Focus on E-Mail, Not Your Web Site

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Many successful organizations have already shifted focus from their Web sites to their e-mail offerings.


Wondering why? Well, this may sound familiar: You have spent a small (or not so small) fortune to build and launch an online presence. It is a good site, but traffic fades after each big promotion. Your spending on list rentals, search engines, banner advertisements, affiliates and sponsorships simply cannot go on at these levels.


What you are experiencing is that the reach of Web sites far exceeds their grasp. Initially, it was exciting to be able to reach anyone, anywhere. The bad news is that when left on its own, a Web site can just as easily reach no one at all.


In retail, the rule is location, location, location. However, your Web site is located in the middle of nowhere - literally.


It does not necessarily mean that today's sites cannot do the job; it is more that they are detached from their audience's daily experience. Therefore, organizations are shifting emphasis from their Web sites to their e-mail offerings.


Online customers may be interested, but they are passive. Meanwhile, companies have a lot to offer that could prove valuable, so everything goes up on the site. Usability and personalization can help improve any given site, but these simply cannot prevent the clutter from being more than a little overwhelming. Customers are time-constrained and hard-pressed to remember URLs. When they do spend time online, they are hunting for something specific.


Contrast that with e-mail. Most people check their e-mail routinely. And when they do, they often scan or read nearly every message they get. It would be hard to stop them, especially when they receive e-mails that they requested from companies they trust.


Marketers recognize that they can earn a place in their customers' inboxes much more easily than they can stake their claims in cyberspace and at a lower cost.


From the customers' standpoint, these companies are making their corporate home page obsolete. The only home pages these customers know are the ones that routinely appear in their personal inboxes.


In effect, companies have used opt-in e-mail to change the venue in which they are competing. In doing so, they have gone from fighting for attention online to enjoying a predictable "annuity" of site visits from recipients of their newsletters and e-mail campaigns.


Corporations seeking to replicate such results should follow these steps:


o Make capturing e-mail addresses your top priority. You got them to come to your site. That is a major accomplishment. Now how can you make sure they come back?


Do not let consumers vanish back into the anonymity of cyberspace. Assuming that completing a purchase is the only desired outcome of a site visit is not only arrogant, it is self-defeating. Only a small fraction of visitors are willing to consider an immediate purchase. The overwhelming majority of visitors look for information to make better purchase decisions. Use this to your advantage.


o Hold your customers' hands throughout the purchase process.


Rome wasn't built in a day. If everything is a pure sales pitch, you will lose the privilege of communicating with them. If you have to "bribe" them into opting in, at least try doing it with relevant information -- that is why they are online. Educate and inform them. Build trust and brand equity. Appeal to the underlying needs and issues that fuel the decision to make a purchase. When they need something from you, they will know where to find you.


Over the coming months, as more companies seize on this approach, inboxes are going to start to fill. Make no mistake: saturation is coming.


In the long run, e-mail is a substance-over-style proposition. There will be an inevitable flight to quality. Producing something that "looks good enough" will only get you through a few e-mails before you have burned up all your brand equity. If you are not providing value, click-throughs fade quickly and the unsubscribe requests mount.


And though it may be tempting, do not cut corners when it comes to gaining permission. Be clear and be honest. Recognize and respect your customers' requests to cut off communications. If they are not in the market for your offering, they are doing you a favor.


If you have been specific in the purpose of the communication, you will have opportunities to create future dialogues as the individual consumer's circumstances change and your offerings grow and evolve.


Don't let "testing the concept" be an excuse for launching something that is half-baked. Bad word-of-mouth can poison the well of potential customers for you.


Too often, companies assume that customers will tolerate and grow with them along their learning curve. In this case, if you are not doing it today, you are already way behind. So if you are not sure how to do it right yourself, get some help.


Ultimately, this is not a "one size fits all" proposition. Think of how rich and varied offline marketing communications have become. Now is the time to bring proven, effective offline concepts to the Net.


Two major forces will drive this trend: the opportunity to improve quality of communications and the ability to lower cost.


More than anything, the Internet is an information resource. Companies that embrace this by opening e-mail dialogues with their customers and prospects will begin to channel it to their advantage.


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