ALL THE USUAL WARNING SIGNS were there. Facebook had notified me of a message received from a friend. Didn't matter that the subject line of the message read "eSxy vvideo wwith you. Youu're ince there." Didn't matter that the message body contained merely the text "LOL" and a link. I trusted the sender (my friend) and I trusted the source (Facebook), so I clicked. I was promptly led to an unknown Web page, which I immediately exited out of and silently hoped my computer wouldn't explode.
I may have dodged a bullet, but my shame wasn't assuaged until an interview with Jeanniey Mullen, founder and executive director of the Email Experience Council. She admitted that she, too, fell into the very same trap. In her case, though, the malicious program hacked into her Facebook account and proceeded to disseminate the virus to her 700-plus contacts. Mullen, however, saw the silver lining: "It was a huge testament to the power email has when it comes from a trusted source," she says, calling it "a successful day in the life of email because it showed that it's so impactful."
That impact may be on the wane. According to the Direct Marketing Association, email returned $45.06 for every dollar spent on it in 2008, down from $48.34 in 2007. That's projected to sink to $43.52 in 2009. In its Power of Direct Marketing Report 2008-2009, the DMA attributes this decline to a gradual shift "toward the direct marketing norm." Still, email remains the highest-earning channel, with Internet marketing coming in second at $19.94, down from $20.60 in 2007, despite being the least expensive medium-$0.6 billion was spent on commercial email in 2008, compared to $24.1 billion in non-email Internet marketing. (Telephone marketing, at $42.5 billion, was the priciest.)
Email deliverability solutions provider Habeas (acquired in August 2008 by its former competitor Return Path) found that 67 percent of consumers prefer to use email to communicate with businesses (postal mail came in a distant second at 35 percent). Habeas's Email Survey 2008 further underscored the popularity of the medium, indicating that 73 percent of Internet users check their email on a daily basis. Further, 63 percent say they're unwilling to relinquish this communication channel, up from 61 percent in 2007. Only 3 percent of respondents said they could give up email completely.
Email certainly did have its share of bumps before reaching the top. Bob Myhal, president of health and fitness e-commerce site Musclemaster.com, remembers when the company first introduced its email list in 1999, consumers couldn't get enough. "We had 17,000 subscribers in the first two months," Myhal recalls. "Email marketing was easy [then]. Everybody wanted to get email." Musclemaster started with its "fitness tip of the week" and gradually began to embed marketing messages that encouraged consumers to make purchases and share their personal preferences. "We really built our business through that," he says.
Then came 2003. Concern about spam was high and email fatigue was palpable. An added layer of protection came with that year's CAN-SPAM Act. Having previously seen open rates of 40 percent to 50 percent, Myhal recalls open rates dropping dramatically--down to 10 percent, with many subscribers opting out entirely.
As email technology got more sophisticated, users also got smarter about protecting their systems and personal information. Even so, Charles Stiles, co-vice chair of the Messaging Anti-Abuse Working Group (MAAWG), says that simply educating users isn't enough to ensure they can recognize spam, especially when, as he says, "there are plenty of industry experts that can't."
Nevertheless, fears about email have subsided to a large extent, allowing email marketing to flourish again. What started as a novelty for early adopters and the technologically advanced is now a core part of managing everyday life. …