Is Appending Too Good to Be True?

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So you want to collect your customers' e-mail addresses, quickly and without spending a fortune. And you don't have the staff to manage it. You've read that the Association of Interactive Marketing released e-mail appending guidelines. Is this the answer or just another dot-com pipe dream?

Here's how appending works: A service bureau overlays your customer file against a compiled file of opted-in e-mail addresses. All matched people receive an e-mail explaining that they will receive e-mails from your company unless they opt out.

E-mail appending sounds like a great solution. You pay only per e-mail match. You can get it done quickly, usually through your service bureau. Often there are no upfront expenses or risks. And it takes about as much work as a merge/purge.

But it's not that simple. I know of half a dozen companies that tested appending. Not one rolled out or even retested.

The following may help you understand appending, including the controversy that surrounds it:

Direct response 101. Given a choice, would you mail a compiled list or a buyers list? The same rationale applies to collecting e-mail addresses. Actively provided e-mail addresses are far more responsive than passively compiled ones. We found that a non-customer who opts in to receive a newsletter or third-party information from you is twice as likely to become your customer than a non-customer who doesn't opt in. The more actively a person participates in the e-mail collection process, the more responsive you can expect them to be.

Is anybody home? How do you evaluate the accuracy of the appended file? It's not as clear-cut as it seems.

Studies indicate that 30 percent of Internet users have multiple e-mail accounts. Are you getting the primary e-mail address or a seldom- or never-used address? Does the appended record match the exact name and exact address? What if a household has more than one person with the same name? What if you only have a first initial on your customer file or the name or address is misspelled? What if your customer address is a work address? What if your customer is an adult and the e-mail address is for a child?

The reality is that service providers, who charge per e-mail address, will never have a match logic that is as rigorous as you would like.

Appending gives you quantity of your customers' e-mail addresses quickly. But without quality, how much value does it offer even if you're only paying pennies a name?

Hotline names on steroids. E-mail addresses age quickly. Studies indicate that 3 percent of all e-mail addresses change each month. If you're matching your customer file against a list where the average name is a year old, up to 36 percent of the e-mail addresses you match are likely out of date.

Opting in versus not opting out. When a service bureau appends your file with e-mail addresses, it sends an e-mail to all matches. The e-mail does not ask the matched people whether they want e-mail communications from you, only whether they don't. Let's say you're on the matched list and you get the e-mail from the service bureau. If you don't respond, does that mean you want e-mails from the company? Or that you didn't open your e-mail? Or that you're afraid this unknown e-mail contains a virus? Or that you use this address for junk e-mail and you never look at it?

Buyer beware. It's hard for traditional direct marketers to appreciate the sensitivity of online privacy. After all, you don't need permission to mail a direct mail package.

The online environment is different. Accidentally send an e-mail to someone who has not opted in and you'll get a shockingly irate, and often expletive-filled, response. You could get bad press. It could hurt your brand image. If you do test overlaying your file, have the opt-out e-mails come directly to your e-mail address. Then you can see firsthand how people are responding.

If that's not traumatic enough, consider this: passively acquired e-mail addresses respond at significantly lower rates. Think about the last time you opened an e-mail from an unknown sender. You probably asked yourself either "How did they get my e-mail address?" or "Will I get a virus if I open this?" By focusing on the e-mail instead of the proposition, you start off in a less responsive state.

Throwing the baby out with the bath water. Let's say you perform an e-mail append and the file proves less responsive than expected. Does that mean appending is a poor way to collect e-mail addresses? Or does it mean your customers are unresponsive to e-mail marketing? The worst thing you can do is abandon e-mail marketing because you selected the wrong way to collect addresses.

When appending makes sense. Despite its flaws, overlaying your file with e-mail addresses can play a role in the e-mail collection mix. It just shouldn't be the primary means for collecting your customers' e-mail addresses. Here are two instances in which appending could be very effective:

Expires or non-active customers. Since you probably don't promote to former customers that often, you don't have a vehicle for requesting e-mail addresses. Overlaying the inactive file provides a cost-effective way to reach and hopefully reactivate former customers. In this case, appending is more cost-effective than direct mail for collecting e-mail addresses. But further testing is needed to determine whether e-mail is better than direct mail for reactivating customers.

Once you've collected a critical mass of e-mail addresses. Even with a concerted effort, you will not collect 100 percent of your customers' e-mail addresses. At that point, consider appending for those who did not respond to your primary efforts.

Why? First, you are unlikely to get their e-mail through active efforts. Second, a passive e-mail address is better than no e-mail address. Finally, the incremental cost of e-mailing these people is minimal once you have a critical mass of active addresses.

One word of caution: evaluate the appended names separately from actively collected names, or you may skew your results.

Intuitively, e-mail appending makes sense - much like, intuitively, mailing to compiled lists makes sense. It's cheap. It's easy. Unfortunately, it's not the best way to collect responsive e-mail addresses. For some, where the value of an e-mail address is minimal, appending may be cost-effective. More than likely, appending will prove once again the adage: "If it seems too good to be true, it probably is!"


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