E-Mail Blasts Kill Channel's Reputation

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If you want to increase sales, stop bombarding customers with e-mail. Opt-in e-mail may be one of the most effective marketing tools, but don't overdo it - unless you want e-mail to become as reviled as the loathsome pop-up.

Take a customer we'll call Jane. She buys a pair of hiking boots and a parka on sale from an online clothing retailer. From then on out, the retailer bombards Jane's inbox with general promotions on everything from swimsuits to evening gowns. Not only does Jane stop opening these e-mails, she gets angrier each time she sees one.

Instead of offering compelling promotions on outdoors gear to get Jane to come back and buy more of the products she loves, the retailer has turned a customer into a critic who will go elsewhere to make purchases.

There's no doubt about it, e-mail offers are looking a lot like spam, and vice versa. To rescue e-mails from the fate of pop-ups, marketers need to show to their customers that they value their trust and aren't merely using their e-mails purely as a means to a monetary end. Consumers want to see e-mails in their inbox targeted to their specific needs and desires.

When asked about promotional e-mail's influence on their purchasing decisions, 60 percent of consumers who made immediate purchases from e-mail did so because the e-mail contained products in which they were personally interested, according to a 2005 study from JupiterResearch. That's why targeted e-mail campaigns can produce nine times the revenue and 18 times the profit of broadcast e-mailings, JupiterResearch said.

Targeting can be as simple as sending a relevant discount offer in the 24 hours following a purchase, or as complex as sending e-mails that take into account a customer's purchase history, age, sex, location and past browsing behavior.

Some buyers are price sensitive and shop only during sales. Others buy trendy items as soon as they come out. These shoppers should get different e-mails at different intervals.

So why do marketers continue to view e-mail as a quick and cheap way to reach customers, even as more people become annoyed with spam-like promotional offers? Why do they refer to e-mail campaigns as "e-mail blasts" instead of "personal e-mail offers"?

The answer, in part, is laziness. Sure, it takes a bit more time to craft, test and send targeted e-mail offers. But continuing to blast users with unwanted, irrelevant e-mails not only will have little impact on sales, it will turn even loyal customers into detractors. That's something no company can afford.

To start targeting e-mails, marketers can take a few simple actions right away.

• Start collecting information on customers, such as what they buy, what they browse and don't buy, which offers converted them in the past and how frequently they visit your site. Then use this information to deliver the right offer to the right person at the right time.

• Set up a few filters that send certain e-mails to different customer segments at predefined intervals and with content specific to their needs.

• Define triggers that send e-mails when customers take a certain action. For example, if Jane buys hiking boots on sale, send her an e-mail 12 hours later with an offer for a discount on hiking socks and offer to add them to her order for no extra shipping cost.

• If a customer doesn't open your e-mails for several weeks, try again with a more targeted offer or even a survey asking what kind of offers she would like to receive. If that doesn't work, stop contacting her. Hounding your customers will only make them angry.

• Use e-mail to reengage the "droppers." If shoppers are dropping off your site at the checkout page, send them an e-mail with an offer for 10 percent of the products they almost bought. If they are dropping off before they get to the checkout page, send them a targeted offer based on the products they browsed. And do it fast - within 24 hours is best.

With a little effort, marketers can save e-mail from the fate of the pop-up. They just have to do things the old-fashioned way: listen to their customers and give them what they want.

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