3 Ways Email Is Embracing the Trends That Were Supposed to Make It Obsolete

Marketers are getting faster, smarter and more interactive

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The eulogy for email has been in slow-clap mode for a while. With social app after app after app promising to make communication faster than it already is, it's become a common theory that email is, if not dead, well on its way.

Of course, not everyone agrees. (There's even a whole website devoted to proving email is alive and well.)

But there's no doubt email has evolved, from the original snail-mail killer to a data-driven, customer-focused fox of a form. In fact, some say email is the leader of the pack.

Thanks to the growth in user-generated content, segmentation and automation, brands are turning to email as a way of blending the best of today's real-time data boom with the holy grail of personalization. 

"Years ago, there was this huge threat that social media was going to kill email off, and now we're seeing that they work together pretty nicely," said Cynthia Price, director of marketing at Nashville-based email marketing company Emma.

Here are three ways email marketing experts say the industry is embracing the very trends that were expected to make it obsolete:

1. Making customers part of the content, in real time

Marketers no longer have to take on the entire burden of creating all the digital content consumed by their audience. In fact, it's often better to use user-generated content, as consumers often trust it more than if it comes directly from a brand.

Good photos and video submitted via social channels or promotions can often be repurposed for an email newsletter (with the creator's permission, of course).

But the new scope of email content opportunities goes well beyond simply cross-posting images from other networks.

Ron Cates, director of digital marketing education for Constant Contact, said integrating email with a real-time marketing plan can be very effective, especially with event marketing.

"For example, say you're a local winery hosting a wine tasting," he said. "You snap a picture of a couple enjoying themselves at the event and post it to Instagram. You then take your beautiful filtered Instagram picture and also send it via email to those who had RSVP'd for the event but have not yet arrived. You now have two audiences who realize that they are missing out on a great time, and I guarantee you'll get a few more attendees as a result."

2. Talking to the individual, not the crowd

While a lot of marketers emphasize the benefit of user engagement on ostensibly social platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, most brand activity in social still tend to be more like broadcast ads aimed at as many fans as possible.

Some say email holds more keys to personalized marketing, especially since an email address can be linked to a myriad of other data, like shopping preferences.

"We think email has the capacity to facilitate truly one-to-one custom relations and dialogue," said Cassie Lancelloti-Young, executive vice president of customer success at email service Sailthru. "I think the challenge we still see with social media is that brands still use it as megaphone to their customers."

Savvy email marketers are even going beyond personalizing your messages based on what you've done in the past and are starting to tailor messages based on what you'll likely do in the future. Lancelloti-Young said Sailthru is "putting our eggs in this predictive analytics basket."

"With the richness of that data, it's not just what happens in the past," she said. "It's having a really tight handle on each individual user and what they are likely to do."

3. Measuring and adapting every day

There's no doubt that big data drives much of the segmentation behind today's email strategies, but a giant database isn't going to magically create giant results.

Today's email marketing industry is focused on learning from each blast, each call to action and each lost subscriber. Marketers experiment not just with messaging and structure but also with new creative options like animation and video.

"If you think of email as a confining medium creatively, a lot of companies have developed ways to break through that," said Jose Cebrian, vice president and general manager for email and mobile messaging at marketing agency Merkle.

The best email teams also don't work in a vacuum. Instead, they collaborate regularly with other key marketing teams overseeing the social, advertising or direct pieces of a campaign. The lessons learned from one often translate easily to another.

"I think that today's marketers largely don't look at one digital channel as a silo," said Kraig Swensrud, chief marketing officer for Campaign Monitor. "They look at what's happening and what's working across these different channels."

@martyswant martin.swant@adweek.com Marty Swant is a former technology staff writer for Adweek.