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Why email advertising innovation has stalled, and how publishers can move forward

Innovation in email has been much slower than in other areas of digital media, especially when it comes to advertising. For many publishers, this is because email is seen as incremental revenue. It might make up a small percentage of their total inventory, which results in little investment and minimal development. 

The technicalities of email advertising has also slowed innovation. “When you have a normal ad server that works on the web like we’re all used to, you’re very dependent on cookies and JavaScript,” Passendo CEO Andreas Jürgensen explained. “Most of the big platforms out there providing ad services are highly dependent on these, and cannot really work in environments where these are not present.” 

Email has struggled to shine commercially as part of a product mix. For many publishers, it is still an incremental revenue stream providing just a small percentage of inventory. This in turn means it isn’t in line for as much attention and innovation as other areas of the business.

Now, however, email is beginning to be seen as a more powerful product in its own right. Access Intelligence’s VP of Digital Strategy Michael Ring believes that wider industry changes are putting email higher up the priority list of publishing executives. 

“As things change, there’s Apple privacy, there are other privacy issues and ad blockers, we’re seeing the email itself move to the forefront,” Ring explained. “You’ve got a limited amount of inventory, and you’ve got an engaged audience. So it’s an opportunity to really bring value both to your audience and to your advertisers.”

Rather than email being something that just adds value to a product set, it is now being seen by the industry as something that is much more at the forefront. In fact, media owners like Axios and 6AM City are making multi-million dollar businesses with email as the sole output.

Jürgensen is seeing this attitude change among the publishers he works with. “There’s a whole resurgence of publishers who are email-first, and are building strategies around email, and then the web becomes secondary or might not even exist in the mix for them,” he outlined. “This is a trusted channel of the future. We really think this is the emergence of something new and strong.”

The importance of trust and privacy

Post-GDPR, the relationship between a publisher and an opted-in email subscriber is more important than ever. Readers who choose to receive a newsletter or updates from a brand are entering into a trusted relationship. It is therefore crucial that ad innovation within email maintains that trust, without falling into the exploitative practices that have dogged the web.

“If you just choose some random commercialisation tag and put it in your email, you receive a cheque every month, but you let the data leak, and that becomes part of the product for the guys who are selling you the tag,” Jürgensen said, explaining why it is so important to choose tools with care. “This is something that could ruin this trusted relationship you have with the end user.”

Jürgensen cautioned that any data shared needed to have a good reason behind it, and that everything that can be anonymised should be. “A lot of cookie practices are way over the limit to what you would say is alright,” he pointed out. “Then you have the whole identity graph game. People who are building identity graphs, they might not use the cookies, but they’re still trying to fingerprint everybody.”

“For me, that’s very borderline. Why do we do it? Who do we share the data with? For what reason? Does this really benefit the end user? For me, that’s the main question here –  to try and protect the privacy of the end user. And it’s a tool selection question.”

Access Intelligence puts potential partners through a rigorous process before accepting them, which includes assessing their privacy practices against industry standards, and watching how they present themselves within the industry. “Having a trusted technical platform is really important for us,” said Ring. “When we work with anyone… we sit down and understand where there could be data leakage and how we can protect the data.”

How email can move forward

With billions of emails sent each day, this is not a medium that has peaked yet. “It’s not a question about if email is going away or not, because it’s not,” Passendo CCO Anders Rantzau Rasmussen emphasised. “It’s a question about, are you joining the wave, are you joining this as a medium? And if you’re not, then email might not seem important to you. But if you’re doing it right, it will be important to you.”

The self-selection element of email subscribers makes them particularly strong. When compared to a user browsing the web, a reader who has specifically signed up to receive news about a topic they are interested in is much more attractive. But not all newsletter subscribers will be interested in the same adverts, which throws up another challenge for publishers.

“What you need to do to be able to [advertise] efficiently with email is to solve these challenges in a different way,” Jürgensen said. “How do you identify the users without cookies? How do we provide intelligence inside the pages of the email you’re looking at without JavaScript?”

The answer for publishers who own their email audiences is to enhance their knowledge of their email subscribers. This could be through tagging and segmentation, or even a dedicated email ad server. There are a growing number of solutions coming to the market, which offer ways to show different adverts to subscribers of the same newsletters.

“The more you have people using your newsletter, you will build up an understanding of their preferences, of what they want to see, what they’re interested in,” Jürgensen said. “If you don’t have a tech stack that takes that into account, you’re doing it wrong.”

This technology may sound complex, but there are plenty of options for publishers at all stages of email innovation.

“It’s very easy for a smaller publisher to say, “Hey, this is working, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,”” said Ring. He believes that the market will change faster as more plug-and-play solutions become available.

“You need to be out there experimenting,” Jürgensen added. “You need to be experimenting with newsletter formats, with ad formats, with technology, with all of the things you need to be experimenting with. And then when you find out what works, keep innovating.”

Esther Kezia Thorpe

This feature was created as a partnership between Media Voices and Passendo and is republished with kind permission. Listen to their Conversations episode with Media Voice’s Chris Sutcliffe discussing the next steps for publisher email here, or search ‘Media Voices’ wherever you listen to podcasts.