Get the Most From Your E-Mail Dollar

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E-mail is one of the most pervasive marketing methods today. Most companies have ventured onto the information superhighway, but many are uncertain about e-mail's effectiveness in the marketing communications mix.


How many businesses can say they realize a return on investment on their e-mail messaging? How many may be scared to use e-mail for fear of being labeled a spammer?


Based on our experience with clients across industry verticals, we've developed best practices for building e-mail communications that produce measurable results. Here are a few:


Start with a defined strategy. From creative and testing to following direct marketing best practices, e-mail requires a flexible, responsive approach. Strategies should include building a permission-based e-mail database, integrating with all media, regularly testing, performing segmentation and analysis, performing regular hygiene, avoiding the spam label - both in the eyes of the recipient and of automatic filters - and sending satisfaction surveys.


Leverage all customer touch points to build your e-mail database. Collect e-mail addresses at every touch point including point of sale, call centers, print ads, business reply cards, viral marketing (forward to a friend), trade shows and events, online registration pages and direct mail. Every point of contact with a customer is a chance to secure permission and gather data that will strengthen e-mail communications.


Know the makeup of your list. Bounce rates are rising. Be sure to perform regular list hygiene on the front and back end to maximize success and lower costs. Have a process in place to manage and maintain unsubscribe requests and e-mail change of address.


Commit to an e-relationship. E-mail is not a one-shot tactic. It helps to think of e-mail as a relationship builder and then to develop a comprehensive program that extends throughout the customer lifecycle. To do this, create a continuing dialogue based on customer behavior and preference data.


Communications can include event triggers such as birthdays and anniversaries, welcome messages, major (and first) purchase follow-up offers, transaction confirmations, customer appreciation, preferred-customer previews, cross-sell and retention initiatives, customer service follow-up, satisfaction surveys and account activation/reactivation notices.


Personalize, personalize, personalize. Personalization in e-mail is of particular importance. A correlation exists between personalization and response. Consider an e-mail with no personalization that gets a 5 percent response. Add personalization to that effort in four to six fields, and you likely will garner as much as a 2 percentage-point greater response. With seven or more fields personalized, response can hit double digits.


Almost any area of an e-mail communication can be personalized as long as the personalization is relevant and accurate. Include geographic or demographic information, custom content, references to the customer's purchase history or a link to the account review page.


Keep the process simple. This is as important in e-mail as in other direct response media channels. As in direct marketing offline, you have just seconds to keep someone's attention before they abandon the effort. Ideally, no more than one click should get them to the product/service purchase or registration/application page. And always provide clear-cut navigation and multiple response options.


Test, test, test. Methodically test everything you can: offers, creative elements, value propositions, timing, subject lines, landing pages, list cells and more. Testing subject lines, for example, is a science unto itself. Effective subject lines don't bait and switch, use as few words as possible and avoid spam-like phrases such as "free, free, free" and "limited-time offer." Test multiple subject lines to achieve the highest open rate.


Integrate media efforts. Capitalize on the inherent power of multiple media through integration. Offline and online communications that work in tandem can reap tremendous success. Remember to keep branding and messaging consistent and coordinate timing of campaigns to lift response.


Don't overdo it. Just because you have permission to e-mail doesn't mean consumers or business individuals want to be bombarded. Develop a comprehensive plan for offering appropriate, timely messages in a deliberate, scheduled fashion. Don't be afraid to interrupt the schedule with something special; just ensure it's relevant.


Think retention. Pay close attention to what customers and prospects do online. Their actions, or inactions, should tell you something. Carefully monitor registration and unsubscribe pages. Let consumers opt out, but do make an attempt to keep them where possible. Unsubscribe pages should survey those looking to opt out with brief questions that will help you improve your process going forward. Post a privacy policy on your Web site that adheres to industry guidelines and to your actual corporate practices. (Try the "Privacy Policy Generator" on the Direct Marketing Association's Web site, www.the-dma.org).


Turn data into insight, insight into action. To know whether your efforts are working - delivering a return on investment - establish metrics including but not limited to: delivery status, number sent, number delivered, click-through rate, order of click-throughs, average order size, error reporting, viral pass-alongs, conversion rate and opt-out rate. Analyze what is learned to refine efforts. Design your database models to accept preference data gathered as a result of e-mail projects.


You should be able to say definitively whether the campaign achieved primary and/or secondary objectives (which should be identified upfront). Well-defined e-mail metrics can help analyze cost-per-sale/lead/acquisition, identify lifetime value and predict repeat purchasing behavior. Metrics also can be used to track conversions through offline channels, when timed with an e-mail drop.


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