July 2007 - Proceed With Care

E-mail can be one of the most effective weapons in a direct marketer’s arsenal. However, clumsily executed, an e-mail marketing campaign can also be the kiss of death, frustrating and alienating current and would-be customers. The two keys to a great e-mail campaign? Relevance and restraint.

By Jack Gordon

Communicating with customers and prospects by e-mail can be a wonderful way for marketers to boost sales and forge lasting relationships. Your online newsletter or your notifications of special offers may be welcomed and valued.

But an e-mail marketing campaign also can be the kiss of death, prompting recipients to draw a skull-and-crossbones next to your name on their list of “vendors I never want to hear from again.” What’s more, even a mailing that complies with federal CAN-SPAM regulations (for the 2003 Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act) can get you blocked as a spammer by Internet service providers (ISPs) such as Yahoo and AOL.

If you still think of e-mail marketing as nothing more than a cheaper, quicker and sexier alternative to direct mail-assuming that e-mail operates by the same rules but without the expense of paper and postage-you’ll naturally conclude that more is better. That kind of thinking will eventually bring you nothing but grief, according to experts from companies that make a living helping other companies conduct effective e-mail campaigns.

“Long gone are the days when ‘You’ve got mail!’ was exciting,” says Joel Book, director of eMarketing education for Exact Target Email Solutions of Indianapolis, which provides software and services for permission-based e-mail communication. Far from being thrilled to receive yet another e-mail message, most people now look for excuses to delete one without opening it. “The inbox today is the most competitive piece of digital real estate to penetrate,” Book says.

Consumers have become far more protective of their e-mail inboxes than of their postal addresses, agrees Dave Lewis, vice president of market development for e-mailing software supplier StrongMail Systems Inc. of Redwood Shores, Calif. “People hate [what they perceive as] spam more than they hate junk mail,” Lewis says. “Paper junk mail just gets thrown away. Spam somehow strikes closer to home. The disdain for it is more visceral.”

Since spam is in the eye of the beholder, effective e-mail marketing requires far more than mere technical compliance with CAN-SPAM rules. “Most [marketers] understand CAN-SPAM pretty well,” Lewis says. “Subject lines should be truthful, don’t use false headers-they know that. But there’s an assumption that CAN-SPAM compliance equals legitimacy or even that it equals best practices. CAN-SPAM is just the low bar-the bare minimum. You need to go way past that in order to be successful.”

How can direct-response marketers use e-mail to make friends instead of enemies? Expert advice falls into two broad categories: what to send, and who to send it to. Let’s start with the second question first.

Sending an online newsletter or special offers to people who have not agreed to receive them is a quick way to alienate potential buyers, and maybe to have your mailings blocked by major ISPs. The first step is to get permission. How do you identify target readers and persuade them to invite you to correspond?

The best way, experts agree, is through a sign-up form (“Yes, I agree to receive e-mail from Company X”) that is connected to a preferences center on your website. The preferences center allows subscribers to tell you about their particular interests and to volunteer other information that allows you to tailor your mailings for relevance-a key concept, as we’ll see in a moment.

Seize every opportunity to encourage prospects and buyers to sign on to your list, advises Barry Stamos, senior director of strategy for Responsys, a San Francisco e-mail services provider (ESP). For instance, if you send a confirmation or “welcome” message to someone who bought a product from you, include an invitation to sign up for your e-mail program.

The design of your website also can play a key role. Stamos says that only 2 to 4 percent of visitors to e-commerce websites actually buy something, and he insists that marketers make a huge mistake when they let the remaining 96 percent just slip away. “What happens to those leads?” he asks. “Give them an opportunity to join your e-mail list. If even 10 percent of site visitors sign up, that’s huge.”

Stamos cites WineEnthusiast.com and Harley-Davidson Inc. as examples of marketers who “get it.” Offers to sign up for Wine Enthusiast’s “free e-mail alerts” are featured prominently on the home page and in footers on most other pages.

Motorcycle maker Harley-Davidson goes so far as to route traffic from Google keyword searches directly to a sign-up page for its e-mail program. The company knows that “buying a Harley requires more than an immediate web sale,” Stamos says, “so the number-one thing they want to do is get people onto their e-mail list.”

Another best practice that Harley follows to encourage sign-ups: Show them a sample of the newsletter or mailings they’ll get.

Want to fish the Internet for potential newsletter subscribers? The technology for predicting whether a given website visitor will agree to receive particular kinds of information is improving every day, says Matt Wise, CEO of Q Interactive Inc. of Chicago, a company specializing in online lead generation.

For instance, Wise says, if a 27-year-old female visits a website, a pop-up ad can offer a sign-up link for information from diaper maker Pampers. A 65-year-old male visitor to the same site might find a sign-up link for Johnny Walker Scotch.

Whether you are sending an online newsletter or other messages, experts agree that the difference between mailings that are appreciated and those that alienate boils down to two factors: relevance and respect.

Book cites a finding by JupiterResearch that “relevant” e-mail campaigns-meaning mailings that receivers perceive as targeted to their genuine interests-drive nine times more revenue and deliver 18 times more net profit than broadcast e-mailings.

“Respect” has to do mainly with restraint on the marketer’s part. Even a loyal customer probably doesn’t want to hear from you every day. Respectful marketers “only send e-mails when they have a reason to tell [the customer] something,” Book says.

Keeping mailings relevant requires that the marketer customize them for specific audience segments or even for individuals, which is why a “preferences center” is crucial. Analyzing website data-such as abandoned shopping carts-also can provide valuable information.

But there are smart ways and dumb ways to use the data you gather about your audience, warns David Atlas, marketing vice president for Goodmail Systems of Mountain View, Calif., which provides a “certified e-mail” service that guarantees delivery of online messages. A lot of marketers seem to imagine, Atlas says, that people who agree to receive their mailings perceive relevance as “anything having to do with something I once bought.” Wrong.

What does real relevance look like? “One vitamin supplier has figured out that I buy vitamins about every three months,” Atlas says. “Two weeks before I’m due [to go shopping], I get a special-offer message by e-mail. I like that.”

Atlas also is on the e-mail list of a marketer who gets it wrong. “Whenever I buy something, two weeks later this company sends me a coupon for it. Why? I finally stopped opening their e-mails. They’re obviously not using their analytics well.”

The best e-mail marketers look for pertinent information about customers and then use it wisely. Book points to Cold Stone Creamery, which sends coupons for free ice cream to subscribers in time for their birthdays. He also cites the Wild Oats Natural Marketplace, a brick-and-mortar retailer that uses its website’s preferences center to ask about food allergies, lactose intolerance, and other issues that a consumer might have. Wild Oats uses the information to send e-coupons for products likely to be of special interest to the receiver.

Stamos admires an e-mail program by pet-supply retailer Petco Inc. called “Fetch My Sales.” Customers opt in to receive coupons and information about products that especially interest them-such as notifications when those products go on sale. The subscriber thus is not just agreeing to receive mailings, but commanding Petco to “fetch my sales.” The discount coupons a person receives might be for products he specified in the preferences center-or for an item left in an abandoned shopping cart on Petco’s website. The unspoken message, as Stamos puts it: “Remember that Aims puppy formula you almost bought on Tuesday? Well, here’s a special price for it.”

Those are examples of highly relevant “opportunity-based” e-mail marketing efforts-mailings tied to birthdays, holidays, sales, online shopping behavior and other such “trigger” events. But formal online newsletters can be customized and targeted just as effectively.

Book points to Hewlett-Packard’s “HP Technology at Work” newsletter as a good example of how a company can use a preferences center to gather pertinent data about individual subscribers, and then create a segmented newsletter that genuinely delivers on the promise of custom information.

Another favorite is “Lawn Care Update,” from lawn products company Scotts. “You tell Scotts what kind of grass you grow, your zip code and what weed or insect problems you’ve had,” Book explains. Your issue of “Lawn Care Update” then might recommend remedies for problems caused by drought or excess rain, depending on the weather in your area. It will contain warnings about other problems found in your locale-specific weeds, insects or fungus-as well as advice about the concerns that you, yourself, have reported.

What’s more, Book says, Scotts “only sends you the newsletter when they have something to tell you, so it’s not just relevant but respectful. They have built a strong brand affinity with me.”

What about your e-mail campaign? Is it building brand affinity? Or are you annoying the very customers you hope to woo?

Jack Gordon is editor at large for Electronic Retailer magazine. We would appreciate your feedback. To submit comments, please e-mail the magazine at [email protected].


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