Use E-mail to Monetize Social Media Strategies

Often when a communications channel begins to mature, pundits start proclaiming its demise.

When I entered the e-mail marketing space in 1997, I tried to convince many a marketer that print would soon be replaced by e-mail. More than a decade later, the e-mail marketing budget is still not as large as the print line item in most organizations. But, e-mail, search, banner ads and other online communication strategies have certainly taken a bite out of more traditional media.

While direct mail will never disappear, direct marketing programs will continue their steady march to more trackable, less expensive and more personalized channels. That said, I was surprised to hear recent rumblings that social media will be the death of e-mail marketing.

The pessimistic pundits are at it again.

It is true that consumers and online retailers alike are flocking to social media channels to learn about and interact with attractive brands. Some savvy e-tailers have even incorporated social networks and community tools into their own sites, helping to take viral marketing to a whole new level.

Yet, as consumers spend more time on social sites, including Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and LinkedIn, these communities require a way to alert members of new posts, new friends and anything else relevant to their participation in the network. Where are these systems turning to “stitch” the social experience with the daily lives of their members? The inbox.

E-mail has quickly become the grease that makes the social engine hum. And more important, as some retailers and others have come to realize, it also offers one of the first opportunities to monetize their social media investment.

Social is the “death” of e-mail? Come on. The two online mediums are a match made in heaven.

E-mail was billed as the viral channel in the late 1990s. More than a few marketers jumped into e-mail marketing for this reason and forward-to-a-friend (FTAF) was born. While effective, FTAF never really lived up to its expectations. Delivery challenges, ease of use for the consumer, tracking issues and a general lack of engagement from recipients hindered results for most.

The advent of social media has reignited the discussion around viral e-mail marketing, as it allows marketers to abandon the practice of sending e-mails to as many recipients as possible while hoping for conversions, and lets them focus on sending very targeted communications. Whether via a preference management center, campaign management solution or direct e-commerce/database integration, e-mail content tends to be related directly to consumers’ personal interests.

The relevance of these communications makes them ideal for sharing with social networks. In the past few months, a number of “share-to-social” tools have been released by e-mail service providers, enabling e-mail recipients to share all or part of an e-mail message with their social communities. Some of the tools also allow recipients to directly access their online address books (think Yahoo and Gmail) to choose who should receive the forwarded content.

So what makes this more effective than traditional FTAF technology? First, with a single post, e-mail recipients make information–such as discounts, promotions and new product offerings—sites are trackable, allowing retailers to gauge true viral performance. Most important, the minute that an offer is posted to a social site, a conversation can begin.

E-mail marketing has always been more available to their entire network, not just one or two friends.

Second, visits to the content from the social effective as a retention marketing tool than as an acquisition channel. As a result, building well performing e-mail lists continues to challenge most. I believe that one of the major reasons e-mail has been unable to displace larger portions of the direct mail budget is directly related to companies’ inability to collect e-mail addresses.

As online retailers and others integrate social media into their marketing strategies, an effective e-mail acquisition channel is emerging. Now, when e-mail offers are shared with social networks, all members of the network are exposed to the information.

E-mail content that is highly relevant to the recipient will likely also be valuable to his/her peers, creating an excellent opportunity to drive opt-in subscriptions to an e-mail program from the shared content. As a proof point, Jim Calhoun of PopularMedia confirms that, “e-mail recipients captured through social media perform better than any existing house file.” That’s exciting news for a channel that has been starved for acquisition solutions.

As a consumer and business executive, few things influence me as much as input from those I respect. So, it makes sense that as social media makes it easier for me to interact with my personal and professional networks, those communities will have a greater impact on my behavior.

That said, social media is not yet developed as a standalone marketing channel. The trick to monetization will be integration with more proven channels, and e-mail is the natural place to start.

Ryan Deutsch is senior director of market strategy at StrongMail Systems.

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