Keep E-Mail's Reach Within Its Grasp

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The mantra at seminars and conventions over the past few years has been, "E-mail, the direct marketers dreeeam!" But, as marketers, we should know better than to bank on dreams -- after all, we're in the business of creating and packaging dreams, not buying into them.


Although e-mail marketing has been a powerful direct marketing medium with its low cost, instant results and easy accessibility, it's not a dream and it's not the simple evolution of hard copy mail -- it's a tool. E-mail marketers need to weigh the breathy promises of e-mail with the reality of the recipients' growing frustration with the high volume of unsolicited and untargeted marketing e-mail they receive each day or risk further alienating the very people they wish to reach -- and ultimately dilute the effectiveness of the medium.


Consolidated approach: Long before e-mail marketing was en vogue, IBM used e-mail to deliver product announcements, cutting the time and expense of hard copy mail distribution. For example, its consolidated e-mail subscription service, iSource (www.ibm.com/isource), meets the information needs of its customers by allowing them to choose from an array of offerings and customize their e-mail to match their interests.


Direct marketing campaigns and promotions are incorporated into one of the weekly offerings, the Focusing on You News Digest, along with news, promotions, class notifications, product announcements and technical tips. Although many marketers prefer to have their messages stand alone, incorporating messages into the digest lets IBM reach customers in a nonintrusive and relationship-driven manner and controls the flow of marketing e-mail from the company.


Opt-in e-mail subscriptions aren't just good manners, they're good business --customer satisfaction with the manner in which IBM communicates with them has improved significantly, and subscriber response rates to news digest campaigns are consistently in the double digits.


Getting started: First, consider e-mail's comparative advantage and ask yourself what you can accomplish better through e-mail than through any other medium. E-mail is great for communicating with customers you already have a relationship with. They require timely notification of new Web page postings, events, recalls and time-sensitive offers. However, even though you can use e-mail to send a thank-you note to a list of your customers, wouldn't they prefer to receive it hand written or typed?


Next, develop a company-wide e-mail strategy. Get all the potential e-mail marketers in your company together. You might be surprised by the number of separate e-mail initiatives under way. Consolidating initiatives lowers cost. Consider how you can begin building an e-mail distribution list of customers who have provided explicit consent to receive marketing messages via e-mail. Standardize consent wording so you don't leave it open for interpretation. Then determine the minimum and maximum frequency with which you should touch recipients with an e-mail message and think of ways to provide highly targeted messages for specific lists.


Disciplined approach: Once you've decided how to use e-mail, the next step is to execute. Here are some basic guidelines:


* Always offer e-mail recipients the opportunity to opt out of your e-mail list and make it easy. Word your opt out carefully to ensure you don't over-suppress them in your database.


* Never use a fake return address or a forged header. This prevents recipients from responding (in fact, the responses bounce back from service machines, clogging the ISP's system). It also disguises the sender, which is deceptive and fraudulent.


* Ensure that the copy is well written and proofed for accuracy. Call the telephone numbers and make sure they go through. Visit the Web to make sure the URL is correct -- and visit it immediately before you send your e-mail to be sure the site is up and running.


* When appropriate, begin your message by saying how you got the recipient's e-mail address.


* Target the lowest common denominator. ASCII text may not look as exciting as you would like, but it's the most universal text supported by mail handlers.


* Keep your e-mail short and direct, with links to additional information near the beginning of your message. Send your e-mail to yourself so you can see what appears on the first screen of your e-mail reader. If you only look at the message on a full screen or worse -- a piece of paper -- you won't have a sense for what your recipients see.


* Try to track responses to your e-mail promotions by setting up URL redirects or meta pages. Most outbound e-mail service providers offer fairly sophisticated results reports.


In the last several years, the rapid proliferation of Web sites has forced Web marketers to create or modify their sites to become more content-driven, targeted and highly interactive. Similarly, as the popularity of e-mail marketing grows, your success with the medium will require you to deliver truly meaningful content and demonstrate your understanding of the customer's information needs.


Otherwise, privacy legislation, the growth of e-mail users who begrudge relinquishing their e-mail address for marketing and filtering software may cork this powerful channel.


Christi Clancy is a direct marketing strategist at IBM Corp. Her e-mail address is cgclanc@us.ibm.com.
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