A rose by any other name would smell as sweet - Programmatic in Email Marketing | DMA

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A rose by any other name would smell as sweet - Programmatic in Email Marketing


It’s not every day I get to quote Shakespeare in a debate about email marketing.

2 question for you:-

- Is there a place for programmatic in email?

- What role does programmatic have to play in an email marketing strategy?

Why do I ask? Well, these were the questions the DMA Email Council was invited to debate at last month’s meeting, following the introduction of a new category to the DMA Awards in 2015 (Best Use of Programmatic).

At the judging for the awards, there was was some discussion regarding what it really meant and how realistically entries could be judged on the traditional criteria of strategy, creativity and results. Whilst the Economist won the Gold award with a very creditable entry, it was still considered a good idea to ask a lively group of often opinionated email marketing experts what they thought – read on to find out how that went.

To begin with it was generally agreed that in a marketing context, ‘programmatic’ is a term derived from ‘programmatic media buying’ (abbreviated once the same technology started being used for more than just buying advertising space). So let’s first take a look at precisely how that is defined.

Definition: Programmatic advertising helps automate the decision-making process of media buying by targeting specific audiences and demographics. Programmatic ads are placed using artificial intelligence (AI) and real-time bidding (RTB) for online display, social media advertising, mobile and video campaigns, and is expanding to traditional TV advertising marketplaces.

This immediately begs the question, “How does this fit into email marketing?” – I can almost hear some of you asking yourselves that very question as you read. Fortunately, there were plenty of people happy to take it on.

Examples were quickly cited of organisations such as ebay (with increased revenue of 68%) and Home Depot (increases of 74%) who had benefitted greatly from the use of ‘programmatic’ in email, suggesting a somewhat open and shut answer to the first question “Is there a place for programmatic in email?“ i.e. a resounding YES.

However, unsurprisingly this wasn’t a satisfactory place for that part of the discussion to end and the debate quickly developed into one of semantics, prompting us to further explore the appropriate use of the term programmatic in the context of email marketing.

Just because it’s been embraced by the media buying industry (try running a quick Google search on the word programmatic to see this in full effect), should that mean they have the exclusive rights to the term in marketing conversations? As email marketers, this naturally doesn’t sit well.

There are some challenges here in terms of adoption. For example, some ESP technologies already use the term ‘programme’ to describe a collection or series of email broadcasts, which could be confusing (the same might be said of the word ‘campaign’).

Furthermore, there is obviously some overlap with the term automation, one which is much more established in the email marketer’s lexicon. However, automation itself can also mean different things to different people. Examples might include;

- sending a series of emails at predetermined times based on a defined schedule and path.

- triggering different emails and sequences to each subscriber based on observed behaviour (e.g. opens, clicks, conversions).

- dynamically serving different content within an email based on rules and algorithms.

and I’m certainly not suggesting there aren’t others.

Some interesting examples of how the gap between programmatic ad-buying and email marketing is being bridged include solutions enabling publishers to target, serve and optimise ads dynamically within an email itself at the moment the email is opened. For some brands this might present challenges in terms of email real estate value and governance, but it’s interesting to see it emerging as a hybrid of the two fields.

As the debate raged on, many of the same terms continued to crop up (automation, algorithms, rules, context, dynamic content) and no one was in any doubt as to the value that such elements can add to email marketing progra…campai…activities, particularly when one is dealing with thousands of variables and millions of subscribers. A manual approach simply doesn’t cut it any more, though it’s clear from the 2016 Marketer Email Tracker report that, “Marketers are [still] struggling with email automation.”

Some discussion even turned to the emergence of machine learning, AI and the use of neural networks to optimise email marketing performance, themselves interesting topics for another debate, however it remained clear that a standardised set of universally agreed terminology has yet to be established within the digital marketing arena (hardly surprising given that we are ourselves, after all, marketers). The need to position one’s technology and services in the most compelling way is a fluid challenge that requires ingenuity and creativity and often results in the appropriation of various terms (e.g. automation, programmatic, dynamic) to describe similar capabilities, simply as a point of differentiation. This part of the discussion could easily have continued ad-infinitum.

In several people’s eyes, perhaps the best way to adopt programmatic into the world of email marketing language was to consider it akin to advanced automation. Another suggestion was to separate the mechanics (automation) from the content delivery (programmatic) which might help provide some clarity (and would certainly help answer the questions we were originally asked to debate!).

In conclusion, when asked, “Is there a place for programmatic in email?” it’s clear that whichever way you define it the answer is yes. What role it has to play depends on individual strategies and interpretation, but as technology continues to evolve I’d wager we’re more likely to see new terms introduced than old ones repurposed.

Marketing cybernetics anyone?

We’d love to know what you think, so please share your thoughts in the comments below.

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