Ol’ Reliable: Publishers Tap Into Email for New Areas of Growth

Email still remains the best digital tool in a marketer’s arsenal.


Buzzfeed EmailMore than twenty years into the online media revolution, it turns out that the true killer digital tool was there from the beginning and continues to perform as this medium’s most important source of data and ROI—email. In a recent poll of marketers by the Direct Marketing Association, respondents reported an ROI of 122% on email investment—massively overshadowing all other channels, including social (28%), direct mail (27%), paid search (25%) and display (18%).

Too often characterized as as a mere boring workhorse, email is enjoying a renaissance of interest and investment of late. Increasingly, the email address is cited as the most persistent and reliable first-party universal identifier for cross-channel connections to consumers. And creative innovations are continuing to evolve the legacy platform with features like embedded video and audio, dynamic content and ad insertions.

It was not too surprising to see Condé Nast’s The New Yorker recently poach Dan Oshinsky from Buzzfeed for a newly formed position as director of newsletters. In addition to helping drive massive traffic to the Buzzfeed brand, Oshinsky relaunched the highly lucrative line of gift guide e-letters there, which leveraged e-commerce affiliate links so effectively for BuzzFeed. While The New Yorker does not say that it has the e-commerce channel in mind with Oshinsky’s hire, the company does point to its ad placements in newsletters as among the highest performing units.

One of TNY’s most effective new monetization approaches for email involves native ad placements for its branded content. Sponsored “Paid Post” items now show up in the publisher’s email, linking in-box readers to branded articles as well as native sponsored content across the range of endemic The New Yorker topics.

Some publishers are following Buzzfeed’s lead in the e-commerce channel. Hearst Magazines Digital Media Director of Audience Development Michael Nececkas tells min, “the most successful examples we’ve seen are when products are deeply connected to our editorial influence.” These posts include items from Hearst’s ambitious BestProducts. com content and commerce initiative. Nececkas says that this more centralized approach to e-commerce links “allows us to promote content seamlessly across all of our newsletters around an event like Amazon Prime Day.”

But the larger picture, he says, is leveraging personalization. Use of technologies that enable this has helped ensure that almost every email to a Hearst user includes some personally targeted content. Since implementing personalization, we’ve increased our volume by about 80% while increasing open rates by over 170%,” he says.


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At Time Inc. “this is a trial year,” says Patty Hirsch, SVP and general manager, digital. Increased personalization is also key for Time Inc. e-letters, especially the ability to leverage ad inventory more effectively. “It is going to give us the data to target in a more meaningful way,” she says.

As a content and commerce vehicle, the e-letter seeks to broaden the offerings but keep them customized to the title. Various brands like Real Simple have profited from affiliate linking in e-letters for a while, but even brands like Time.com and its The Goods reviews and guides are experimenting with the in-box. “It’s on a brand-by-brand basis,” Hirsch says.

Travel+Leisure, for instance, performs best for the company with its T+L Deals newsletter, largely because that media brand’s audience not only responds well to travel bargains (last minute deals via Expedia), but also travel gear (Nordstrom semi-annual sale). “Some brands do well with gift guides and some do well with articles that drive purchases,” Hirsch says.

Like Hearst, Time Inc. has discovered a range of new opportunities for content/commerce combinations beyond Black Friday and Mother’s Day guides. “We are finding other tentpoles that do surprisingly well like Amazon Prime Day,” Hirsch says. “We knew there was stuff there, but that ended up being a really good day to build content around.”

At Active Interest Media, the classic ROI around sponsorship and subscriptions is getting goosed in two ways. First, it now has a lucrative direct-to-consumer revenue stream to promote via email. But increasingly important to email ROI is a model more familiar to B2B publishers—lead generation. AIM’s Lead Generation Marketing Director, Amanda Phillips, tells min that the company works with clients on co-sponsored content like webinars, guides, case studies or quizzes and videos. “Strategic marketing plans are created and executed to drive readers to download content, providing our audience with quality education and providing our clients with prospects,” she says.

And while marketing plans usually include the range of channels, “Email is the top converter for our content marketing programs.” AIM eschews batch-and-blast techniques that deliver impression counts in favor of more precise targeting that delivers hard leads. “We use marketing automation tools to help us define the audience and reach out to them based on actions taken. Our social, web and print efforts supplement our email efforts and allow us to grow our opt-in lists,” she says. This puts even more pressure on the creative team to ensure content is relevant enough to trigger a user to download.

The email workhorse is being driven in multiple new directions this year as the channel becomes as much a publishing platform as a messaging device. As the majority of email opens now occur on mobile, where tolerance for clutter is much lower, personalization around relevance will become even more critical to publishers’ content, commerce and advertising plans. At least one old rule applies now more than ever, Phillips reminds us. “Respect your email lists!,” she urges.



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