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Email a Conversation? Pshaw!


By Ken Magill

A debate broke out on Twitter last week over whether or not email marketing can be a conversation. Some people I respect said ‘yes,’ some people I respect said ‘no.’

Count me among those in the ‘no’ camp.

Marketers are forever trying to cast their relationships with customers as personal interactions using terms such as—my personal favorite—touchpoints.

With the exception of a handful of professions, people don’t generally pay to be touched. Heck, the only times I’ve paid to be touched were on appointments with doctors, dentists and that time in Amsterdam when me and my military buddies … um, never mind.

In any case, the only way email marketing can be considered a conversation is if we concede one side has Tourette syndrome.

Here’s an idea. Why don’t I throw together an imaginary cocktail party where I invite a bunch of the folks in my inbox? Let’s see how those conversations might go.

Hey, look over there. It’s my new friend Twitter. I used to think Twitter was a useless stupid jackass until she drove my page views through the roof.

“Hey, Twitter! Great to see you! How’ve you been?”

“OGT is now following you on Twitter!”

“Oh, that’s nice. How’ve you been?”

“Silvia is now following you on Twitter!”

“That’s cool. Is she pretty?”

“New Pulse Management is now following you on Twitter!”

“That’s great. Hey, I see someone I need to speak to, will you excuse me?”

“Sandy Buchanan is now following you on Twitter!”

“Okay, Twitter. Just keep those page views coming, alright? See you.”

“ is now following you on Twitter!”

Hey, there’s my friend Anne from Marketing Profs. I’ve always respected her work.

“Hey, Anne. How’s life?”

“Everything You Need to Know About Social Media But are Afraid to Ask”

“Um, okay. Actually, there’s not a whole lot I’m afraid to ask when it comes to social media, Anne. It’s that … um … other thing I’m afraid to ask about and I really don’t think we’re close enough to talk about it, m’kay? Let’s just pretend this exchange never happened.”

Ooh, look over there! That is probably one of my favorite people at this party: Cigar Auctioneer. Ever since I met him, I no longer buy cigars at retail prices. I can’t tell you how much money I’ve saved because of him. Spent a lot with him, too.

“Hey Cigar Auctioneer. How’s it hangin’?”

“Ending at Midnight: San Cristobal, Opus X, My father & more”

“Really, Cigar Auctioneer? After all the money I’ve spent with you, you still don’t know I wouldn’t buy an Opus X in a million years?”

Hang on. I see a person over there I don’t know.

“Excuse me. Were you invited?”

“Are you fed up with the size of your manhood?”

Author’s note: Here’s a link to the blog post by Scott Cohen, vice president of managed services, Inbox Group, that started the debate.


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Terms: Feel free to be as big a jerk as you want, but don't attack anyone other than me personally. And don't criticize people or companies other than me anonymously. Got something crappy to say? Say it under your real name. Anonymous potshots and personal attacks aimed at me, however, are fine.

Posted by: Dan McDermott
Date: 2011-03-24 15:00:07
Subject: E-mail Marketing a Conversation

First and foremost Ken, thank you for this article. I look forward to your newsletter every week because I know it will be entertaining, and this was easily one of my favorites. To Jordan’s point, when we talk about e-mail being a conversation, it’s not a literal comparison. However, I do think it’s important to think of e-mail as a conversation starter. It’s a powerful tool for listening to customers (read as understanding your customers) and inviting them to engage in two-way channels such as Facebook and Twitter. Think of e-mail as an icebreaker, or a pick-up line for marketers that actually works for a change. Furthermore, while social media is great for engaging customers in a community setting, e-mail is tough to beat when it comes to maintaining a true one-to-one relationship.
Posted by: robinteractive
Date: 2011-03-24 11:41:21
Subject: Email Marketing Can *Encourage* Conversation

I'd be hard pressed to say that email marketing is a conversation, but it can encourage conversation. Admittedly, it rarely does. I'm an email marketer in the higher ed (college recruiting) world. I encourage those I email to reply back with questions, call, or even live chat with me online. A small percentage do so, and I answer their questions. Some reply back with a thanks and/or additional questions. For that small percentage, email is conversational ;) For email marketers still using "do not reply" from addresses, email is downright anti-conversational. If more small companies encouraged conversation in their email marketing, perhaps they could increase sales as a result.
Posted by: Jordan Cohen
Date: 2011-03-22 15:43:18
Subject: It's all semantics, Ken

I chalk this article up to semantic dissonance... how one defines "conversation," etc. I don't think anyone in the industry who says that email marketing can be a conversation is saying that you could (or should) have a literal 2-way personal dialogue between the marketer and the recipient. I think we use "conversation" in the sense that marketers can use email to LISTEN to their customers, and use that listening to communicate more relevantly and even on a personalized basis going fwd... You can't listen to your customers in old school channels... you get zero to limited feedback from tv spots, print ads, direct mail... Email, tied to web analytics and other fancy stuff, on the other hand, for the first time gave marketers access to a treasure trove of cues to refine ongoing programs. Sure, marketers who truly listen and respond are far and few between. But those who do kick major @ss and make big $$ with their email programs. Respectfully, -Jordan