person placing a letter in a mailbox
Email is one of the oldest forms of online marketing — and is still one of the most effective PHOTO: Annie Spratt

If you’ve spent any time as a marketer, you’re familiar with the numbers that show email is among the best ROI tools at your disposal. You’ve probably also read just as many hot takes pronouncing the death of email at the hands of social media (or apps or whatever other new tech business model has come down the pike).

I’m not going to waste your time with that sort of debate. I’ll just cut to the chase: email’s not dead. In fact, quite the opposite — non-spam email message volume is higher than it’s ever been.

Ironically, some of the chief drivers of that continuing growth in email are its very “slayers”: social platforms and other apps. (By most measures, Facebook is actually the single largest sender of email in the world.) Their use of email to deliver notifications, onboarding and reengagement messages, and the like are among their most impactful growth surfaces.

Are these businesses using email to acquire subscriber lists? To tout their latest 10 percent off sale or promote new products for the fall season? No. That sort of classic campaign marketing has a place in many marketing mixes. But it’s not the kind of email sent by Twitter, Pinterest, Uber, or so many other growth-driven businesses.

Do these famous examples of growth pioneers even do “email marketing?” To be honest, I’m not sure that distinction matters any more than the number of angels who can dance on the head of a pin. But they’ve clearly proven that email remains a powerful, adaptable tool — and one that’s essential to the growth marketer’s toolkit. Let’s take a step back to understand why.

Email Is the Original Growth Hack

It’s easy to forget how email helped pioneer the foundational elements of today’s growth marketing.

  • In 1978, Gary Thuerk of Digital Equipment Corp. thought of sending an email blast over the Arpanet to 400 recipients to promote his employer’s mainframe computer hardware. His action was very controversial — it’s often called the first instance of email spam — but its performance, moving $13 million in product (in 1978 dollars), showed email’s potential as a commercial channel
  • In 1996, Hotmail had 20,000 users. To grow that base, it came up with one of the earliest growth hacks in the history of the web, though Sean Ellis wouldn’t coin the term “growth hacking” for another 14 years. Hotmail added a tagline at the end of each existing user’s outbound email: “Get Your Free Email At Hotmail.” Recipients clicked through to set up their own accounts, and Hotmail captured 1,000,000 users in just six months. Dropbox wasn’t the first to hack growth with viral referrals, in other words
  • In about 2004, AOL had begun to relay recipient feedback to email service providers, including spam complaints. Marketers soon realized they could use the data from that feedback loop as a metric for testing and fine-tuning their campaigns, foreshadowing the experimentation vital to growth hacking
  • Email marketers are a pretty pragmatic, empirical bunch. Techniques like A/B testing, personalization, predictive analytics, machine learning and more have been spearheaded by them, usually long before they’re adopted in other channels

Email Remains King of the Marketing Mountain

Email marketing has grown more effective and widespread over the years. According to one recent study, nine out of 10 marketers in North America use it; another found nearly every marketer in healthcare, pharma and hospitality depends on email, as well as 96 percent of nonprofits, 94 percent of commercial insurers, 93 percent of media firms and 90 percent of B2B companies.

And there’s more evidence that email works, from share of revenue generated by email (it’s 21 percent at last count) to stratospheric ROI figures (seriously crazy numbers like 3,800 percent to 4,200 percent.)

So it’s easy to understand why a recent survey found 58 percent of marketers intended to increase email marketing in 2017, a higher level of intention than for any other channel. It’s good to be king.

Email’s a Near-Perfect Growth Tool

With numbers like these, it's clear that growth marketers should learn from their more traditional-minded peers. Growth teams’ fast-moving and experimentation-driven approach makes email an almost perfect canvas for their needs. Just consider:

  • Email is accessible on just about every piece of technology. From phones to computers, voice recognition devices to smart watches, email is there
  • Email has permanency, with many users keeping important receipts, confirmation messages and notifications that they may want to refer back to in their inboxes
  • Email gives growth teams a flexible canvas and palette that’s not just great for creativity, but also a platform for endless experimentation
  • Email’s metrics and immediacy delivers real-time insight into what works and what doesn’t
  • Email is a natural platform for continuous split testing of multiple tactics and strategies
  • Email is relatively low cost, so experimentation doesn’t have to devour big resources or budget.

7 New Rules for Hacking Growth With Email

The best examples of emails from growth-driven SaaS companies are driven almost exclusively by their users’ on-site and in-app behaviors. That distinction is a big part of what separates growth teams’ email from the rest of the email marketing crowd.

1. Think One-to-One

Pinterest, a star of growth-driven marketing, moved to use these one-to-one messages exclusively last year. It sends these emails based entirely on analyses of user behavior, expressed interests and other data points. That makes sense: as the company’s growth team has said, Pinterest is an extremely personalized platform, so its emails need to be as well.

2. Extend the App to the Inbox

Zillow has also described its approach to email as an extension of its core product, rather than just one more form of advertising and demand generation. Extending a user’s experience from an app to their inbox in the form of email notifications and other product-generated messages requires understanding what specific user actions in your app increase conversions (or decrease churn). That’s exactly the kind of growth hack that turns a traditional channel into a game-changer.

3. Optimize Onboarding for Conversion

When Wistia, a video hosting company, worked to optimize its user conversion, the team realized they were making way too many assumptions about what users wanted during the onboarding process. By relentlessly experimenting with the effects email copy (and subject lines, and CTAs, and …) had on user behaviors, they delivered a 350 percent lift in paid conversions.

4. Persist and Analyze

Ambition markets employee productivity software, and launched a cold email campaign to 578 total prospects and only drew six responses. A failure, right? Yet by following up the initial drop with seven more emails over a six-week campaign, Ambition eventually netted an additional 67 hot leads. By varying sending times, value messaging and more, they captured insights and honed their campaign to the point that the final email was pulling just as well as the earliest ones.

5. Use Re-targeting

You can collect great behavioral data on what your audience really wants, then put the right message or offer in their inbox. Where’s that data coming from? Track subscribers’ behavior on other sites or each time they visit your own. When a logged-in user at Airbnb views a listing but doesn’t rent, it triggers an email with more info about the listing they just browsed, as well as information on rentals in the same area and price range.

6. Test Engagement Drivers

Bizable, like many other SaaS companies, sent out “request a demo” emails to little response. But then it mixed things up by testing different tactics to drive recipients to try the demo, including a free marketing analytics assessment, a $25 gift card and a crowd-sourcing activity that involved watching a video. As their head of marketing put it, “We were very reluctant to try the ‘incentive’ email at first. It felt too spammy.” But the empirical evidence showed it was the best performer in the pack.

7. Don’t Be a Spammer

While we can appreciate the way Gary Thuerk’s 1978 “experiment” changed email, spam is a zero-sum game.

There are far too many examples of how growth hacking works in email marketing to cover in a single column. I’ll just leave you with this fact: of all the channels available to a growth marketer, one of the longest-lived is also the ripest for innovation and superior results.

Editor's Note: Josh will be sharing more of his thoughts on growth marketing at CMSWire's DX Summit, taking place Nov. 13 to Nov. 15 in Chicago.