Social media marketing continues to garner interest -- and email marketing vendor ExactTarget has results to prove it. Research conducted on behalf of the on-demand software provider indicates that, in 2008, 13 percent of marketers planned to integrate social capabilities with email marketing. In 2009, that figure more than tripled, with 46 percent of marketers expressing a desire to make email more social. The increasing customer interest is clearly what underpins ExactTarget's recent announcement of its Social Forward solution, which allows recipients of email blasts and email promotions to share those messages to their social networks. ExactTarget users can now offer recipients not only the familiar option of forwarding an email to friends, but also the new option of posting those messages on social networks such as Facebook, using technology from online widget specialist ShareThis.
Social Forward wasn't the only ExactTarget news of late. Within days of that announcement, the company revealed that a combination of three venture-capital firms had agreed to provide a hefty round of funds -- $70 million, to be exact, representing "one of the largest venture-capital rounds of investment in the nation this year," according to a statement released by ExactTarget. Having never exercised the option for an initial public offering filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission in December 2007, ExactTarget has now officially "withdrawn its application…to trade on the Nasdaq under the symbol EXTG," according to the statement.
"It's exciting news, especially in these economic times, that they were able to close such a significant amount of capital," says Jeanniey Mullen, founder and executive chairwoman of the Email Experience Council, and executive vice president and chief marketing officer for digital-content specialist Zinio. "They continuously...have reinvented themselves and have invested a lot of money -- and blood, sweat, and tears -- on creating this innovative technology platform that meets the needs of small clients, agencies, and large enterprises."
The significant financial boost will play a role in ExactTarget's stated plans to expand its international presence through the establishment of a global office, the location of which the company has promised it will reveal "in the next 30 days," according to a statement. Mullen applauds the move, noting in particular the fertile European email marketing landscape -- characterized, she says, mostly by small, local providers, and very few successful enterprise vendors other than Acxiom and Epsilon. "Now with [ExactTarget's] continued growth and strength and innovation, the opportunity is wide open for them to make a big impression and gain significant market share," Mullen says.
Forrester analyst Julie Katz contends that, in today's world, it's go global or go home. "If you're not global, you're missing out on a huge oppportunity," Katz says. "Email doesn't exist in a bubble in the U.S."
ExactTarget's new social capabilities, Mullen notes, will likely earn the solution provider a new kind of attention. In fact, the company's social roadmap may have only just begin to unfold. The latest release, according to Scott Roth, ExactTarget's director of product marketing, includes the following new capabilities:
- Direct to Social: The tool provides users with the ability to send emails to customers with embedded icons linking to social networks. If a marketer, for example, is sending out a coupon to her email list, she can allow recipients to click a Facebook link to share the coupon with friends on that service. Upon clicking the link, the customer is directed to a custom landing page, which is where ExactTarget gleans data about that customer.
- ShareThis: Thanks to a partnership with social-sharing widget provider ShareThis, ExactTarget email subscribers now have sharing options to more than 20 social networks.
- Forward to a Friend: The option allows an email recipient to pass along the marketing message via email, and lets ExactTarget track who the email is forwarded to.
"Social Forward…is taking a strong connection [ExactTarget users] are able to make with email subscribers and allow those individuals who are receiving emails to then carry that message forward to a social network of friends," Roth explains. Carrying a message out to a social network, of course, increases the total number of eyes on the campaign or promotional message. "Reach is a big component," Roth says.
"It's absolutely a perfect time for them to get involved in this space," Mullen says. "Every company has to figure out what do with social and how to make it work -- this is going to be a huge hit for them." Interest in social marketing is huge, Mullen notes, citing a packed session on the topic at a recent Shop.org conference. However, she says, "even the largest consumer companies have no idea how to leverage social strategy." Allowing email messages to be shared socially could be a good place to start.
"It is an easy first step for people who might be leery [of getting] into social network marketing," Roth says, adding that users "don't have to have a definitive social strategy" to utilize Social Forward. For companies that might be hesitant to create their own social presence -- a Facebook fan page, for example -- the Direct to Social option essentially empowers consumers to do the heavy lifting, pushing the company out to social sites and propagating the message.
"It makes those companies look really good," Katz says. "Their biggest fans are doing the selling and marketing for them." In addition, the tracking capabilities allow for users to identify the channels that messages are being pushed out to. If customers predominantly use one specific channel -- say, Twitter -- to share a particular marketing message, the marketer may decide to either focus additional efforts on that channel or redistribute resources to other channels (Facebook, LinkedIn) not being reached by consumers' Social Forward activity.
Roth predicts that most marketers will want to integrate social and email just for the sheer numbers that social networks draw. Marketers with more social media maturity will delve deeper with ExactTarget's social capabilities, parsing the data on recipients who merely click on emailed messages versus those who also share them. That level of analysis enables segmentation of greater granularity, and creates a new way of looking at customer segmentation strategies.
"Just because you personally don't open an email doesn't mean that you're not an influential customer," Muller says. "You might be posting it on Twitter and you might have influenced a thousand people to go buy from an email that you didn't even buy from." Katz also underscores the popularity of coupon-sharing, suggesting that the feature will be a compelling draw for consumers.
Roth believes the social aspect has only just begun to percolate. "We have the vision to open up social sharing through as many vehicles as possible," he says. With 70 million more dollars in its pocket, ExactTarget might be able to do just that.
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