Be Selective When Using E-Mail

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E-mail has presented marketers with an efficient, cost-effective channel for spreading their messages to customers.


The channel is so efficient that customers are treading water to keep up with the deluge of e-mail, but a tidal wave is looming.


Forrester Research, Cambridge, MA, predicts that by 2004 more than 200 billion e-mails will clog the arteries of the Internet. Compare that with the mere 2.87 billion credit card mailings (according to BAI Global Inc.) that plagued consumers in 2000, and you get an idea of the disdain with which customers will view junk e-mail in the future.


Customers already review their e-mail with their finger hovering over the delete key. In the future, they will become more selective and will have tools that let them delete unwanted e-mails before they enter their inboxes.


Meanwhile, marketers often treat e-mail as a typical direct marketing channel, with the sole objective being to maximize response. In reality, organizations are attaining enviable response rates at the same time as they are destroying more profits than they are creating.


With e-mail, the objective is not as simple as maximizing response.


The point is to keep people satisfied with their relationships with you so they will be open to receiving your next e-mail while also generating a response. If you fail to see the bigger picture, you will face a diminishing number of customers who will view future e-mails from you.


Consider the following rules.


Respect privacy. It goes without saying that you should get permission before sending your customers any e-mail.


Less obvious areas of privacy also should be considered.


Every e-mail sent to a customer should allow him to opt out of receiving future e-mails. Furthermore, customers should not be required to send e-mails in order to opt out. Some customers have their e-mails forwarded from one address to another, which makes this process difficult to navigate. A better approach is to provide a click through to a Web site where they can enter their e-mail addresses and change their opt-in/opt-out preferences.


It is also important to be careful not to send too many messages in too short a time. Harvard Business School Publishing has a habit of sending me a reminder e-mail two or three weeks after it sends an e-mail solicitation. The reminder says something like, "We wanted to follow up before this special offer closes."


The first time, I found it an interesting approach but irrelevant. I would have purchased it the first time if I wanted it.


The second time, it was mildly annoying.


The third time, it went on my move to the trash folder list. Actually, it went into the "remember to make an example of them in my next article" folder.


Be relevant. Most of your customers do not care that you have a new product, that you have issued a press release or what your weekly specials are.


Your customers do not care about most of the things you sell. They only care about their needs and the things they are in the market to buy - and they do not always make it clear what these are. The only way to be relevant to your customers is to know each of them individually.


Start simple and address your customers by name. It is amazing how many organizations know my name but refuse to use it in e-mail.


On the other hand, I recently received an e-mail from a smart company with which I have a partnership. The e-mail came from the partnership manager with whom I had a relationship. Though it was only a press release, it was from someone I knew and it was addressed to me with Geoff as the greeting, so I read it. Later that day, I noticed that a co-worker had received the same e-mail from a different individual at the same organization. This simple but smart personalization got us both into the e-mail and, even though the content was not high value to us, we were forgiving because it came directly from a person whom we knew.


Target your messages. For holidays, targeting can be easier because most of your customers are in the market for gifts (unless, of course, you wait until the day of the holiday to send the e-mail). At other times, you need to be aware of your customers' buying patterns and to try to make offers that enhance those patterns.


Some customers disregard specials or discounts. Some customers only make purchases within specific categories. Some customers buy frequently while some only buy once or twice a year. Some buy big ticket items, and others buy only low-end items. Mining your database to understand and categorize your customers will help you send only relevant messages to them.


When possible, use HTML. Not all e-mail readers will accept HTML, so you should ask whether they want HTML or flat text e-mail at the time they give you their e-mail addresses. Even simple graphical content can have an enormous effect on response.


Travelocity has found that HTML e-mail can out-pull flat text e-mail by as much as 60 percent.


Be sure not to e-mail customers who already have or use the product you are marketing. Nobody wants to buy the same book, toy, banking service or other product that was bought a month before.


Last year I went to an island resort run by Starwood. One month after returning home, I received a discount coupon for a trip to the same resort. Not only does this clutter the mailbox, but it makes customers wonder why they paid full price for an item that they now can get at a discount.


Add value. If customers find the content of your e-mail to be valuable, they will forgive you if you attempt to sell them something they do not want. This is one of the reasons that free e-mail newsletters are so popular. Customers always want to read the content, even if they do not always find the advertising content valuable.


In the Harvard Business School Publishing example, I would be much more forgiving if the e-mail included a link to a brief white paper containing material valuable to me.


Even if I do not buy what it is selling, I will likely look at its next e-mail to see whether it has content I value.


Build long-term relationships. Companies that think beyond the effectiveness of the current campaign think about the effect their communications will have on customer relationships for years to come.


They also think about how they can support their brands. They ask questions like: Who do we want customers to think we are? The guys with the lowest price? The guys with the lousy graphics? The people who send 10 discount offers every year between Thanksgiving and Christmas?


In other words, do not train your customers to expect something that you do not intend to provide long term (such as a sweepstakes or a discount every time they hear from you). This creates a Pavlovian response from your customers. I recently interviewed the CEO of an e-commerce company who thought that offering a 10 percent discount was the best way to get a response.


His reason?


"Because Amazon sends me a discount after I stop shopping with them for a while, so now I don't even respond to their e-mails until they send me the discount offer."


He was correct. Discounts will generate a better response rate, but they also will condition customers to wait for you to lower your price before buying.


Ask for a response. Though maximizing response cannot be the sole objective of an e-mail, it is still an important part of the goal. Unless some customers open, read and respond to your e-mail, it will never be worth taking the time to market to them.


While e-mail is an effective marketing channel, it is also one that makes it easier than ever to alienate recipients permanently. Companies that place the customer first will make sure that customers receive only valuable information and offers via e-mail, thus keeping the channel open for ongoing communication.


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