In many markets, email has become a more important customer interaction tool than the phone. And for many companies, most of the email sent out is not person-to-person: it's sent in bulk blasts. Email blasting tools and services are evolving at a very rapid pace, with the product definitions blurring (particularly when it comes to the marketing automation category). So let's try to get things straight.

Horizontal blasters

This is the classic bulk email system that sends the same message out to a very wide range of people. If you're the sender, you may call it "lead nurturing." If you're on the receiving end, you may call it spam. Since the CAN SPAM law specifies hefty fines for unsolicited email (and common sense says "don't irritate your prospects and customers"), the first order of business is to make sure that the list you are mailing to has opted in.

Of course, the exact definition of "opting in" is a matter of noisy and endless debate. The core concept is that the recipient has expressed interest in the topic of your email. Fine, but what do you do when there's a new topic that nobody could ever have opted in to? The best strategy here is to put an opt-in appeal for the new topic in all your current email blasts (and of course, liberally sprinkle opt-in offers in your website).

This means, of course, that your CRM system will have to maintain a profile for all leads and contacts of all the horizontal blast topics they're interested in. The CRM system's built-in "opt out" flag should only be used for people who've said "never email me again." The topic interest profile must be a custom field shown as a multi-select pick list, so it doesn't consume too much screen real estate.

For a company of any size, it's critical to do a full two-way integration between the email blaster's "bounce" and "opt-out/interest" tables with the CRM's email address and topic profile fields. Unfortunately, this is only partly available off the shelf. Expect to write some triggers or data-translation code if you have to manage dozens of topics or product areas.

Success of horizontal email campaigns hinges on the quality of the list, and the relevance of the content. The interest tables takes care of relevance... but the quality of your mailing list is trickier. Most purchased lists have very poor yield: the best mailing list in the world is the one you already have. It's the one stored in your CRM system. So groom it and manage it well.

Vertical "drip emails"

Vertical email campaigns are fully automated as well, but they couldn't be a starker contrast to horizontal campaigns. Vertical campaigns are never done to huge groups the way horizontal blasts are. A vertical campaign starts in response to a user action, such as registering on a website or requesting a download. To work effectively, the vertical campaigns should be highly aligned with the specific area of the customer's interest and done in fairly rapid sequence. For example, the first drip email might be sent within a few hours of the prospect's action, followed by emails 2, 4, 6, and 10 days later. In contrast, horizontal blasts may be sent only on a monthly basis.

Consequently, vertical mails never suffer from an opt-in problem: the user explicitly asked to hear more about a topic. Of course, you still need to quickly accommodate opt-out requests, but there's much less worry about irritating prospects.

In your CRM system, the vertical campaigns need to be visible to the sales and support team. They need to know what mails were sent to whom when, and whether they've been opened. If there are specific calls to action within the drip emails (e.g., "download this free plug-in"), these prospect actions need to be shown within the lead and contact record as well (typically as a series of activities whose names make an obvious linkage back to the email).

The vertical campaigns should also stop if there has been a phone or other in-person interaction between your company and the prospect. Part of the magic of drip marketing campaigns is maintaining the illusion of a person-to-person email sequence. You don't want the robot to actually show through.

To make all this work well, you're either going to have to buy one of the fancier marketing automation systems, or do a bunch of integration with your email blaster and website by writing a fair number of triggers for your CRM system.

Customer support

The previous two use cases were focused on marketing and lead cultivation. But ongoing customer support is another huge use of email. And increasingly, these emails are being generated automatically. Again, there's no issue of opting in here. You know the email threads are relevant because they were started by a customer asking for help and are providing real time updates on their case.

There's also not a big problem of the robot showing through. It's now commonplace to have support-bots suggesting workarounds and possible solutions. That said, you need to avoid a cacophony of uncoordinated emails arriving at the customer's inbox. We typically recommend that your support team (and all of their bots) send all emails into the CRM system (using a feature like's email-to-case functionality, or via custom code in other systems) so everyone can see the state of play from the customer's perspective.

There is a gray area here: when you're marketing a new service offering. Even though your customers may all find your offer relevant, solicitations must follow the rules of marketing emails, not support emails.

By keeping all conversations visible to all of your CRM users, you dramatically reduce the likelihood of duplicate or confused messages getting to your customers and prospects. This is one of the most important steps to highly effective CRM, and great customer interactions.