Email marketing is a top tactic - but doing it well remains a challenge

Barb Mosher Zinck Profile picture for user barb.mosher February 4, 2021
Email marketing never goes out of style - but that doesn't mean it's paying off. Fresh data from Ascend2 reveals some email marketing surprises. How should marketers apply these lessons?


The year that was 2020 (you know, the one we are all trying to forget) saw many B2B companies re-evaluate their email marketing programs. Some slowed dramatically, others temporarily stopped, and others increased the volume of their emails, focusing primarily on COVID-related content.

All changed what and how they communicated. But even a pandemic couldn't put an end to the most popular go-to marketing tactic.

More emails are coming, but will they be good?

Ascend2 released a new email marketing optimization report that asked marketers how they plan to improve their email marketing strategies this year. One of the most interesting findings was that despite 50% saying their past strategy was only somewhat successful, 74% of all those surveyed plan to send more emails in the year ahead.

In other words, "We didn't do a great job at our email marketing, but we're going to send more emails anyway." There are challenges to email, and it's only getting worse. There's too much of it, for one thing, and most of it isn't useful (or interesting).

There's a lot that can be improved with email. Most of it relates to the type and quality of the content shared and how that content is presented (what the email says). For B2C, it's about offering product deals. But how many emails have you received offering a discount for something you recently purchased?

For B2B, email marketing is about building awareness and sharing useful content, whether it's a webinar, a free course, or a resource, always with the intent of ultimately getting you to try or buy their solution. With B2B content, so much of it is the same thing, just worded differently or provided via a different medium or design.

Marketers follow the same best practices and, as a result, offer the same emails as everyone else, lost in the inbox. Still, they don't stop.

A Litmus State of Email Report found that for the majority, email is important to a company's success, and if they had a choice, 41% said they would rather give up social media than give up email marketing.

Personalization remains a priority

In the Ascend survey, the top, difficult-to-achieve objective is maintaining an engaged list, followed by reducing spam complaints and increasing list size. Personalization made this list, but only 28% considered it hard to achieve, putting it second last on the difficult things to do. However, it was first on the list of things to improve.

Doing personalization well goes hand in hand with these top objectives, and marketing leaders need to figure out how to improve personalization beyond personalizing subject lines and the salutation. Some suggestions from the Litmus report include personalizing based on past interactions with products, services, and email, as well as past purchases.

Doing this level of personalization requires having the right data available. However, both studies found that lack of data and data quality are significant issues. This is why it's so essential to create a marketing tech stack that integrates customer and product data, giving you a complete picture of your customers and your audiences so that you can develop the best email strategy.

The idea of segmenting your lists makes so much sense if you want to provide a level of personalization without going too deep (and staying too shallow):

  • The content you provide to a customer newsletter is personalized based on what products or services they use.
  • Content for prospective customers you are nurturing focuses on what you want them to purchase.
  • Content for your audiences covers thought leadership you know they want to consume based on past engagement and research.

Another thing that is important to do is regularly scrub your lists, so you aren't trying to engage people who haven't engaged with your emails for a long time. If you never clean your list, you build segments on outdated information and likely develop the wrong email strategies. And that, of course, leads to bad personalization and engagement rates.

Re-engagement emails are a missed opportunity

Email with the ultimate goal of converting someone to a customer is the norm. It's what marketers focus most of their efforts on. According to the Litmus study, 50% either don't or rarely run win-back or re-engagement campaigns to inactive subscribers and customers.

However, the Ascend report notes that one of the most effective automation strategies is a re-engagement campaign. When we let subscribers fall through the cracks and lose touch, we miss an opportunity to learn why they stopped reading our emails and if there are things we can do to improve our communications and re-engage them.

We shouldn't merely keep emailing them, hoping they'll re-engage - that leads to the problem of building the wrong email strategies I mentioned earlier, but we should think about campaigns that will bring the right ones back into the fold.

My take

I know email marketing is hard. I support two clients trying to define the best email strategies and successfully engage with the right audiences. I know email is going nowhere.

We need to measure performance but also map the customer/audience journey to adapt and improve continually. I would genuinely like to see us spend a lot more time understanding who we want to engage with through email to figure out the best email content to share and communicate that content well.

Image credit - Hand, tool and big walnut on wooden background. The concept of complex problems, the challenge can be solved. © sablinstanislav -

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