E-Mail Marketing Works Best by Invitation Only

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About a year ago, I was at a seminar titled: "Washington Meets the Web," where legislators and industry leaders met to discuss the hot topics of the moment: privacy, e-commerce taxation and spamming, among others.


A recent convert from traditional direct marketing to the Web, I was intrigued by the notion that unsolicited e-mail was somehow evil. In the world of traditional direct mail, unsolicited bulk mail is the bulwark of not one, but two industries -- the US Postal Service and the direct marketing industry. I began to understand that there were two groups of constituents who were likely to be offended by spam: the ISP's and the recipients.


Unlike the Postal Service, the ISPs don't make any money from the proliferation of bulk e-mail. For both ISPs and recipients, the unauthorized use of bandwidth by bulk e-mailers was a cause for tremendous ire, especially before the days of flat monthly rates for unlimited access. Finally, the use of ill-gotten names was an offense from the point of view of privacy -- bulk e-mailers extracted names from the Web without anyone's permission.


Now, a year later, it is universally accepted that spam is wrongful use of e-mail, from an ethical perspective, but also, I would like to argue, from a business perspective. The Web is a different world and operates with much more empowered -- not to mention vocal -- individuals who do not hesitate to speak up when offended and when delighted. Marketers realized that it made good business sense to ask permission before sending e-mail, and therefore, the next stage of e-mail's evolution has been opt-in e-mail.


List companies, database marketers and retailers caught on that unsolicited e-mail is unwelcome e-mail, and the integrity of the sender is compromised. But, if users agree to provide information about themselves and receive e-mails related to their stated interests, the resulting e-mails may be welcome. The weakness of opt-in e-mail lists thus generated is that what a consumer actually does is a much more powerful predictor of future behavior than what a consumer says he does when he checks off a list of interests. Another flaw is that the e-mail is sent when the sender decides to send it, not when the consumer asks to receive it. There is no context, except that once, possibly months ago, the consumer checked off for example Music on a list of interests, and that's why he has received an e-mail with a music offer today. Opt-in e-mail is a step in the right direction, but it's still not the best solution, for either marketers or consumers.


At its best, advertising is useful to consumers. It places meaningful offers in front of consumers when they are most motivated to act. This is why banner advertising has become so ineffective and results slip lower every day. Imagine going to a movie and throughout the entire show a large, animated banner located at the top of the screen rotates hundreds of ads. The cries of protest would be deafening. Yet that's what the Web does with banners, buttons, interstitials -- it interrupts users who are probably visiting a site for some other purpose than to be assaulted by animated gifs. Even television shows more restraint -- only when a tornado is about to strike do they scroll a marquis across the bottom of the screen warning the local audience to run for cover.


Effective advertising places an ad message within a meaningful context. The best advertising will create an environment where hard-sell tactics are unnecessary. Effective use of e-mail will do the same. If opt-in e-mail is a step up the evolutionary ladder, opt in as part of a dialog or relationship with consumers who are interacting with you within a context is the next step. Consider this example: a co-worker (a trusted source) sent me an article from ClickZ on the subject of customer profiling (targeted to my area of interest) by Deborah Kania. Based on my positive reaction to the article (meaningful content), I immediately went to Amazon and bought her book, "One-to-One Web Marketing." This action was not prompted by advertising -- it was prompted by context. A good marketer could even improve on this scenario -- what if ClickZ had provided a link or two, so I could choose to: 1) buy the book right then and there, or 2) get an e-mail reminder so I could order at a later time. In that way, I control the manner and timing of communication.


Some marketers are moving in the direction of presenting their offers in a meaningful environment through the use of co-branded sponsorships, which incorporate content with product offers, free information and e-mail news updates. Charles Schwab is the sponsor of the Armchair Millionaire, iVillage.com's personal investing community. Not only does Schwab provide editorial content, it offers a free instructional tape, "The Five Steps to Financial Freedom" and a mutual fund report on the fund of your choice. When you sign up to receive the report you're also giving explicit permission to receive information from Schwab on its financial services.


At Webstakes, players enter to win prizes through co-branded affinity sweepstakes and are introduced to sponsors' product offers. While entering to win a Palm Pilot III from CDW, one of Webstakes Computing Products sponsors, the member is asked if he would like to receive an e-mail with more information about CDW's products. He can choose to opt in for an offer that is presented within a meaningful context.


Rolling Stone Network is a music content site. Visitors can read the latest reviews and then click on a CDNOW button to purchase the title if they choose to. If Rolling Stone also offered an e-mail reminder service rather than just the "buy now" choice, they would likely get even better results.


A final example is Quote.com, a stock quote service that is offering a 30-day free-trial membership to showcase its services, one of which is Real-Time E-mail -- a service that allows a users to receive full text news as it hits the news wires for all companies in a customized portfolio.


In business, as in life, being in the right place at the right time is the key to success. Providing a context in which your offers can be presented to consumers and allowing them to select the timing will only improve your results.


Jane Weber is director of strategic development at Webstakes, New York, an Internet promotions company. Her e-mail is jweber@webstakes.com.
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