Email Marketing: the Good, the Bad & the Ugly

The first in-depth survey of email marketing habits in the publishing sector, UK Publishing Email Benchmarking Survey Autumn 2011, conducted by Adestra in association with PPA, throws up some interesting data. Henry Hyder-Smith looks at the main findings.

By Henry Hyder-Smith

It shows publishers are doing a number of things right and using email marketing to deliver serious response / ROI metrics, as well as taking steps towards a single customer view. So medals all round and move on to something else? Well, not quite. What is also apparent is that publishers are ignoring some key areas, particularly emerging channels, and lag behind the practices being implemented by their peers in the US.

Lacking some basic email practices and not embracing new channels can be critical for current and future comms activity and needs to be addressed urgently. These are not ‘theoretical’ improvements; these are proven, practical techniques to drive response, particularly sign-ups. Data is king, we all know that. But what are publishers doing to grow it, keep it, clean it and manage it?

New publishing research in US and Canada shows a staggering 85% of magazines and newspapers offer mobile optimised content for smartphones, tablets and e-readers, according to the ABC. The survey, Going Mobile: How Publishers Are Maturing and Monetizing Their Offerings, found that 88% of newspapers, 83% of consumer magazines and 79% of business publications offered mobile content.

So how are we doing in comparison? Well almost the exact opposite: just 6% of publishers in the UK have a mobile strategy that includes email. So while the US marketers are embracing mobile optimisation, over here we appear to be behind the times. It’s not just the mobile channel that needs attention. Findings from the UK report show publishers can improve email marketing response rates and ROI by concentrating their efforts on automation and social media too.

For publishers, digital marketing appears to be becoming a database marketing war with practitioners striving to interact and engage more with their audience through improved relevance and content. The heat is on to attract readers, so just how are the industry’s marketing elite going about this and what are they planning?

Data is King

Email marketing is a critical communications tool for publishers, a key weapon for retention and acquisition activity. In today’s competitive, challenging climate, digital marketing is all about the data. This means acquiring it from various channels, integrating it with other business functions, using it, cleaning it – ie. maximising it.

Acquiring new data and managing existing data is of paramount importance for publishers; and rightly so, as it’s the bedrock for your email marketing. Starting simply and building up to more complicated campaigns to utilise the power of your email marketing platform will pay serious dividends in the end – work with your ESP to focus on meeting your objectives. Whether that’s building subscriptions, growing tablet app downloads, broadening newsletter appeal, using social media leads, cleansing data, boosting click-through rates and more.

A good example is Centaur Media, who segmented the information they gathered at sign-up and delivered dynamically personalised emails to improve their results for their National Home Improvement Show. Emphasising that data is king, and when used creatively, it can have a massive impact on response – Centaur saw a 43% open rate and an impressive 34% clicked-through.

Lack of Automation

Automation by publishers is low, according to the survey. Only 20% automate subscription renewals and 33% use content automation. For a regular process that is vital to generating revenue, you would expect automation to be at the forefront of publishers’ minds in order to maximise renewals and remove the manual element. It’s a simple anniversary campaign to set up. Similarly, for content, it can easily be generated automatically to improve relevance and click-through rates.

Introducing automated campaigns and automated content can really help publishers to deliver relevant, timely content to their database, to drive engagement and also give the recipients what they want. There are many technologies available that can do this, and the end result is not only increased ROI, but also less time spent on email marketing.

For example, Haymarket introduced email content automation for their well known Autosport title and saw an 80% reduction in time spent on creating their weekly newsletter, as well as improved opens and click-throughs.

Low Social Media Integration

The importance of social media is clear as 51% are encouraging sharing on social networks and a further 26% are planning to implement this. However, surprisingly, 42% see email and social media as two separate channels entirely. This could all change in the coming year as marketers are finding the two channels work together synergistically and deliver that badly needed data stream.


What does the rise in mobile email mean for publishers? Well not a lot it seems… over half (52%) are doing nothing to change their approach to email marketing given the growth of mobile. Only 6% have a mobile strategy that includes email. Given the growth of this sector, it’s surprising that more publishers aren’t optimising for mobile readers. Next year’s figures should make interesting reading. Simple steps can improve results, such as making email templates smartphone-compatible by keeping it to one column.

Use of Email

Email marketing volumes are fairly evenly spread with most companies sending under 500,000 in six months, and almost one fifth (18%) sending over 1 million. This correlates with email budgets – 43% spend less than £10,000 annually, while nearly a fifth (18%) spends over £50k.

In addition, key metrics for publishers are on a par with industry wide stats provided by the DMA: on average 23% open rate, and 10% click-through rate. (DMA Email Benchmarking Report, 2010)

In a maturing market such as email marketing, companies need to fully understand the powerful tools available to them. There is a plethora of these, offering serious business benefits, aimed at: increasing automation, linking with social media activity, designing for mobile, remarketing, segmentation and many more. However, the majority of marketers are either using less than 50% of their email system’s functionality (43%) or don’t know how much they use (12%). It’s no longer good enough to load and blast that weekly newsletter.

The most popular use for email is newsletters (86%) and event promotion (71%), and then acquisition marketing (67%). The latter is a high figure and shows the broad appeal of email marketing – it’s not just about retention.

Marketers are planning to improve their data quality above all else in the next six months (61% indicated this), with a further 22% looking to acquire new data. With the top barrier to effective email marketing being lack of quality database (49% said this), the importance of clean data is clear. Furthermore, regular list cleansing is the second top email practice; 47% said they do this already and 23% are planning to do this.

Also the use of video in emails is low, with just 15% using it – it’s an early adopter segment at the moment, but has the potential to be huge.

Only a fifth (21%) integrate email with other business functions well. The least popular area for integration is sales data, with only 15% well integrated; this makes it very difficult to track email campaigns for an ROI figure.


Introducing automated campaigns and automated content can really help publishers to deliver relevant content to their readers. It gives the recipients what they want and thus drives engagement. There are many technologies available that can do this, and the end result is not only increased ROI, but improved efficiency as less time is spent on your email marketing.

Many companies are optimising their email for mobile, however almost as many aren’t. Handhelds and tablets will undoubtedly grow in their dominance; it’s just a matter of time before each specific sector accepts it.

Publishers are performing well overall, and generally making fundamental changes to their data management with the aim to provide a single customer view. This will enable them to target their data effectively and create a long-lasting relationship with their recipients. This is the key to not only email marketing, but your overall marketing strategy. Remember data is king.

With the next instalment of the survey due April 2012, this means for the first time, trend data will be available for direct comparison period-on-period. It will demonstrate how things have changed over time and highlight areas for publishers to watch, invest in and reap the benefits.

It’s convenient that this first report highlights such clear opportunities. If UK publishers focus on improving automation, social media integration and developing a mobile strategy, they will doubtless see improved engagement, response rates and ROI.

Click here to download a free copy of the report.