E-Views and E-Mail

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"So 30 percent has become for e-mail what 2 percent is in traditional direct response?" a colleague asked recently over dinner.


I hadn't yet thought of it that way, but the answer was yes.


We had been discussing the mythical 30 percent response rates e-mail marketing proponents have been claiming for several years that marketers can get with opt-in lists, and how the 30 percent myth is beginning to sneak into press reports as if it's an industry benchmark.


My colleague was relating this development to the fact that every time an article on traditional direct marketing appears in the consumer press and some of the more mainstream business journals, the reporter invariably includes a line that says something like, "Direct marketers can expect a response rate of between 1 percent and 2 percent to most mailings."


Everyone in direct marketing knows this figure is nonsense (and can spare themselves a little boredom by skipping the next three paragraphs). Response rates depend on too many variables to peg a so-called average response rate on anything.


For example, responses to mailings from the business-to-business catalog firm for which I once worked were generally 4.5 to 5 per thousand, or less than 0.5 percent. But our average order size was in the hundreds of dollars, so it was a rate with which we could live. Response percentages to a business-to-business co-op mailer (where multiple vendors share the same package) that I helped launch were astronomically higher, but the business was expected to be short-lived, our list was very small, and the offers were very targeted and aggressive. We helped new tobacco wholesalers reach new tobacco retailers during the cigar boom.


Point being, even a rookie direct marketer knows there is no such thing as a so-called average response rate.


But while we all know the 2 percent figure is nonsense, it at least serves a valuable purpose in that it manages marketers' expectations. A start-up cataloger knows not to put 10 percent response rates into a business plan.


The 30 percent nonsense figure in e-mail, however, is even more meaningless. Do we mean click throughs? Purchases? Percentage of purchases after the click? Depends whom you talk to.


The 30 percent myth is dangerous because it inflates expectations and leads marketers to do wacky things with their budgets.


E-mail is cheap and fast - one of the most promising direct marketing developments in years. But I suspect that e-mail marketing vendors who aren't already paying a heavy price are about to do so for failing to kill the 30 percent response myth.


Silence Is Stupid


Last month, author and New York Times columnist William Safire wrote what has to be one of the most profoundly ignorant columns on privacy in the history of the debate. In it, he painted pictures of so-called armies of Big Brothers recording our every move online and selling dossiers to people who mean us harm. Besides editorials blasting Safire in this space and on sister publication DM News' editorial page, response to the piece was one letter to the Times by a congressman pitching his agenda.


Safire's piece made the rounds in marketing circles. That no one in the industry responded to it is shameful.


Word of advice: People take silence to mean there's something to hide. As long as the industry allows ignorance to drive the debate and fails to take its side to consumers, marketers should be prepared to fight from what is perceived as the moral low ground and as a result lose some very important battles.


Who Moved Our Brains?


OK, I'll say it. The best-selling business book "Who Moved My Cheese?" is insipid and childish.


It's the kind of book that upper managers at Fortune 500 firms fall in love with and force middle managers to suffer through, and then have gasbag discovery sessions about.


For those who haven't read it, "Who Moved My Cheese?" is about preparing for and embracing change. It tells the story of two mice named Sniff and Scurry and two mouse-sized people named Hem and Haw. When a big supply of cheese the four have been feeding on runs out, Sniff and Scurry are long gone while Hem and Haw ... well, you guessed it. What a groaner.


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