Email Marketing is Color Blind: A Call for Change

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This article is part of a larger series that focuses on diversity and equity in marketing through the amplification of Black and racially diverse authors. As a company, we are committed to identifying actions we can take in the fight against racism and injustice, and elevating BBIPOC voices is paramount to inspiring change. Follow along and read other posts in this series here.

This post is authored by Dela Quist, Founder and CEO at Alchemy Worx and Touchstone Intelligent Marketing. 

“You look at where you’re going and where you are and it never makes sense, but then you look back at where you’ve been and a pattern seems to emerge.” 

– Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Like many others, email marketing professionals have had a challenging time since the coronavirus epidemic took hold. They’re doing their best to keep up with and bridge swiftly shifting consumer sentiment and changes in our work practices.

Despite, or perhaps influenced by, our overwhelming preoccupation with the pandemic and global lockdown, the Black Lives Matter movement has taken center stage. So much in fact, that most companies are (re)considering their position with regard to their messaging. Several major brands are even undertaking reviews of logos and communications in light of the now-global protests and wider conversations around racial equality.

This change is not entirely altruistic; it is also driven by what seems to be a fundamental shift in consumer attitudes toward businesses. There is plenty of recent evidence that people trust a business more than the government. Whether the issue is animal welfare, the environment, or the systemic prejudice faced by people of color, many look to businesses to take the lead, so to speak, in solving these problems. 

More concerning for marketers, as this slide from a deck we prepared for a client illustrates, this has been accompanied by a clear shift in expectations. 

A fundamental shift in consumer attitudes and how actions matter more than words

Since the arrival of the coronavirus epidemic, consumer regard for brands that understand “ethical marketing” has skyrocketed. However, it comes with a huge caveat. As the graphic above shows, it is no longer enough just to have an ethical position or voice support for an issue. You have to demonstrate that commitment. Today more than ever, actions matter more than words. It doesn’t matter how well-intentioned your statements are; you lie open to accusations of virtue signaling when your brand conspicuously expresses its values without actually taking actions to live by those values.

Email, one of the only channels that makes it easy to express your displeasure with the messenger, poses a particular danger to your brand. People regard messages in their inbox as personal, and are certain to let you know via the unsubscribe or worse, the spam button.

Which brings us back to Black Lives Matter. The protests and outrage sparked by the killing of George Floyd understandably dominate the discussion. But to me, protesting the death of a man at the hands of the police is something almost any person, brand or marketer would willingly sign up for. It makes it easier to look in the mirror and say, “that’s not us.” Or, “Our industry is not racist and neither I nor my colleagues even see color.” (More on that later.)

For me, the more uncomfortable questions are those which address the wider issues: How the systemic lack of opportunity and equality faced by people of color leads to certain incidents, such as we witnessed, which culminated in the tragic death of a man.

Think about it. It was clear from the outset that the police officers involved saw their actions as routine, bystanders were treated as irritants getting in the way of a person going about their job—getting another Black criminal (aren’t they all?) off the streets. So “everyday” even, that calling it murder may almost seem too strong to some. Without that video, many people would instinctively have sided with the police. When I watched it, and I made sure to watch it from beginning to end, the thought that sprang to my mind was, “George Floyd was euthanized!”

Population diversity is an indicator of what our actions say. 

Now this is where things may get a little uncomfortable.

The marketing and advertising industry prides itself on shaping popular culture, pushing boundaries, and influencing perceptions. In fact, if you think about it, our budgets almost entirely fund every “free to consumer” social media platform.

A good example of how we can affect change is to consider the increase in the number of people of color we see in advertising on a daily basis. In fact, if you take the percentage of non-white people in email creative compared to the share of the population, you could even argue that we overdo it. In doing so, might we not have found it easy to look in the mirror and say, “we are not the problem, we can black out our Twitter accounts, go on protest marches or observe Juneteenth—all with a clear conscience?” However well-intended this may be, isn’t this just optics? Isn’t it about looking good, or being performative? Are we not all guilty of the worst kind of virtue signaling?

Let’s dig in a little more and take a look at the following stats relating to ethnic diversity within the advertising and marketing industry. It’s embarrassing.

Here is a look at the makeup of the UK, courtesy of Marketing Week in January 2020.

And these are the US numbers, thanks to ANA’s Diversity Report for the Advertising/Marketing Industry published in November.

For what it’s worth, Blacks in the US comprise approximately 13 percent of the total population. In the UK it is 4 percent.

Frankly, this is unacceptable. No matter how much we might protest, our actions tell the world that Black people aren’t good enough to work alongside us, or signal that white people are better. From a marketing perspective, we chase the Black dollar but are also quite comfortable not having a representative number of Black people work alongside us. It is this mentality of systemic racism, a quiet feeling that white people are better, that can influence a police officer to shoot first when dealing with a Black person and think first when dealing with white folk.

“Not me,” I hear people cry; “I don’t even see color!”

Really?

Maybe that’s the problem. If you don’t see color, then you can’t or won’t notice that everyone of consequence in your department is white, or that everyone at the agency you work with is white, or spot the inherent irony of a whole bunch of white people brainstorming how the brand should position itself with regard to Black Lives Matter.

The inherent problem of “I don’t see color”

When I walk into a room full of white people, I notice. In the same way that any white person walking into a room full of Black people would notice too, but that rarely ever happens in our industry. As far as I am concerned, what people mean when they say they don’t see color is that they are comfortable with the level of color diversity that surrounds them. And that needs to end.

We need to start telling the truth about color. We all notice it, but it’s easy to pretend we don’t when we are surrounded by people who look like us.

I have tried very hard to make sure that no one reading will interpret this as an attack on who or what they are, or feels the need as an individual to be defensive. But that in itself highlights how very complex the issue of diversity is. This, for me, is about raising awareness.

“‘Is it hard?’

‘Not if you have the right attitudes. It’s having the right attitudes that’s hard.’”
– Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

I think we, the email marketing industry, could take a meaningful role in doing something about the lack of diversity around us.

How email marketers can take a meaningful role

There are two reasons the email marketing community is especially well-positioned to act on diversity:

People: Those in email marketing are part of a very strong and nurturing community. I took part in a fun panel at the Email Innovation Summit recently. It was “Family Feud” meets email marketing, and one of the questions was “What do you like about email?” The number one answer by far was the people. And I agree! As part of the community, I believe if we put our minds to it we can collectively make a difference.

Education: Email marketing stands alone in the quality and range of skills entrants will learn and hone. Whether from another industry or straight out of college, anybody joining the space will quickly be given actual responsibility. Ask anyone who has ever worked in email marketing where the time they spent within our space ranks in terms of their career and it is usually at the top or thereabouts. Whether we like it or not, the email department acts as a feeder for other better-funded channels attracted to the superb training and superior skill sets. This makes what we do in attracting Black people into email even more valuable.

Here are a couple of things we can all do:

Let’s stop being comfortable with the idea that “good” Black people are hard to find, or that by working harder to find a Black person to hire you are in some way lowering standards. It never stops us from going the extra mile to hire someone who went to the same institution as you, attends the same church, or made the rowing team in college.

Pay particular attention to entry-level hires. While I can just about tolerate the concept that finding experienced marketers of color may be a (self-inflicted) challenge due to scarcity, I cannot accept that about entry-level or graduate hires. To do so is to imply Black people are inferior. I would also argue that it will be a lot easier and faster to make our diversity numbers less embarrassing, while simultaneously priming the pump, in terms of providing more qualified people of color for more experienced roles in the future.

“The truth knocks on the door and you say, “Go away, I’m looking for the truth,” and so it goes away. Puzzling.”
– Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Recognize and address your prejudices.

Everyone carries some prejudice—myself included. What I have learned to do, and would encourage everyone to also do, is recognize your own prejudice(s)—skin color, accent, school, neighborhood, income, dress sense, tattoos, sexual orientation, height, weight, gender, religion, politics—everyone has at least one. Once you do, make sure every time you are privileged enough to be the one choosing between two or more people for a job, speaking role, network opportunity, or even to sit beside on a bus, ask yourself if your prejudice is the dominant factor in your decision. It is amazing how powerful that pause for thought can be.

You have to be totally honest with yourself, and recognize that what others think is irrelevant. If your prejudice is still the dominant factor on a consistent basis, then shame on you.

I, therefore, challenge the email marketing community to step up. We are where we are, but I would rather we actually take action than spend hours wringing our hands over it. Start noticing!


Dela Quist is founder and CEO of Alchemy Worx and Touchstone Intelligent Marketing, a suite of software products based on a unified proprietary infrastructure that records and analyses all previous campaign data history. He estimates he has clocked up over 20,000 hours thinking about email.

A popular international speaker on all matters email, and his thought-provoking views and lively style regularly receive rave reviews. “Dela always takes a contrarian view that gets the industry talking – and often gets the smartest email folks to rethink their views,” says Loren Macdonald, IBM Watson Customer Engagement Evangelist/Agency Success.

Dela served many years as a member of the UK DMA’s Email Marketing Council. He also served on the executive management group of the IAB, and on the steering committee of Future of European Advertising Stakeholders (FAST).


Visit this page to see more in the series, or check back for our next guest post. 

CM Group is a family of global marketing technology brands including Campaign Monitor, CM Commerce, Delivra, Emma, Liveclicker, Sailthru, and Vuture. By joining together these leading brands, CM Group offers a variety of world-class solutions that can be used by marketers at any level. Headquartered in Nashville, TN, CM Group has United States offices in Indianapolis, Los Angeles, New York City, Pittsburgh and San Francisco, and global offices in Australia, London, New Zealand, and Uruguay. 

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