Commercial E-Mail: Change the Rules

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The powers that be are expanding their war on spam. For the general public and legitimate marketers as well, that's good. But as the battles rage, it also means there's an increasing chance of friendly fire.


Take the software and online service industries. Microsoft and Yahoo both are working on anti-spam technologies to protect their millions of users. Smaller firms are also taking aim. The Radicati Group, a Palo Alto, CA, research firm, estimates that $979 million worth of spam-fighting software will be sold this year, with the total reaching $1.7 billion by 2008. Certainly some of these solutions also will restrict the flow of e-mail from conscientious advertisers.


On another front, recent studies report that Internet service providers incorrectly block or filter a significant portion of responsible commercial e-mail along with spam. And a U.S. district court recently ruled that the University of Texas has the right to use filters to block spam, even if the practice prevents solicitations from law-abiding firms.


Regardless of how you feel about spam, one thing is certain: scrupulous companies will find it increasingly harder to initiate, grow and benefit from broad-based e-mail campaigns. What's a marketer to do?


Tailored message. The day has come for Web-based customer relationships to undergo a rules change. Dialogue needs to be initiated not by the marketer, but by the consumer. Give people a reason to raise their hands, identifying themselves as willing and interested in a relationship. Ask not whether you can talk to your prospect; ask your prospect whether he wants to talk to you.


Techniques exist that can achieve this very "hand-raising" companies seek. With the right help, marketers can deploy online offers, instant-wins or game experiences that cause people to reach out to a product, service or brand. Best of all, these tools can be used not only to build strong relationships with customers, but also to develop a sophisticated database of their wants, needs and lifestyle, with nary an unwelcome e-mail in the mix.


Let's say you run a series of promotions on your Web site over a 12-month period. The first event or offer is designed strictly to obtain respondent contact information. When properly structured, online promotions of this kind routinely tally 10 percent to 20 percent response rates, far beyond campaigns based on traditional list rentals.


The second wave is designed to elicit further background about the respondent. Does the person enjoy skiing? Jazz? Decorating? By using this data, the third promo can feature skiing graphics, hobby-specific offers and/or other tailored deals. Each succeeding effort adds voluntary information, deepening relationships and building the kind of bond that creates long-term loyalty.


Establishing trust. This is not simply permission-based e-mail. This is a marketing strategy built on reward, driven by interest and characterized by respect for the individual's time and preferences - what good relationships, business or otherwise, are all about.


E-mail agency Quris completed a study that found consumers have an inner circle of 10 to 20 brands with whom they are willing to correspond online. It doesn't matter whether the companies on the list directly compete with you. To have a dialogue with your customer, you have to crack that inner circle. If you are No. 21, you're spam. Intelligent online promotions can do the job.


A lot has to go into the interactive promotional effort. Technology, security, creative design and legal issues have to be executed correctly to foster an experience that grabs a potential customer and keeps him coming back.


When used in this fashion, e-mail takes its rightful place as one component in a larger online relationship. Once you have a database of individuals interested in your product, service or brand, and who provided you with detailed knowledge about their interests and tastes, you can generate dynamic, permission-based e-mail promotions that meet each customer's needs. The married father of two in Cleveland will get a different offer than the 25-year-old single woman in Phoenix, and both offers will be well received.


Interactive promotions also can generate referrals, stimulate retail visits, complete market surveys, almost any marketing need. It's marketing gold and the best way yet to avoid the fallout from the war on spam.


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