Email Marketing Success Lessons from the Pandemic

By Mark Gibson

Email quickly emerged as an unsung hero during the pandemic. Branch availability and safety protocols changed almost daily. Government stimulus program rules changed weekly. No customer communication vehicle was as timely or cost-effective as email. But how else did bank marketers successfully deploy email, and what enduring lessons can be learned? Finally, for those who are revisiting which email system to use, what can they learn from their peers in terms of must-have functionality and pitfalls to avoid?
More pandemic lessons: Mark Gibson on what bank marketers learned, and Doug Wilber on social media compliance in the era of Covid-19.

Most successful uses

Bank marketers have an eternal debate regarding sales versus service. This debate carries over into the optimal use of email communication. Community banks often fall on the side of service, emphasizes Jamie Conaghan, CFMP, vice president of marketing, Main Street Bank of Marlborough, Massachusetts.

“We are a relationship bank, so our email is relationship based,” Conaghan says. “We use it to establish trust and add value to our customers. We offer helpful information they can use and benefit from.” Jamie went on to say, whether it is fraud education, holiday hours notification or an invitation to a virtual seminar on HR recruiting, email is a very popular and effective medium.

Other community banks and larger institutions come down on the side of sales, such as Chad Murray, SVP marketing of Think Mutual Bank. “Email is our second most important connection point with customers, after personal interaction,” Murray says.

“Of course, we use it for service announcements, but we have found it rivals direct mail for effectiveness in targeted offers to our current customers.” He adds that the bank mixes traditional product offers with a more educational approaches such as ‘Five things to consider when financing your next car,’ with an offer to apply button at the bottom. Murray notes that email allows for much smaller quantities and more specific and relevant messaging than any other medium, helping to build relevance and engagement with customers.

Murray also relayed an important service example. “When we introduced our new online banking platform, email was critical,” he says “We had a general version that most people received, then for specific segments who used a particular function, we could do a very targeted message about what they were going to experience. Email is so much more flexible and targeted, and its readership is comparable to direct mail.”

Larger banks are often lucky to have deeper internal resources to invest in both service and sales programs.

“We look at every opportunity to engage with our customers, and email is a great tool for that,” says Michael Wallach, SVP and head of performance marketing and analytics at Atlantic Union Bank in Richmond, Virginia.

“Whether it is educating them about our digital options, or reminding them of our full capabilities, it is an awareness maintenance game. You want to be in front of them periodically so when they have a need they think of you.” He adds that the bank has found customer onboarding to be a great application for email, since you can set up campaigns to tailor the treatment to the specific situation of each person.

“For instance, if a person has signed up for mobile banking, but hasn’t activated their debit card, you can personalize the message which is both more relevant and effective.”

Pitfalls to avoid

Each of these marketers is unanimous in support for email as an important tool, but they did offer three big pieces of advice:

Contact Management–All three bankers raised this as the biggest item. “You need to be careful about cluttering up the inbox,” Murray adds “Try to find the right balance between what is most relevant to talk with your customers about as well as the right frequency so you don’t drive up your unsubscribe rate.”

Wallach agrees and offers up the RRF principle.

“Be careful about recency, relevance and frequency,” he says “You want a system that can manage those so you don’t drive customers to either ignore your message or, worse yet, opt out of receiving them.” Wallach adds that you should try to rotate creative, take rest periods, and use data to try to be as relevant as possible. “Ideally, the client should decide the frequency and content of your message.”

Data integrity—This is a challenge for most banks. “What is the data, is it accurate, is it up to date, and where does it sit and how do you pull it into the system?” asks Conaghan. “You have to have a process in place. We pull from our core and import into ClickRSVP and they scrub it against any previous opt-outs, but we still have to manage it.”

Wallach adds: “No matter what system you use, your team is responsible for data quality. ‘Garbage in, garbage out’ is no truer than with email marketing.”

CAN-SPAM Management—As with any email, you want to fully understand and manage your programs to comply with CAN-SPAM. Violations can be serious and costly. That is one of the reasons all three institutions surveyed restrict their programs to customers or prospects who have opted in to receive information.

Selecting the right system

The group agreed that there are three ‘buckets’ of email systems or service providers: low-cost software platforms, dedicated email service providers and marketing automation platforms (MAP). Two of our bankers used service providers and one used marketing automation.

One of the bankers used a bank-specific email service provider (ClickRSVP), while another used an outsourced model (Syntropy). The advantages to this approach were: ability to manage with a small internal staff, ability to get complete reporting, and the assurance of having a compliant solution. “We have the ability to customize and personalize the message, and we can see who has viewed and clicked,” Conaghan says.

Murray adds: “We also outsource almost all our data work, targeting, segmentation and fulfillment because it’s more commoditized and can be challenging to create internal competency for the work. We focus our internal resources on brand management and creative development–where we think the differentiation is.”

When considering MAP systems, three of the top choices are Marketo, Pardot and Hubspot. Wallach at Atlantic Union deployed Hubspot about a year ago. His choice was guided by the easy drag and drop UI, solid analytics and default preference center functionality. Wallach also shared that, even though these systems can be used by a small staff, “you need to have your data house in order with a decent view of customer, product, and transaction data points. And, to be successful you need a team member who is a quant type of marketer with a direct response mindset.”

Pulling it all together

No matter what type of system you use, some common lessons came through:

Engagement—There is no better tool (except in-person banker contact) for staying in touch with your customers, so be sure to invest the time and resources to have an ongoing relationship and education program in place.

Contact management—Be sure you are putting controls in place in terms of how often you contact your customers and how relevant the message is. Otherwise, you could end up ruining a good thing, upsetting your best customers and forcing them to opt out.

Focus—A common theme from our bankers was focusing on a few specific programs or applications that worked rather than spreading resources too thin. Whether it was Jamie’s education and seminar program, Chad’s predictive cross-sell program or Mike’s ‘primacy and onboarding,’ focus on what works and selectively test.

Data management—No matter what type of system you use, or what size your team is, ensure the names and email addresses are correct, that preferences and opt-outs are managed effectively, and that measurement and reporting is occurring. Much of this you simply can’t outsource and need to have the knowledge and capability to do internally.

‘Know thyself’—When selecting a system, be realistic about your team’s capabilities and bandwidth, as well as what you really want the system to do. Otherwise, you may end up with a ‘Ferrari parked in the garage.’

Mark Gibson is senior consultant at Capital Performance Group, a strategic consulting firm that provides advisory, planning, analytic and project management services to the financial services industry. He can also be reached on LinkedIn.