Email Advertising Gets an "F"

By Eileen Feretic  |  Posted Monday, May 21, 2012 17:05 PM

By Samuel Greengard

Online marketing is all about getting the right message to the right person at the right time. Yet, despite all the blather about big data and contextual marketing, the sad reality is that very few companies succeed ... and most fail miserably.

I'd venture to guess that 90 percent of the email marketing messages I receive--from companies I do business with, no less--are so off-target that they're completely laughable. I've written before about how supermarket chains Safeway and Albertson's send a weekly blast featuring products I never buy, even though they have a record of everything I've purchased in the past. The most glaring example is meat, which I don't recall buying in well over a decade.

Meanwhile, clothing retailers send me with ads for women's clothing, despite the fact I don't buy or wear women's clothing.

But the worst offender could be United Airlines. At the top of the email message it says: "United Specials for Samuel Greengard." Unfortunately, the latest message I received included flight specials from nearly 100 cities, including Boise, Colorado Springs, Hobbs, Missoula and Reno. The ad doesn't contain a single flight originating or ending in Portland, Oregon, which is where I live.

Why attempt to give the appearance of personalizing an ad when, in fact, there's absolutely no attempt to do so?

Amazon seems to be the only company capable of sending email ads that have some degree of relevance. Although its system isn't foolproof--especially if multiple people use the same computer account--at least it's in the right quadrant of the universe.

You would think that by now other retailers would have gotten the idea that Amazon's contextual advertising system works reasonably well. The company earned $13.8 billion in the last quarter alone. It has already killed off Borders, and it now has Barnes and Noble, Best Buy and others reeling.

A steady barrage of irrelevant email ads isn't just annoying, it's maddening. In an era that requires companies to differentiate themselves and break through the clutter, almost every retailer I do business with is merely generating more clutter. Memo to marketing departments: You're training consumers to tune out and ignore your ads.

Give companies nuclear-powered advertising tools and they manage to blow themselves up.