Why email marketing should work, and why it often doesn’t

Email marketing is the first and oldest online marketing strategy. Long before Mark Zuckerberg was even a twinkle in his parents’ eyes, businesses realized that email was a great way to turn contacts into customers.

And, in the more than four decades since the first email marketing campaign, a lot has changed in the marketing world.

Old marketing staples like billboards, radio spots or direct mail seem to be going the way of the dodo – or at least, that’s what many newer businesses seem to believe. Out with the old, and in with the new…and in the world of digital marketing, there’s always something new to try.

So where does this leave email marketing? Since less than 50 percent of businesses are investing in email automation, it seems like most businesses don’t see it as a meaningful way to market their business. 

But are they right? Has email marketing had it’s run?

There are a lot of reasons why email marketing has lost a lot of its appeal, but to determine whether or not email marketing is still viable, let’s take a look at what the data says.

The case for email marketing

With 40+ years of research and data under their belts, most email marketers are quick to tell you that email is the best, most profitable way to market your business online.

And, they’ve got some pretty good stats to back them up.

I mean, Facebook might have over 1.5 billion daily users, but email has over 3.8 billion daily active users. Take a minute to think about that. Most people who use email probably fall between the ages of 15 and 64, and since there are only about 5 billion people on the planet in that age range, that means email has over 75 percent market penetration.

So yeah, your audience might be on Facebook. They might be using Google. Maybe they’re on Baidu. Perhaps you can reach them on Instagram or SnapChat or WhatsApp or Pinterest or TikTok. But where can you guarantee that your audience will be? In their inbox.

Every. Single. Day.

To make things even better, people don’t just check their email on a daily basis. You probably check your email over a dozen times a day…and in all sorts of weird places.

  • 54 percent check while in bed
  • 69 percent check while watching television
  • 32 percent check while eating dinner
  • 14 percent check while they’re driving
  • 6 percent check at formal events like graduations or weddings
  • 18 percent check during the middle of conversations
  • 43 percent check on the toilet
  • 34 percent check while they’re walking
  • 32 percent check on their work commute

The best part, though, is that people not only check their email everywhere, they also like getting email marketing.

Don’t believe me? Almost three-fourths of people prefer to hear from businesses via email

So, unlike most online marketing channels, people actually want to be marketed to via email. But if that’s the case, why do most marketers seem to believe that email marketing is dead?

The case against email marketing

Between its unparalleled market penetration and the fact that people seem to prefer email marketing, you’d think that email marketing would be a home run for most businesses. However, as mentioned above, the majority of businesses don’t put a priority on it.

Are they just wrong?

Although email certainly seems like an incredible marketing channel, it does pose some challenges. For email marketing, the biggest problem just might be oversaturation.

Whenever a marketing channel offers as much opportunity as email marketing does, people quickly try to milk whatever they can out of it. The longer that marketing channel is around, the more people jump on board and the more saturated the channel becomes.

Give businesses 40+ years to exploit a marketing channel as powerful as email, and the competition for a user’s attention becomes almost overwhelmingly fierce.

For example, Radicati ran a study on email burden and found that, on average, an office worker receives 126 emails a day. Thanks to spam blockers, 30 of those emails never made it to the inbox, but that still left study participants with a whopping 96 emails to sort through.

Say what you want about direct mail, but when was the last time you had to sort through 96 letters, every day? That sort of volume is simply overwhelming.

People get emails from friends, from family, from co-workers, from their boss and that Nigerian prince in need. But what do they mostly get? Email marketing. Lots and lots of email marketing, and most of it, unfortunately, is unhelpful, uninteresting or unwanted.

As a result, most of us think email marketing is annoying, which is ironic considering that we all intentionally sign up for email marketing from time-to-time.

So what gives? People say they want email marketing, but hate the marketing emails they get? No wonder so many marketers and business owners believe that email marketing doesn’t work!

What’s going on?

On paper, email marketing should work. In practice, however, it doesn’t actually deliver the results businesses need, which is probably why so many companies choose not to invest in it.

But is that a problem with the channel itself? Or the execution?

When you get right down to it, people just don’t like marketing in general. You might be a big fan of Facebook, but if we’re being honest, the average CTR for Facebook Ads isn’t all that great. Paid search might have better clickthrough rates than Facebook, but that’s largely because most people don’t recognize text ads as ads. Amongst the 42.5 percent who know what text ads actually are, 41 percent refuse to click on them.

Regardless of the channel, most people are sick and tired of irritating, irrelevant marketing content. They want to be able to control what content they get, where they get it and when they have to deal with it…which is probably why most people say they prefer email marketing content.

The reason why email marketing doesn’t work for most businesses, then, isn’t a problem with the channel itself. It’s the fact that businesses don’t know how to use the channel effectively.

When businesses actually take the time to figure out an effective email marketing strategy, the results are mind-blowing. For example, in my experience, the average ROI for this kind of campaign tends to hover around 40x. That’s $40 in revenue for every $1 of investment. A good email is far more likely to produce a click than a Tweet. Smart email marketing is much more efficient than Facebook advertising.

Do it right, and email marketing can be a slam dunk marketing channel. The only problem is, most businesses don’t know how to use email marketing effectively.

Will email marketing work for you?

So who should you believe? The email marketers who thump their chests and say “email marketing is the best, most profitable online marketing channel”? Or the countless business owners and marketers who believe that “email marketing is dead”?

Should you invest in email marketing?

Based on the data, both sides of the email marketing debate are right…and both sides are wrong. Yes, you can get great results from email marketing, but only if you have the right strategy and are willing to invest the necessary time, energy and money.

In that respect, email marketing really isn’t all that different from any other marketing channel.

So, when it comes to email marketing, the question shouldn’t be, “does email marketing work?” Instead, the question you should be asking yourself is, “am I willing to put in the work?”

If the answer is “no,” then email marketing probably won’t work for you. If the answer is “yes,” then email marketing will probably be a fantastic marketing channel for your business. It’ll probably take time and there will almost certainly be a learning curve, but the potential is there…if you’re willing to do the work.


As marketers, we’re all looking for easy wins, so it’s easy to focus on the shiny new online marketing channels that are constantly appearing. However, there’s something to be said for the older, more established channels.

Email marketing might not be the sexiest way to promote your business, but if you’re willing to put in the time and effort, it can be one of the steadiest, most profitable ways to grow.

The data is out there, and if one thing’s for certain, it’s that companies who really invest in email marketing get great results. Those who don’t – or only make a token effort – end up frustrating and alienating their customers.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land. Staff authors are listed here.

About The Author

Jacob is passionate entrepreneur on a mission to grow businesses using PPC & CRO. As the Founder & CEO of Disruptive Advertising, Jacob has developed an award-winning and world-class organization that has now helped over 2,000 businesses grow their online revenue. Connect with him on Twitter.

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