Brand Considerations Should Drive E-Mail Practices

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Virtually all brand-name companies understand and comply with the legal requirements around e-mail, and those requirements are easy to meet. E-mail anyone you wish as long as you don't disguise your identity or purpose. Give clear and conspicuous notice of the ability to opt out. Don't e-mail following an opt out without affirmative consent. It goes on.

Many companies also consider the deliverability implications of certain practices and hold themselves to higher standards to increase delivery by requiring permission to e-mail, making signup memorable, providing robust preference options, carefully limiting cadence, targeting content and so on.

However, in setting privacy, permission and sending practices, too few companies fully take into account their desired brand image - a common mistake.

Consider a company I advised in the information and content management business. It was important for the brand to project various attributes and capabilities including trustworthiness, transparency and the company's own ability to manage information. Its e-mail program demonstrated the opposite.

Recipients were given little or no notice before receiving e-mail. Downloading a white paper put recipients on the e-mail list, but no notice of signup was provided. Clicking on an e-mail opt-out link took individuals to an impressive preference page that asked questions about product ownership and gave multiple content choices but hid the opt-out box within the subscription options.

Even worse, data collected by the preference center were not really used to drive e-mail content or cadence because those choices were consistently ignored or overridden by product groups in the company. In short, though the company's e-mails complied with the law and relatively low volume gave it reasonable deliverability, its aggressive and sloppy e-mail practices undercut the brand.

Before you assume that this column is a tirade against libertine e-mail practices, here's an example of a travel company lowering brand and business value through too conservative an approach.

With laudable objectives, the company applied a very cautious interpretation of legal and deliverability requirements to most aspects of its e-mail program. Among other restraints, the company consciously avoided using the full range of data available to enrich customer profiles and personalize campaigns. It also refrained from cross-marketing its rewards program to non-members, including those who would benefit from membership.

The company even avoided including promotional material in its transactional e-mail (i.e., reservation confirmations) to avoid the risk of turning them "commercial."

These restrictions likely do more harm than good. A travel company's best customers - frequent travelers - are not surprised that preferred hotels, car rental agencies and airlines have a lot of information about them. Most are even annoyed if this data are not used to provide their preferred room type, bed size, car model and seat. Frequent travelers prefer getting offers that match their favorite activities and destinations that are appropriate to their award levels.

Likewise, travelers who have not joined a rewards program but would benefit from one are unlikely to resent a well-crafted membership offer. And an attractive HTML reservation confirmation, complete with destination-specific information and offers, is much better aligned with customer preferences and the company's brand than the typical plain text, hard-to-read confirmation e-mail that too many companies still send.

These two examples illustrate that no hard and fast rules exist for optimal e-mail permission, privacy and sending practices. The law, in particular CAN-SPAM, sets a baseline for behavior that all but the most careless marketers (and hardcore spammers) can exceed. Deliverability requirements raise the threshold for acceptable e-mail behavior but leave plenty of room for variation among companies. To repurpose an old proverb, "one brand's meat is another brand's poison."

To align privacy, permission and sending practices with the company's brand and business, companies should follow a series of exercises to evaluate their programs and set the following policies and standards:

• Permission level (opt out versus opt in versus confirmed opt in).

• Notification level (how will you communicate signup?).

• Subscription choice (number of distinct subscriptions, level of customer control).

• Data collection, usage, storage policy.

• Data transparency (clarity regarding sources and uses).

• Appropriate level of segmentation/personalization.

• Appropriate cadence by segment.

• Transactional versus commercial messaging standards.

• Level of coordination and control among business groups and communication streams.

In setting such standards, consider the full range of attributes your brand should convey by customer segment. Here are some illustrative questions and their implications.

• Is the brand "friendly"? If so, your communications should be personal and personable.

• Does the brand represent safety and security? Then share information carefully, if at all (and reduce the level of "friendliness").

• Is your brand innovative/modern? If so your e-mail should use the latest dynamic content and event- or activity-triggered communications.

• Does the company need to seem open and honest? If so, your permission notification needs to be clear and conspicuous, your data practices transparent.

• Is your company/brand viewed as a partner? Then demonstrate that you know the individual recipient, his products, usage and needs.

• Do you expect brand/company loyalty? Show loyalty in return. Recognize and respect your customers through your communications.

The same sorts of questions and implications apply to the company's business drivers. If your products or services are simple and driven by impulse purchasing, then you can support higher e-mail cadence with lower levels of segmentation and personalization.

But if your products are considered purchases linked to other products, your e-mail content must be highly targeted to the individual, with information and communications coordinated across products and sent with lower frequency.

Obviously, other business drivers and brand attributes create further e-mail program imperatives.

If you have not undergone such an exercise to set e-mail practices (and broader communication standards), you should start as soon as possible. Your business and brand will be stronger.

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