Jeanne Jennings on Changes in Email Marketing, Subscribers’ Data and Relationships

Jeanne Jennings on Changes in Email Marketing, Subscribers’ Data and Relationships
09 March, 2024 • ... • 3446 views
Diana Kussainova
by Diana Kussainova

In the turbulent period of AI innovations, data and privacy concerns, few people can see the bigger picture like the industry veterans. Jeanne Jennings is one of the best-known email marketing experts who started her career more than 30 years ago. We asked Jeanne to share her vision of email as a communication and sales channel and recommend the best ways to make it work in 2024.

Jeanne Jennings is the Founder and CEO of Email Optimization Shop, General Manager at Only Influencers, Programming Chair at Email Innovations World, and Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University.

Jeanne Jennings portrait photo
Source: Jeanne Jennings

Email marketing from 1989 to now

Jeanne, as an expert with many years of experience working in email marketing, you know about the changes in the industry like no other. So from when you started working in email marketing to the beginning of 2024, how did email marketing change as a communication and sales channel?

I began my career in 1989 with CompuServe, helping organizations like Marriott and the American College of Physicians move their communications with their hotels and members, respectively, online. At that point we were building what we called “private networks” which were the precursors to websites; email was also part of the package. This was before “internet” was a household word. So things have changed a lot since I began my career in digital marketing and product development. There’s a good television show about this period of time in the life of the internet — it’s called “Halt and Catch Fire” and it’s a pretty good match for the actual timeline. 

It’s been thrilling to watch email grow as a channel — the potential was always there for email marketing, but it didn’t broadly begin to be used in that way until the mid-1990s. 

When I was with CompuServe our clients were using email to communicate internally — with others in their own organizations. There was some email marketing happening on CompuServe’s consumer network, but it was very basic and I wasn’t working with that division of the company. 

It was really the World Wide Web, which came into broad use in the mid-1990s, that brought the internet widespread acceptance. The internet solo was just text; the World Wide Web brought in images and made it much more user-friendly — and a much better channel for marketing.  

The same was true of email — at first, it was just text. When HTML came into being that increased its utility. 

Back in the 1990s, people were excited to receive email. You’ll stand in the aisle at a trade show and announce that you had an email newsletter — and people would run up and give you their business card to get on your email list. They’d often ask when they would be receiving the first issue. They were very excited. It is kind of crazy to think about now.

Even in 2000, many people thought that just the act of sending an email was good email marketing. As with websites, there was a feeling that you had to have one, had to send emails, because other people did. We had click-through rates, and it was right around 2000 that open rates came into being, but we didn’t have much else in the way of tracking. So there wasn’t a great way to measure success, or even to optimize.

Can you share one of the email marketing optimization cases you did back then?

I was doing many different aspects of digital marketing, including email, up until 2000 when I was hired as head of email product development for the largest B2B publisher in the US — Cahners, which was soon rebranded as Reed Business Information US (RBI) since it was part of Reed Elsevier. 

One of my first big projects at RBI was working with Variety, the magazine for the entertainment industry in Los Angeles. They were RBI’s flagship publication. They had an email newsletter; they didn’t think they needed me. 

But I made my case in a two-page document. 

I talked about segmentation and targeting of content. You see, Variety’s subscribers fell into a few different industry sub-categories — TV, movies, theater, etc. — those working in TV weren’t really interested in what was going on in the Theatre, and vice-versa. So we needed a newsletter to serve each of their audience segments, not just one to serve all of them. 

They were also generating revenue from advertisements in their email newsletters — so by adding titles (we took them from one newsletter to 8 newsletters) we were also adding advertising spaces. And since these new ad spaces were in highly-targeted emails, we could charge more for them, even though the number of subscribers was lower. 

Finally, most of Variety’s content was behind a paywall — you had to buy a subscription to read the vast majority of articles (and you definitely had to pay for the most valuable, interesting ones). We used the newsletters as vehicles to drive paid subscriptions. 

I used a blend of 60% free articles to 40% paid articles in each newsletter. The subscribers would not know which articles took them to the free content. When they clicked on paid content, they got a “soft door slam” — a paywall offering daily, weekly, monthly, and annual options to subscribe. 

The Variety case study is kind of a microcosm of how email evolved from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s. It went from being “we have to send some email” to “let’s get more sophisticated about how we use this channel — and see if we can provide valuable content to subscribers and make some money.” 

And make some money we did. Email has always been one of the top channels in terms of return on investment. 

And that continues today. I am still helping organizations make their email marketing more effective and more profitable. The tactics aren’t all that different than they were in 2000 — segmentation, targeting, valuable content, revenue from advertising, revenue from subscriptions…

Could you tell us more about the aspects of email marketing that stayed the same throughout the years?

The promise of email has not wavered. 

  • Unlike social media, you own the relationship with your email subscribers; there’s no middleman. No one to take your content out of the algorithm, no one to drive consumers off a public platform and away from your presence there. 
  • It’s push technology, so you don’t have to rely on prospects coming to your website — you can go to them.  
  • It’s personal — you can use data to segment your audience and send them content that’s relevant to them
  • It’s two-way communication — you should not just allow people to respond to your email, you should encourage it! 
  • You can build relationships with your audience in a way that direct mail, telemarketing, search engine marketing, and even social media marketing don’t make easy and/or possible

We still have the same challenges — spam, deliverability, phishing, malware — but we’re addressing them. I am so thankful for the deliverability industry — without Spamhaus and other organizations “policing” the email that’s sent, the inbox would be useless. 

Building relationships with subscribers and leveraging data

Do you think building relationships with subscribers is as relevant as ever today? Why?

Of course, it is! People buy from people and that’s a relationship. Relationships make the world go round, not just email. Think about anything you do — if you had the choice of doing it with a stranger or someone you have a relationship with, even if it’s not a close relationship, wouldn’t the latter win out over the former? 

Speaking of which, do you think building relationships with your subscribers is the answer to Google phasing out third-party cookies and other similar regulations?

Google phasing out third-party cookies is a symptom of a large issue: privacy concerns. This is not the end of privacy concerns impacting how marketers do their jobs — which in turn will impact the relevance of the marketing content consumers receive. 

We lost the usefulness of open rates thanks to Apple’s Mail Privacy Protection (MPP) back in 2021. There have been articles about click-tracking being in jeopardy.   

Not all marketers, but some marketers have been playing fast and loose with people’s personally identifiable information (PII). Just because we as marketers can do something doesn’t mean that we should. 

The Target incident a few years ago, when predictive modeling told the retailer that a teenage girl was pregnant before her own father knew and targeted their marketing to her based on that information, is a great example. It’s not that predictive modeling is bad — but the way they used the knowledge was intrusive. I like to think that today, 10 years after the Target fiasco, we marketers are smarter in how we use the data we have. 

Every email marketer I know has people they care about; parents, children, friends, acquaintances, other people. Most of them would never knowingly deceive the people they care about with their marketing; and they would not want other marketers to mistreat their loved ones in this way. 

As marketers, we need to apply this same standard to EVERYONE we market to. Think about what you’re doing and ask if you’d be comfortable if your mother or father, a child or friend, were the recipient of the emails you’re sending.    

I understand Apple’s reasons for MPP; but most marketers weren’t using open tracking for anything nefarious. Just as most marketers aren’t using click tracking for anything nefarious. But not getting signals on engagement (opens) and interest (clicks) makes for less relevant email messages for recipients. And that doesn’t help anyone. 

Trust is the key. When there’s trust, and both parties understand how open tracking will be used, the consumers can make an educated choice on whether or not to allow their opens to be tracked. Same with clicks. But we’ve jumped to third parties making this decision without the consumer understanding the potential downsides. That’s the issue. 

So yes, it’s about relationships — and trust is an important part of any relationship.

At the same time, even without third-party cookies, leveraging data can be a challenge for email marketers. From your experience, is it the abundance of data or the lack of it that is the most spread problem?

Most companies are buried in data. The problem isn’t that they don’t have it — it’s that they aren’t able to leverage it. Either it’s in a system that’s not connected to the email platform, or they don’t have the resources to manipulate it to make it useful. 

One positive that should come from the degradation of third-party cookies is that companies will have more reason to invest in integration and other activities to allow them to more effectively use the data they have. 

What do you think can help people leverage the data for email marketing success?

Starting small. Look at the data you have easy access to from the email platform. Pick one data point. Then use it. 

One of the most overlooked data pools that most marketers have is click history. You know what links each person in your database has clicked on in your email messages going back to when they first got on your list — or the last time you changed ESPs. Use it. 

If you’re a publisher with a special report on cars, see who’s clicked on links about cars in your email messages over the past year. There’s your best audience. 

What key data pieces would you advise email marketers to start gathering and using right now?

First names are a no-brainer — that gives you basic personalization which is the start of a relationship. After that it’s very specialized, it depends on your product or service. Think in terms of the different segments of your audience — then gather data that allows you to identify which segment each person belongs in. 

Asking is a good way to get there — but observation is also helpful, as we aren’t always truthful. The two together — self-reported data combined with observed data is the best way to go.

AI and other trends in email marketing

Besides the importance of data and customer relationships, what other trends and tendencies do you anticipate are going to shape the world of email marketing in 2024?

AI is the obvious answer. I’m playing with AI a lot right now. I’m not a fan of it for copy, although occasionally if I’m stuck I’ll ask it for a first draft and I often end up stealing bits and pieces. 

Elizabeth Jacobi wrote a piece about how it’s saving her time — and I think, in the end, this is how we’ll be using it. 

Last month Tamara Gielen (Materialise) and I presented a webinar called: For Email Marketers: Using Generative AI for Campaign Development (not just copywriting). It was very well-received and you can view the recording on-demand as well as download a PDF of the deck. It was very much a workshop; we walked through using AI to develop an email marketing campaign, using a total of 5 different GPTs; 3 that are customized and publically available, and two that we configured ourselves. I encourage your readers who are interested in AI to check it out! 

Working with the Email Innovations Summit and Only Influencers, I have 2 other events coming up about AI: 

What challenges await email marketers in 2024, especially when implementing trending technologies?

I think the challenges vary based on where your email skills are. 

For those who have little experience with email, AI will make it easier to create a campaign. It will raise the bar for what’s acceptable, and you’ll be below the bar if you don’t use it. 

But if you’ve already got mad email marketing campaign skills, you’ll need to find other ways to leverage AI to help you, likely by saving you time. I think AI will be valuable. But I’m not convinced it will live up to the hype. 

Can AI be useful for A/B testing?

Yes and no. I think as time goes on AI will get better and better at A/B testing. But again, it goes back to your skill level. 

If you want to do A/B split testing, AI can make some suggestions for you. But is the content that AI provides better than what you could get from a blog post on the topic? Maybe. Is it better than reading A/B split test case studies and generating your own hypotheses? Maybe.

It all depends on your level of knowledge and experience. 

I uploaded a spreadsheet of data on an A/B split test that I did into ChatGPT and asked it to analyze it. It came back with a pretty good analysis and a winner based on the KPI I had identified. Then I asked it if the results were statistically significant — and it said that they were not. I’m sure at some point AI will include checking for statistical significance in determining a winner, but we’re apparently not there yet.

What are some of the best uses for this technology, in your opinion?

Research. Things that are foundational to our email marketing, like personas and features/benefits/advantages and objections/overcoming them. Things that are in the background, but not subscriber-facing. Things that will save you time and make you a more productive marketer — I don’t see AI totally replacing marketers. 

Future-proofing your email marketing

What do email marketers need to start doing, continue doing, and stop doing to be successful in 2024?

Start playing with AI — practice and refine your prompt engineering skills, have patience, and come up with a clear understanding of where it’s valuable to you — and where it’s not. Learn from others — Only Influencers is doing some great programming on AI for Email Marketers, join us, learn, and when you advance share your findings with the industry to help others. 

Continue honing your email marketing skills — especially with webinars and in-person conferences like Email Innovations World. In-person is really important — it’s the best way to network. Blogs, like the Only Influencers blog, Chad S. White’s Email Marketing Rules blog, and my own Email Optimization Shop blog, can also be helpful. 

Stop trying to do it all yourself — take advantage of the resources that are available to you. I see so many email marketers who are head-down, grinding out email messages, focused on the send without time to look at their results or what others are doing. Stop! Join the Only Influencers community of email industry professionals and join us for our weekly members-only author-led discussions on industry articles and blog posts. If you’re struggling with strategy, tactics, deliverability, testing, optimization, or any other aspect of your job, reach out to me or another consultant and see how they can help you.

What’s one piece of advice you can give to those who want to optimize their email marketing strategy in 2024?

Start testing. Do it strategically. Follow the scientific method. Have a plan. Make sure your key performance indicator (KPI) is based on conversions or revenue — not opens or clicks. Do one large test a month (if you’re mailing at least weekly) or a quarterly (if you’re mailing less than weekly). Do smaller, simpler tests in between. Feel free to visit my Email Optimization Shop blog for case studies and tips. 

09 March, 2024
Article by
Diana Kussainova
Writer, editor, and a nomad. Creating structured, approachable texts and helping others make their copies clearer. Learning and growing along the way. Interested in digital communications, UX writing, design. Can be spotted either in a bookshop, a local coffee place, or at Sephora. Otherwise probably traveling. Or moving yet again.
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