The Role of Email Marketing in Sales (Then, Today and Tomorrow)

2015-07-22-1437593806-173343-SolomonTimothy.pngAs the founder and CEO of OneIMS and Clickx, author Solomon Thimothy has built his career around his passion for helping other businesses grow an online presence and thrive in the digital world. Solomon works with clients big and small to develop uniquely customized and highly-effective marketing strategies that meet every company's individual goals. Follow him on Twitter @sthimothy.

Although just in its teen years, email marketing has radically evolved and transformed multiple times since its early beginnings in the mid '90s. What began with the emergence of email providers like Hotmail has now become one of the most powerful tools for any sales team. As an extremely cost-effective method to connect with prospects in a timely and personalized way, email is a salesperson's best friend. But this hasn't quite always been the case (and it may not be in the future either.)

With the proliferation of accessible technology, consumers have continued to increase their own bargaining power, leaving marketers and salespeople to work harder to create a meaningful connection that leads to a new contract or account.

So how exactly has email marketing's role in the sales department changed over the years? And what can we expect to see in the future?

Email Marketing of Yesteryear

When email marketing first became a term, its sole purpose was to cast a wide net in hopes of catching some big fish. Sales teams would create contact lists from CRMs, personal relationships and any other method they could use to get their hands on an email address. The result was a sizable list of recipients with whom you had already done business in the past, were currently doing business with, had heard of you before, or had never even heard of you. Regardless, the goal was to create as large of a list as possible. The wider your net the more fish you'd catch, right?

Crafting the message was the next step. What consumer or company wouldn't want to hear about your company? You'd obviously expect every recipient to be anxiously waiting for your email. Marketers and sales team would create one-size-fits-all messages promoting themselves, a particular offer or product, and as expected their targeting was off.

Dubbed the "spray and pray" email marketing solution, for less than $10 a month marketers could cast a wide net of self-promotional content to the masses in hopes of snagging a few prospects. The result? Ineffective and annoying messages that clogged your inbox. In fact, all it succeeded in doing was prompting a series of legislated regulations that helped minimize the amount of spam we received in our inboxes, otherwise known as the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003.

Needless to say, the "spray and pray" one-size-fits-all email marketing strategy was mediocre at best.

Today's Email Marketing Strategies

Early failures were not in vain. In fact, the one-size-fits-all message strategy led sales teams to realize one important thing: prospects did not want to be communicated to as part of a mass group. Instead, they wanted personalization. Consumers were not looking for salespeople to send some generic email about a new product; they wanted to know that the salesperson knew them and their pain points. With email tracking technology becoming more sophisticated, marketers and salespeople alike could easily identify how engaged email recipients were with their messages. The big question became, "How do I make something so impersonal, such as a mass email, personal?"

And thus the era of personalized email marketing was born. At first the personalization touches were small, like adding a prospect's name to the email. Yet an email by any another name would still be just another email. To remedy the failed first attempt at email marketing as a sales tool, salespeople began segmenting and identifying each email contact into unique buckets: current customers, past customers and prospects. The process of list segmentation alone resulted in better-targeted messages and a more captive audience.

Personalization really has gone from zero-to-60 in just a few years. Today, email marketing is not just about list segmentation; it's about delivering non-promotional, value-driven content that clearly correlates and matches the prospects' stage in the buyer's journey. The need to personalize content, not just by name, but instead by need and stage in the buying cycle led to the emergence of what we now call marketing automation. Companies such as HubSpot, Marketo and Pardot have exploded helping marketing and sales teams deliver targeted, personalized and relevant content just at the right time.

So how effective is personalized, value-based, triggered email marketing? Unlike the "spray and pray" technique, marketing automation and inbound marketing are changing the way marketing and sales teams work. In fact, 59 percent of B2B marketers deem email the most effective channel for generating revenue, according to a 2012 survey conducted by Crain's B2B Magazine.

The Future of Email Marketing

While personalized marketing and marketing automation are becoming the norm across industries, the future of email marketing may hold a lot of surprises for marketers and sales teams.

If today's customer's are demanding personalized messages, tomorrow's consumers will want even more personalization to get them to open a sales email: think videos, social content and dynamic triggered emails. And these won't just be automated -- they'll actually be based on real-time actions and machine learning.

Imagine if the next email marketing system could guess what email you'd open based on previous behaviors, time of day, weather or geographic location. That's when email marketing will start to really get personal.

Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow -- Making the Most of It

While there is no crystal ball to tell what the future holds, email marketing will continue to play an important role in sales. Whether we're talking acquisition or retention, it will serve as an effective and critical tool for every sales department. In the future, fancy algorithms and machine learning may take over true relationship building and personalization, but until then, marketers and sales departments will have to leverage better data, personalization and automation to execute an iron-clad sales strategy.