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It wasn’t so long ago that email was supposed to die at the hands of social media as a communications channel. But brands have been sending more email, consumers have been doing the same, and marketers continue to rate email the most effective digital channel. But what are they doing to get better? A report from Econsultancy and Adestra [download page] offers some insights.

The survey was conducted among more than 500 in-house marketers and more than 200 agency professionals, most of whom are from the UK. Respondents were asked how they intend to innovate with email this year.

The most popular answers were consistent among both in-house and agency respondents:

  • #1: More creative uses of behavioral triggers;
  • #2: Greater use of dynamic elements (video content, GIFs, countdown clocks etc.); and
  • #3: Using automation to enable one-to-one communication.

The clear objective here, as the report’s analysts note, is to make inboxes more engaging. This is especially important given that a long trend towards higher open rates has been mitigated by an equally long trend towards lower click rates.

The other goal in those top innovation ideas? Personalization – which has jumped to the top as the leading area of focus for company respondents this year, overtaking automation.

While research suggests that marketers are having more success personalization emails than other channels, this study indicates that most in the industry are in the early stages of implementing personalization in their email campaigns, as opposed to being able to send emails based on individual activities and preferences throughout the funnel at scale. Additionally, while about 8 in 10 company marketers are practicing basic segmentation, only one-third report using advanced segmentation techniques.

Only one-quarter are using behavioral targeting based on web activity. As such, the findings show that there’s plenty of room for improvement in the top areas of innovation interest.

Using Artificial Intelligence in Email Efforts

A new option in this year’s survey is the use of artificial intelligence to improve email performance. Already roughly 1 in 6 company marketers intend to explore this area, with almost 1 in 5 agency respondents likewise saying their clients will use this area of innovation. As such, email marketers already seem more interested in the potential for AI than they are in experimenting with other interfaces such as smartwatches. Delivering email through messaging apps also seems less appealing than using AI for increased performance.

Recent research has shown how marketers intend to use AI to enhance SEO, as well as how retail marketers are using AI in their efforts. So how could AI potentially improve email marketing performance?

Most commonly, respondents feel, is by optimizing send times, according to the report, with optimization of calls to action the next-most popular use case. AI could also be used to improve subject line and email copy, though agency respondents see a bit more potential from more efficient use of resources.

The report notes that just 1-2% of respondents selected “other” potential uses of AI to improve email performance. Combined with the stronger interest in existing email activities, this suggests that “greenfield” opportunities for AI aren’t being considered as of now. The analysts also point out that email marketers’ current challenges with data access and interpretation mean that it may be a bumpy ride to AI integration.

Only time will tell…

About the Data: The report is based on a survey of 1,200 respondents fielded in February and March 2017, two-thirds (68%) of whom are company marketers and the remainder supply-side respondents. Some 61% of the sample is based on the UK. About half (49%) are B2B-focused, with one-third (33%) focused on B2B and the remaining 18% equally B2B and B2C. The retail/mail order sector was the most heavily represented.

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