Is email still necessary?

It certainly is to a marketing and PR software firm that just spent $169 million to buy an email marketing company.

Why is a company associated with social media in the PR/marketing field buying an email marketing software provider?

Haven’t social media gurus trumpeted email’s death? Perhaps so, but Vocus says the reports of email’s death are greatly exaggerated.

Last month, the firm announced it had spent $169 million—$91 million of that in cash—on iContact, a maker of email marketing software.

The importance of email in marketing has been a longstanding internal debate within Vocus, says Bill Wagner, the company’s chief operating officer. Wagner says he’s even found himself on the side of thinking email’s on its way out, but “the data just doesn’t support it,” he says. “I know it’s very in vogue to talk about the demise of email, but it’s just not borne out in the data.”

That comes in contrast with some executives who want to do away with email.

In November, French technology firm Atos announced a new policy: zero emails. CEO Thierry Britton told The Wall Street Journal that email creates too much clutter and that he hadn’t sent an email message in three years.

Britton wasn’t the first to announce the death of email, and he certainly won’t be the last.

Vocus says email is still a part of the communications mix and an important element of its strategy. In a video about the deal, Vocus CEO Rick Rudman explains that his company “has really gone out and tried to put together the pieces of an all-in-one marketing suite.”

Email still matters

One study in particular that proves email’s continued relevance is one published by Ad-ology, Wagner says, which examined where small-business owners were going to increase their marketing spending in the next few years. As one might expect, social media was No. 1, but the next biggest area was email, which was ranked above websites and search engine optimization.

Wagner says Vocus isn’t interested in pitting different forms of communication against one another. “We really don’t see it as one or the other. It’s not email or social. We don’t want to sell email per se; we want to sell a suite.”

And email fits into the suite by having a different purpose from SEO or some forms of social media.

“Those things are great for identifying people and interacting with people that you didn’t know,” Wagner says. “Eventually, once [customers] opt in—once they become people you know—email is clearly the most effective way to reach them.”

He says companies such as Groupon, which does plenty of email marketing, have proven that.

Wagner concedes that at its worst, email can be just clutter, but at its best, he says, it creates connections with customers that feel more personal than a tweet. At the very least, someone who signs up for an email list is more likely to see that email than they would a post in a Facebook feed. Most people just don’t stay on social media sites all day.

“We believe that most consumers want to receive content more than one way,” he says.

Shifting Vocus

Vocus’ acquisition of iContact is just the latest in a string of properties the company has bought up, starting with PRWeb in 2006. Since then, the company has acquired Help a Reporter Out, North Social, Engine 140, and a bevy of other properties.

As the company has picked up these PR entities, Wagner says its leaders have noticed that PR people weren’t in the majority of their users. More than half the users of HARO and PRWeb were small-business owners, he says. The second-largest group was made up of marketers.

“The lines between PR and marketing continue to blur,” he says. “The digital transformation of the last few years, and social media have really accelerated that.”

The company has been working the past few years to build a suite of tools specifically for small-business owners or marketers in small business. And, as Rudman points out in the iContact video, that suite needs to be all-inclusive.

“It’s got to be really simple and really easy to use,” says Wagner. “They’re not marketing professionals. They’re working on trying to grow their business.”

Putting it all together

With its huge investment in iContact, Vocus is probably finished—at least for a while—with adding components to its suite. “We have a great set of ingredients,” Wagner says. “Now we want to make sure they’re working together.”

Ultimately, Vocus aims to enable its customers to build campaigns across channels—social media, search engines, email, and their websites.

That doesn’t mean things are automatically going to change for iContact customers, however. Wagner says those customers will still have the same email services, though they will get offers from Vocus for the company’s more robust suite of marketing tools.

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