E-Mail Your Customers Judiciously

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There are many obvious similarities between traditional direct mail and electronic mail. But there also are some differences that are not so obvious, some of which can prove to be real pitfalls. One such area is the frequency with which we solicit our customers.

We all know the drill: It's the end of the quarter. Things aren't looking so rosy, so we scramble to drop an offer in the mail and milk that customer base just one more time. So what if we've already mailed them three offers this month?

And when e-mail became a viable marketing tool, it looked even more promising than snail mail. Not only is it cheaper than direct mail, it's practically free -- but it also takes much less time to implement and much less time to get results. So sending an e-mail blast every time you need to jump-start your revenues is a good idea, right? Wrong.

What's different about e-mail is that, unlike the Paper Age in which marketers were in charge, in the Digital Age, consumers are in charge. Response now comes not only in the form of orders, but also in the form of messages saying "unsubscribe me from your mailing list." And once that unsubscribe message comes through, you cannot solicit that customer again.

The difference is not trivial: With direct mail, the cost of mailing the wrong person is less than a dollar -- the cost of postage, printing and production. With e-mail, the cost of mailing the wrong person is the lifetime value of that customer, if he unsubscribes. This is especially true in consumer marketing but applies to business-to-business as well. Once the customer asks to be removed from your list, you've lost him.

Don't lose customers in the Digital Age because of bad habits you acquired from using traditional direct mail. You now have to be much more mindful of the tenuous relationship you have with your customers because it's much easier for them to terminate the relationship. Here are some tips:

* Consider creating a periodic e-mail newsletter to your customers, say, monthly. In each issue, offer valuable information in addition to sales pitches. Customers resent it when you talk to them only when you're trying to sell them something.

Offering them valuable content on a monthly basis not only helps build relationships, but also results in fewer unsubscribes because they know that they'll get only one message a month, instead of leaving the door open for unlimited spam.

* Create a place on your Web site where customers and prospects can subscribe or unsubscribe at anytime. Just having such a place available reduces unsubscribes by 40 percent according to some studies, because people are more willing to stay on your list when they know they can get off anytime they want. Make this page easy to find on your site and publish your company's privacy statement on it.

* In every company, there is someone (usually in sales) who wants to spam the hell out your customers any chance he gets to make a quick buck. This person is your enemy. He will destroy the customer relationships you have so carefully nurtured. To him, the "lifetime" in lifetime value means between now and the end of the quarter.

You must be the advocate for your customers and defend their interests to higher management. Unfortunately, you won't always win.

* How much e-mail is too much? One useful data point is to monitor the number of positive responses after each promotion and compare them to the number of customers who unsubscribe. If the latter starts trending upward over time, maybe you're wearing out your welcome.

E-mail is a viable and powerful marketing medium. It can help you build and maintain customer relationships in a way that was prohibitively expensive with traditional media just a few years ago. Use it, but use it judiciously.

Joe Torre is a Silicon Valley-based Internet direct marketing consultant. His e-mail is J_Torre@Yahoo.com.

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