Bringing Precision to E-Mail Marketing

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With e-mail marketing expected to reach $4.6 billion by 2003, according to eMarketer's recent report, the industry has reached a turning point. As more direct marketers look to the e-mail channel to achieve a range of direct marketing objectives, they must continue to evolve their approach to avoid the impending e-mail glut.

To preserve and improve on the effectiveness of the e-mail channel, marketers must embrace a precision-based approach, taking the permission-based platform a step further and demonstrating to customers that they are committed to focusing on the two-way value of the e-mail channel as a relationship-building tool.

Through precision e-mail marketing, reaching each customer individually, based on his or her specific context and relevant needs, marketers can ensure that the e-mail channel will continue to evolve as a means of cultivating customer relationships and building brand affinity. This involves leveraging e-mail as a response channel, providing your customers with more than targeted offers and offering services and information they cannot find through another marketing medium. By maintaining this level of precision, marketers can ensure that e-mail's tremendous response rates do not suffer the same fate as its postal predecessor.

E-mail's role in the marketing mix has undergone a steady evolution, from its initial function as a one-way broadcast medium to a two-way, targeted and personalized marketing channel. We are all too familiar with e-mail marketing's first stage: a one-way, low-cost broadcast tool for sending out intrusive messages that do not focus on the customer's specific context - in other words, spam.

As more and more marketers jumped on the bandwagon - and the public raised red flags of protest - it became clear that a more responsible set of guidelines was needed, an evolution that laid the groundwork for what Seth Godin has dubbed "permission marketing." Now as marketers look to increase their e-mail marketing budgets significantly, we have reached a similar turning point, where we must evolve our approach and focus on the true value of the e-mail channel: its ability to generate responsible, two-way dialogues between marketers and their customers.

In a recent report titled "The E-Mail Dialogue," Forrester Research outlined a central concern with regard to e-mail's explosive growth: "By 2004, marketers will send more than 200 billion e-mails annually in the United States. Personalized, tightly focused e-mail promotions will be the antidote to spam-filled mailboxes."

Permission marketing made a considerable leap forward by ensuring that marketers establish a level of trust with their target audience and introducing a sense of responsibility, but as opt-in lists continue to grow and are exchanged between various partners, consumers have been inundated with messages that are not directly relevant to their needs and interests.

To avoid list fatigue and to preserve e-mail's tremendous response rates, marketers must cultivate and maintain dialogues that go beyond the initial point of gaining their customers' permission. They must provide information and services that are precisely targeted down to the moment, resulting in relevant, value-added communications. Therefore, in order to achieve the level of precision necessary for customers to view their messages as mail worth opening, e-mail marketers must engage in a full cycle of strategic planning, rapid implementation and comprehensive analytics.

To illustrate the need for these combined elements, consider the following scenario:

An online ticket sales company wants to plan a campaign around a Bruce Springsteen concert series, reaching out to those people who purchased their tickets online. The company has their e-mail and mailing addresses and knows what kind of music or event they are interested in as well as where they will be at a specific time on a specific date, right down to their seat number. The primary goal is to leverage that information to provide a valuable service that will make the customer's experience a better one.

An initial point of contact is made, thanking the customer for purchasing his ticket and gaining permission to engage in a dialogue. However, rather than send a barrage of offers on CDs and other goods, the company offers each customer useful information on the specific event to be attended such as driving directions from home, a seat chart for the stadium and news on previous events. In addition, all responses are carefully routed, with auto-responders and response managers handling each individually to ensure that this golden visit from the customer does not go unheeded.

The morning after the event, customers receive a follow-up message, including a set list from the show they attended, with a link to purchase the CD on which each song originally appeared. In addition, they receive an offer to purchase a tour T-shirt at a discounted price. As the results from each mailing come in, information is gathered to provide the ticket company with the foundation for future campaigns.

Whether it is for this type of event-driven campaign or sending out a newsletter, marketers should focus their efforts on using e-mail as a relationship-building tool. By moving away from aggressive customer acquisition with discounted purchase opportunities and focusing on the two-way value of the e-mail channel, they can build ongoing, responsible dialogues that will preserve e-mail's effectiveness as a direct marketing medium.

As more complex e-mail technologies and services emerge, e-mail marketing will grow only more attractive to direct marketers as a means of increasing the lifetime value of their customers. For the channel to support this rapid growth, marketing managers and outsourcers should embrace the evolution of e-mail marketing toward a precision-based approach, ensuring that each customer is delighted to take part in the dialogue.

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