Building a Lasting Relationship With Customers Takes Time

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As with the relationships in our lives, marketing relationships take time. Sure, it's great when you can close a sale on the first click from the first e-mail, just as it's wonderful when you hit it off with someone the first time you meet. But how many friendships or sales happen that way?


As marketers, we would do well to remember that getting to know our customers is a step-by-step process. One-shot e-mails are just that: one interaction, one offer, maybe one click through and one shot at closing the sale. Multi-step campaigns, on the other hand, multiply the opportunities to educate and qualify prospects and, in turn, to get to know them. And, of course, to turn prospects into paying customers.


New as it may seem, e-mail marketing has been around long enough that studies have been done of what works and what doesn't. The verdict is that most people won't read e-mail copy that's full of hype. Simply touting your offer is not a high-percentage strategy, especially in your first online communication with a prospect. But if you're not selling, what should you be doing during that important first contact?


Start the dialogue, that's all. There's no formula for successful e-mail copy, but you should give it a voice that rings true. You might even consider signing the e-mail with the name of a real person in your company. Remember that you're starting a relationship. How you communicate and the tone of what you say is at least as important as the content.


Instead of selling, offer prospects a reason to continue the interaction. Arouse their curiosity. Address a fear. Appeal to a need. Tantalize them with the prospect of learning something useful, interesting or profitable. Give them something and promise them more if they'll just answer a question or two or click through to your site.


Don't ask too much, too soon, however.


Interactions turn into relationships when you start to learn about your prospects. At this delicate stage, however, it's a mistake to ask for too much time, attention or information.


If you're placing Web links in an e-mail, limit the number. Too many links can make your message seem intrusive, demanding and just plain fuzzy. People will know if you're simply stuffing leaflets under their electronic windshield wipers. And they won't only throw them away; they'll resent you for it.


The technology exists for placing interactive questions in e-mails. This approach enables you to begin gathering information more quickly and without asking prospects to click through to your Web site. But don't push it. You can start to build a profile with the answers to just a question or two. As a rule of thumb, limit yourself to two to six questions in an e-mail, four to eight at your Web site. Remember, you're developing relationships step by step. At each interaction, you need to gather only enough information to make the next interaction possible and more personal.


Every relationship is unique. The more you get to know each prospect, the more you can customize each interaction based on that knowledge. And the more you must.


You can't start too soon, and you can't let up. Each e-mail in a multistep campaign should be personalized according to everything you've learned about each prospect from previous interactions. Again, the technology exists for doing this - gathering information, building profiles and customizing each message or interaction - automatically.


Integrate your Web site with your personalization strategy. When you persuade people to click through to your Web site, simply dumping them into your home page or your online store can turn them off in a hurry. Instead, customize the entry point. Based on where they clicked through and data you've gathered about them during the course of your relationship, you can greet them with specialized pages containing information or offers tailored to their specific interests. Provide visitors with further opportunities to engage in personal dialogue with your site, allowing you to gather yet more data about them.


Use conditional opt ins to reduce opt outs. The rules of permission marketing require that people are given the choice of opting out of online marketing programs. But smart marketers use the idea of choice to their advantage by offering prospects conditional opt ins. Instead of a simple yes or no, conditional opt ins allow people to choose, for example, what kinds of materials you'll send - e-mails, newsletters, announcements; how often you'll send them; or what specific content, products, or offers you'll send.


By offering conditional opt ins, you allow your prospects to tell you what they want to know about your products or services, and in what form. And conditional opt ins have been shown to reduce opt outs, promote more positive attitudes among prospects and increase the rate of future responses.


Is all this worth the effort?


The numbers say yes. According to the new eMail Marketing Report from research firm eMarketer, opt-in e-mail volume will reach 61.1 billion messages by year-end 2001, and 240 billion by 2003. You can be sure your competitors will be part of the mix, as firms in the United States increase their spending on e-mail ads from $97 million in 1999 to a projected $2 billion in 2003.


And no wonder. By the end of 2002, there will be 135 million e-mail users - 59 percent of U.S. adults and teens. In this landscape, prospects, in the form of e-mail addresses, will be plentiful. But marketing success, as always, will depend on the number of relationships built, not the number of e-mails sent. And relationships that pay off in sales will have to be built, as always, step by step.
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