Break Through the E-Mail Clutter

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We all have had the experience of leaving the office for a few days only to return to the cheerful greeting of, "Welcome, you have 300 new e-mail messages!"


Chances are that the majority of these e-mails are from direct marketers. Which of these e-mails do you open, which do you read and to which do you respond? What distinguishes the e-mails you respond to from the rest, and why are some deleted immediately?


According to Forrester Research, Cambridge, MA, the volume of e-mail marketing messages is steadily rising, and by 2004, the average household will receive nine e-mail marketing messages each day.


Direct marketers have recognized e-mail marketing's value and have quickly integrated e-mail into their business strategies. According to eMarketer, New York, the average e-mail click-through rate has held near 11.5 percent, notably higher than direct mail's rate of 1.5 percent and the 0.5 percentage rate banner ads receive. But will the clutter of too many e-mail marketing attempts hinder its success?


Initially seen as a fresh and innovative way to communicate company messages, e-mail marketing has quickly become more strategic. Companies see success as a direct result of their e-mail efforts. Customer response rates have steadily increased, establishing e-mail as a credible and highly favored tool.


E-mail marketing also provides companies with quick responses and survey turnaround time, comprehensive tracking capabilities and an inexpensive, effective way to reach customers. Jupiter Communications, New York, reports that the cost of sending e-mail is a penny to 25 cents each, and they are opened and answered in an average of two days.


Even with these benefits, marketers still face challenges when aiming to increase response rates.


Some industry watchers think the top challenge is desensitization. Consumers are bombarded with so many TV commercials, billboards, radio commercials and the like that things get lost. The same is happening with e-mail. Consumers receive so many e-mail marketing pitches that it is harder for messages to stand out. Most e-mails simply get tossed out.


Other critics think e-mail has simply reached the maturity stage. It is now a regular part of our personal and business lives, and we want it to work as efficiently as possible. Just as people weed out the mail and telephone calls they receive, they do the same with e-mail.


How will your company break through the clutter so that your e-mail is among the few actually read? There are several ways to improve the chances that your company's e-mail is seen and generates a response.


First, companies can partner with rich media providers, such as those offering multimedia and streaming audio and video functions, to increase their chances of capturing the recipient's attention. Rich media is still a relatively new and innovative addition to the e-mail world. Audio and visual components add greater depth to e-mail messages.


Companies also may consider the time of day, the day of the week and the domain to which e-mails are sent. Most businesspeople check their e-mail first thing in the morning, so e-mails sent the night before or in the early morning have a greater chance of being read and responded to than those sent late in the day. Also, people tend to be more attentive to e-mail sent early in the week, instead of closer to the weekend.


Finally, the most strategic and promising method of increasing e-mail response rates is tailoring messages for each customer and offering value not found elsewhere. The more relevant and personalized a message is to an individual, the greater the chances are that he will open it. E-mail must serve a greater purpose than simply reinforcing what customers can get on a company's Web site or offline.


With their e-mail campaigns, companies must return to one of the fundamental principles of direct marketing: targeting.


E-mail marketers will always receive the highest response rates when their e-mails are relevant to readers. Therefore, marketers must send e-mail to users who have signed up to receive regular e-mail updates, or they must carefully choose their audiences. After the appropriate audience is chosen, marketers must tailor and personalize the information users receive.


This personalization may be marketer-driven, in which the marketer asks for specific demographic and personal interest information at the time of sign-up; end-user driven, in which the user chooses the information he would like to receive; or derived by observing click-through and purchasing patterns. Whatever the method, marketers must understand that targeting and personalizing e-mail are the keys to their response rate success.


• Tom Detmer is president and chief operating officer at 24/7 Media, New York. Reach him at tom.detmer@247media.com.
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