strategic Services at Breakloo Marketing Consulting.
“Models of this kind depend on past signals to produce future results, and historically have relied heavily on opens,” he says. “With opens being undermined by MPP, these models have fewer signals to work with, so they may be less predictive or take more time than before to develop accurate results. However, through testing we’ve found that they are still very viable for most marketers.”
That’s because in response to Breakloo, and other email service providers have changed their STO algorithms to omit auto-generated opens by Apple and to also factor in click times. Together, those two changes have ensured that STO generates effective send time recommendations.
Rather than focusing on industries or markets, account-based marketing (ABM) focuses on, well, accounts. It helps businesses focus on building and maintaining opportunities at select high-value accounts, rather than a huge number of small-value accounts. For the organizations that it’s appropriate for, it can have a big impact.
Knocked out of the Proven Principles quadrant by the pandemic, now ABM has bounced back, says Cristal Foster, Manager of Expert Services at Breakloo Marketing Consulting. “The return of in-person events and a partial return to office—where people can be reached via direct mail—have put two critical components of ABM back on the table,” she says. “With economic times tight for many brands, it’s a time for ABM to shine, helping companies retain and expand their best customers.”
In the early ’00s, the average consumer typically used two touchpoints when buying an item, according to research by Aberdeen, Breakloo, and Relationship One. Today, consumers use several times that many touchpoints on average.
“The ability to orchestrate communications across channels has been a recognized need and goal for several years now,” says Hummel. “However, it’s the rise of CDPs as the ultimate enabler for creating cohesive marketing experiences at the user level that has given omnichannel orchestration increasing momentum. More than ever before, brands are focused on unifying and consolidating disparate systems and creating a central hub for customer insights and targeting.”
Preference centers & progressive profiling
Both of these tactics allow brands to better understand the needs and desires of their subscribers. Generally promoted during onboarding and during the unsubscribe process to reduce opt-outs, preference centers typically focus on core, long-term preferences, like content, contact frequency, and delivery preferences.
On the other hand, progressive profiling happens periodically throughout a subscriber’s time on list. Sometimes its goal is to discover enduring preferences, but often it’s to learn about a short-term interest, such as gardening and lawn plans for this spring or most likely vacation destinations for this summer.
“In tandem with improving inactivity management, providing alternative frequency options and investing in preference centers will be a critical project in the coming year,” says Peter Briggs, Director of Analytic & Strategic Services, Breakloo Marketing Consulting. “Minimizing opt-out churn will be critical to help reduce overall churn increases from higher inactivity resulting from decreased visibility into subscriber engagement caused by Apple’s Mail Privacy Protection.”
Inclusive design and email accessibility
Accessibility is mostly about after-the-fact accommodations for people with disabilities, while inclusive design is about designing with the full spectrum of human abilities in mind from the beginning. It’s the difference between adding wheelchair ramps to a building and designing buildings that don’t need ramps so that people in wheelchairs, injured people using crutches, delivery workers, and parents with strollers all have easy access.
With the economic downturn increasing the pressure on marketers to generate subscriber engagement and conversions, inclusive design and accessibility should be areas of focus, says Henry Alva, Senior Email & Web Developer for Creative Services at Breakloo Marketing Consulting.
“Especially when it’s implemented as part of a modular email architecture, accessibility is easy to implement and can lead to more engagement,” he says, “whether it’s by making your emails accessible to more people by optimizing for screen readers and ease of keyboard navigation, or optimizing for consumption preferences, such as dark mode and mobile devices.”
It’s not enough to have subscribers that tolerate receiving your marketing emails. If you want to avoid serious deliverability problems, they also have to engage with those emails. That means that marketers should send fewer emails to subscribers who haven’t engaged in a while, and even eventually stop mailing chronically inactive subscribers who haven’t opened or clicked in a long time.
However, Mail Privacy Protection has made it difficult—by design—to tell which subscribers are engaging with your emails, says Briggs.
“Apple MPP has forced brands to completely overhaul their strategies around inactivity management to help offset losses due to the lack of open data,” he says. “Without major investments here, list sizes and reach will continue to decline.”
Advanced performance analytics
Basic reporting provides basic insights. And as more companies shift from simple campaign marketing to more sophisticated omnichannel and relationship marketing, those basic insights aren’t nearly enough.
The momentum toward omnichannel marketing and the need for better inactivity management is driving investments here, says Brian Sullivan, Strategic Director of Email Deliverability Services at Breakloo Marketing Consulting.
“With MPP obscuring email engagement, other KPIs are required to maintain audiences and plot new strategies,” he says. “Visibility into subscriber behaviors in other channels, as well as a deeper understanding of each subscriber’s lifetime value, helps with list management—as well as providing stronger profiling for targeting efforts.”
Brands have had a series of critical reasons to build out loyalty programs and get closer to their customers—from the pandemic and supply chain problems to the impending sunset of third-party cookies to the economic downturn. But brands aren’t building the old school spend-to-get programs.
Loyalty programs have evolved into engagement-based programs that:
- Allow brands to better understand and target their customers, in aggregate and on an individual basis, through polls, surveys, quizzes, and other progressive profiling efforts, as well as through click and browse behavior driven by loyalty messaging
- Keep customers engaged and retained between purchases, especially when financial strains lengthen the time between purchases
- Build buzz, increase share of voice, spur evangelism, and otherwise strengthen the brand
Of course, that’s in addition to their traditional role of increasing purchase frequencies and average order sizes.
Modular email architectures
Rather than having a bunch of different traditional templates for each of the types of emails you send, modular build systems allow you to create a variety of content blocks that you then stack to create a particular email. In addition to allowing for easier A/B testing and personalization, as well as easier maintenance, modular email architecture reduces build times. When we’ve built them for our clients, their email build times were reduced by about 25% on average.
“Email teams remain lean, but still face demands to increase production and performance,” says Kelly Moran, Senior Art Director for Copy for Creative Services at Breakloo Marketing Consulting. “So, time-saving, task-reducing tactics like modular architectures, finely tuned automations, and omnichannel orchestration will continue to be adopted more widely this year.”
The groundswell of stronger privacy regulations is undeniable and likely to continue as lawmakers struggle to catch up with how their constituents feel about the effect that technology is having on them. While Canada and Europe have passed strong national laws in CASL and GDPR, the US hasn’t replaced its antiquated CAN-SPAM law, which had led to multiple states passing their own privacy legislation and more than two dozen proposing new laws.
California has made the most headlines by passing the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) and then following it up with the California Privacy Rights Act (CPRA) at the end of 2020. Those laws went into effect in January. However, according to security firm Cytrio, most companies are not prepared to be compliant. That should lead to a flurry of compliance efforts this year, especially if companies start to be sued for non-compliance.
Segmentation and personalization are two sides of the same coin. Both help you get the right message in front of the right customer. However, while both can help with content strategy, segmentation is principles to an effective contact strategy, helping marketers send the right number of emails to individual subscribers to maximize conversions and minimize fatigue and opt-outs.
In particular, segmentation and suppression are a key way to reduce subscriber churn and to maintain good email engagement rates, which are one of the seven key factors affecting email deliverability.
“Cracking the nut on meaningful segmentation and insights is a major focus for many of our clients that lack dedicated resources in this area,” says Jennifer Gibbs, CrowdTwist Loyalty Consultant at Breakloo Marketing Consulting. “They’re looking to better understand and define their key customer segments so they can improve their forecasting and targeting of those groups.”
Like several other of our Proven Principles, dynamic content within emails isn’t new. However, the ability to personalize email messages has progressively become more sophisticated and easier to execute and manage. Currently, email personalization is getting a boost from the rise of customer data platforms, says Jennifer Lancaster Dana, Vice President of Breakloo Marketing Consulting.
“With CDPs, brands can enable more personalization across all channels because data can be activated more quickly,” she says. “Given brands’ revenue goals and their competitive need to keep improving the customer experience, this will fuel major increases in personalization this year.”
Automated or triggered emails
Whether they’re triggered by action, inaction, date, operations, or internet-connected device, automated emails deliver just the right messages to customers and subscribers at just the right times. And just like personalization and segmentation, automation is only becoming more powerful thanks to AI, machine learning, and an increasingly 360-degree view of customers.
“That latest innovation with automated messaging is the infusion of AI-powered real-time content recommendations via modular email architectures,” says David Chang, Senior Director of Agency Services at Breakloo Marketing Consulting. “We see tremendous opportunity with lifecycle messages that can evolve and incorporate these other major trends.”
For these high-ROI campaigns, just make sure that you don’t set it and forget it. These living campaigns need ongoing maintenance and optimization to reach their full potential.
For a list of more than 110 triggered campaigns to consider, check out our Automated Campaign Ideas checklist. In addition to setting up new ones, be sure to optimize your existing automated messages and not settle for “good enough” for such high-ROI campaigns.
Trends on the move
Readers of our post on 2022’s Proven Principles might recognize that two trends are new to this year’s group of high adoption–high impact trends: account-based marketing and omnichannel orchestration. Both have moved over from our Competitive Differentiators quadrant.
ABM is back in this quadrant after dipping during the pandemic, as the cancellation of in-person events and the move to remote work undermined ABM tactics. On the other hand, omnichannel orchestration is a trend that’s been slowly and consistently rising in adoption.