The role and use of content in email and marketing automation

People today are becoming channel-agnostic. They use different platforms, channels and devices when and where it suits them best. Do you think about whether you’re using email or a social platform, for instance, when using your mobile device?

Despite the fact that content marketing is also channel-agnostic, it’s important to understand and improve the content dimension of channels, from a customer-centric perspective. One of these channels is email that gets more and more used in an integrated email marketing perspective, away from the pure campaign mindset (think triggered emails, marketing automation, order confirmations, the integration with social, you name it).

Although it’s often overlooked in content marketing and from an inbound marketing perspective, email is still the glue of many multi-channel customer interactions and the favorite method for people to communicate with business. It’s part of the online mix, for different purposes: retention, up-selling, cross-selling, loyalty marketing and even community marketing. Email marketing has changed but is not gone, on the contrary: while many companies still use it in traditional ways, others have moved to a more integrated email marketing approach, putting the customer at the center.

Since a few years now, email marketers struggle with finding good content. This may seem strange. In a customer-centric content marketing approach, it shouldn’t be the case. After all, if you know the content needs of the people on your ‘lists’ and ideally the different segments within them, providing the proper content must be easy, no? Well, it turns out it is not. The role of content is after all increasingly growing in email marketing and the use of email in different forms: from newsletter content to optimized – often personalized – content in marketing automation flows and far beyond. With the increasing demand among marketers for optimized data-driven marketing, the number of touchpoints and content needs even keep growing.

With Big Data (essentially just meaning “all data” and lots more data and with it challenges and opportunities to come) and also important in a content marketing and content management context, this is even more so. By the way: think “right data” (for the right reasons and in the right combinations to optimize business goals and customer value), you only need to know what helps you achieve your goals and what the customer wants you to know to succeed, have fun, etc.

In fact, the lack of a content marketing strategy is one of the main reasons why marketing automation implementations and deployments fail. A random graphic below from the “Everything Technology Marketing” report via (there are – really many – more).

B2B Marketing automation challenges – content ranks fourth – check out the SlideShare
B2B Marketing automation challenges – content ranks fourth – check out the SlideShare

The social and content marketing dimension of email

However, regardless of these evolutions, email is still the channel with the best ROI and the preferred interaction channel for business communication for mos people, whether you like that or not. With the increased choice of media and the abundance of communication channels in an era where people have more and more control, email marketing has to be more pertinent and personalized than ever before. And guess what? In any form of data-driven and direct marketing, including email marketing, getting the right content (and offers) is a challenge for many marketers. This is not new by the way as the MarketingSherpa Email Marketing Benchmark Survey graphic below from…2010 shows.

Email effectiveness challenges – via Real Insights
Email effectiveness challenges – via Real Insights

Valuable and customized content is also crucial from an interaction, deliverability and relevance viewpoint. This content can be promotional, educational and whatnot. What matters is that it meets the reasons why people register in the first place, whatever that reason may be and that it evolves along with the dynamic customer: there is nothing worse than not knowing how preferences and the overall context of people change when sending them emails, you’ve heard some horror stories and funny examples (not funny for the business though). That’s why a good single customer view matters so much.

Also remember that deliverability is increasingly about engagement and that ESPs and ISPs really look at how email recipients interact with the content in their inbox. The steps Google has been taken and keeps taking with GMail lately are well-known examples of this evolution that started many years ago.

And let’s not forget email has a branding dimension too. In fact, all touchpoints have and people decide what they perceive as valuable, not us. When it works they will click or take an action after having read or seen the email, also on the longer term as is the case in advertising often.

Segmentation, personalization and conversion optimization go hand in hand but they come with increased needs for content. Furthermore, email has a place in a social context beyond simple tactics such as sharing buttons. If the goal of an email is having many eyeballs, as is – unfortunately – often still the case for online media companies, the sharing dimension matters a lot and content driving social interaction key. For more sales-oriented emails, such as the daily deals emails people subscribe to, it’s more a matter of focusing on getting that buy but there still is a social component to it: getting to know the – ideally – individual recipients as good as possible and providing the content they need.

Content needs to reach its audience

Last but not least: look at any survey regarding content marketing and you’ll notice that e-newsletters and/or other forms of using email are systematically among the most effective channels and/or types of content, both in B2B and B2C. All surveys by the Content Marketing Institute show it as do many others such as the randomly picked graphic from a 2012 B2B content marketing survey chart from BtotB magazine shows (found on

Most effective types of content for improving sales and marketing effectiveness – via Lonelybrand
Most effective types of content for improving sales and marketing effectiveness – via Lonelybrand

And, here’s one more for the chart lovers (and more recent) from the US B2C content marketing benchmark, conducted by the already mentioned Content Marketing Institute and MarketingProfs. Check what’s on the third rank as a content tactic: indeed, newsletters. In B2B marketing, it’s clear that’s even more, along with marketing automation, integrated and cross-channel approaches, etc.

B2C Content Marketing Usage by Tactic - eNewsletters rank third - source
B2C Content Marketing Usage by Tactic – eNewsletters rank third – source

I could of course go on showing more charts from across the globe (same conclusions in most countries and regions) and mention more reasons but the conclusion is clear: we shouldn’t overlook email in content marketing strategy and vice versa. Content marketing is a must in direct marketing and data-driven marketing too, as it is in marketing automation.

Knowing that interaction with emails and thus email content play an increasing role in deliverability and inbox placement, which forces marketers to focus on relevance, clean lists and data, optimization, the customer experience and context, time to put email on the content marketing list in case you hadn’t yet.

Update: here’s a 2014 webinar below from MarketingSherpa. I must admit I haven’t checked it fully out but the title looks promising (and a title should be a promise): “Marketing Automation: Key challenges a global information company overcame to transform from batch and blast to persona-driven email marketing.” And in the description I read: “how IHS overcame three major challenges to provide relevant content to email subscribers”.

Hope it serves!