E-Mail Summit: Relevancy Sparks Conversion, Retention

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NEW YORK -- E-mail communication between companies and consumers or other businesses increasingly is about serving the needs of the recipient rather than selling, according to Joel Book, ExactTarget's director of e-marketing strategy.

Book moderated the New York edition of ExactTarget's eMarketing Excellence Summit, held yesterday at the Sofitel Hotel.

"E-mail works best when it's personal and relevant. This sounds like common sense, but we see too much batch and blast," Book said, adding that marketers often don't take the time to understand their customers' needs.

However, when they do take the time, e-mail can be powerful in driving customer conversion and retention. Its limitations are in acquisition of new customers: Leave that to brand marketing, Book said.

Lawn and garden products marketer The Scotts Company, for example, tracks customer problems with their gardens at its call center. When it notices a trend in a specific geographic area, such as an infestation, it sends a separate e-mail alert or includes an alert in its newsletter notifying customers in that region of a possible problem, telling them how to recognize it and suggesting products in the right size for their lawn.

Scotts uses its e-mail newsletter to ask for bits of information about customers with each edition so as not to overwhelm them with questions.

"Don't ask for more data than you need," Book said. "You can always go back and ask for more."

Half of the company's customers have migrated to the e-mail version of the newsletter at an annual savings of $5 million. Yet Scotts is creating thousands of tailored versions of the newsletter based on what it knows about the recipients.

Another marketer that has found success by making its e-mail communication relevant is Sherwin-Williams, a 100-year-old marketer of products for home do-it-yourselfers. Two years ago, the company recognized that it had lost a portion of its core customers to Home Depot and Lowe's. Its branding agency suggested more TV advertising, a costly endeavor.

However, another agency, Optiem, suggested an online-based preferred-customer program created just for DIYers that would be promoted offline and online. Sherwin-Williams, which had little Internet experience at this point, agreed to a five-store test.

Optiem created a microsite that asked a few basic questions, such as name, address, e-mail address, gender and age, what upcoming home projects they were thinking about, when they planned to start and where they heard about the site.

Registered users started receiving an e-magazine tailored to their needs based on the information they provided. This includes information about what projects they're working on as well as using different design elements for female and male recipients.

Registered customers also were able to print a $10 coupon good for use in any Sherwin-Williams store, which is how the company tracked the program's results.

The results proved so promising that Sherwin-Williams has rolled out the program nationally. Those results included net revenue that exceeded the program's cost 12 times. The company has built a preferred-customer database of more than 300,000 active customers.

Book also noted that e-mail works best when used in partnership with other marketing channels. For example, J.C. Penney customers who receive only e-mail communication from the retailer spend on average $157 a year while those who get e-mail, catalogs and retail offers spend more than $800 a year.

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