Guidelines for E-Mail Best Practices

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Tennis anyone? The opt-in vs. opt-out debate seems like a never-ending tennis match with a score of love-love. How ironic, considering these two groups can barely contribute quotes for the same article without going after each other.


Fragmentation has occurred within both camps, due to the numerous deviations for niche coverage. Several industry groups, including the Direct Marketing Association, the Association for Interactive Media, the Responsible Electronic Communication Alliance and the E-Mail Standards Working Group, have taken self-regulating positions and have created guidelines based on their respective business models.


Each group is attempting to set guidelines and policies based on its constituents, disregarding other existing business models. In fact, a large percentage of the business models existed before the Internet and are faced with guidelines and policies created by companies born on the Internet.


Through all the noise, the most important issue has been overlooked: e-mail marketing best practices. The following equation will help make it clear:


Relationships + Respect + Relevancy + Revenue = E-mail marketing best practices.


Relationships -- Consumers and business professionals have established a relationship with a business. This relationship is typically in the form of requesting information, making a purchase, or speaking with technical support/customer service regarding a product or service. These types of relationships are established via phone (response to a mail-order catalog, direct mail or an advertisement), fax, Web site, trade show, bricks and mortar or a magazine subscription.


Most businesses consider any individual proactively establishing a relationship as a customer. These businesses communicate with customers through any combination of the aforementioned methods. However, as marketing costs continue to rise, it makes sense that e-mail would rank near the top. Thus, e-mail communication with customers is considered the optimal relationship (retention) enhancement tool. The differences between opt-in and opt-out start to blur.


Respect -- Relationships thrive when businesses are considerate of their customers and respect their wishes. Businesses that understand and respect their customers will quickly determine what customers need, want and will not tolerate. If a customer provides an e-mail address to a business, he understands that he will receive a transaction-related message or an occasional message about a new product or service. If businesses realize the importance of respect, they will keep the frequency at the appropriate level and will use every opportunity to convey appreciation and enhance the relationship.


Relevancy -- Customers anticipate that they will not be inundated with messages that do not contain relevant information. Relevant messages will drastically reduce complaints and further blur the differences between opt-in and opt-out. The key to relevant messages is leveraging the data and demographics collected. The level of data collected varies based on niche coverage and business objectives. A data collection strategy should carefully balance optimal levels of acquisition with minimal abandonment rates.


Revenue -- The debate over opt-in and opt-out would not exist if the Internet had not been monetized. Having said that, revenue implications are the driving force behind guideline and policy creation.


Revenue has many faces, particularly e-newsletters and e-mail list rental. Typically, customers receive e-newsletters that contain editorial content, news and special offers. The e-newsletter is an excellent communication vehicle, one that can help keep customers updated on relevant topics and special offers. Some business models include sponsorship advertisements in their e-newsletters. The sponsorship advertiser offers products or services or both that are sold by or that complement the e-newsletter owner. Some e-newsletter owners abbreviate editorial and provide a link to the full story on their Web site. This approach helps drive traffic and justify banner advertising rate cards/cost per thousand. E-newsletter advertising rates range from $50 to $500-plus per thousand.


E-mail list rental provides customers with special offers (internal/external) that are product- or service-specific. The data and demographics collected through online registration enable businesses to target the offers and improve response rates while enhancing customer satisfaction. E-mail list rental advertising rates range from $250 per thousand to $700 per thousand.


oE-Mail Marketing Best Practices


Determining the appropriate best practices options must be based on the strength of the relationship a business has with its customer. The following are e-mail marketing best practices:


Retention scenario. A customer has a relationship with a business through information requests or purchases. Permission can be established through the following:


• Opt-in question on the registration form, typically for e-newsletters, product/service updates and special offers.


• Opt-in question on the information request form, typically for product/service inquiries.


• Opt-in question on e-commerce/order forms.


• Opt-in promotion through banner advertising, display (house) advertising, direct mail or qualification cards (controlled circulation).


• Opt-out question on the registration form, typically for e-newsletters, product/service updates and special offers.


• Opt-out question on the information request form, typically for product/service inquiries.


• Opt-out question on e-commerce/order forms.


• Opt-out through qualification cards.


• E-mail message asking for opt-in to e-newsletters, product/service updates and special offers.


• E-mail message asking for opt-out to e-newsletters, product/service updates and special offers.


The aforementioned points illustrate best practices in a retention-only/internal revenue model. Additionally, this enables businesses to ethically "catch up" if they were slow moving in the permission-marketing arena.


Revenue scenario A. A customer has a relationship with a business through information requests or purchases. The business intends to generate external revenue from list rental, either through an internal sales team or through a co-op. Permission can be established through the following:


• Opt-in question on the registration form, typically for e-newsletters, product/service updates and third-party offers.


• Opt-in question on the information request form, typically for product/service inquiries.


• Opt-in question on e-commerce/order forms.


• Opt-in promotion through banner advertising, display (house) advertising, direct mail or qualification cards (controlled circulation).


• Opt-out question on the registration form, typically for e-newsletters, product/service updates and third-party offers.


• Opt-out question on the information request form, typically for product/service inquiries.


• Opt-out question on e-commerce/order forms.


• Opt-out through qualification cards.


• E-mail message asking for opt-in to e-newsletters, product/service updates and third-party offers.


• E-mail message asking for opt-out to e-newsletters, product/service updates and third-party offers.


All forms must have specific questions for e-newsletters, product updates and third-party offers.


Revenue scenario B. A consumer or business professional does not have a relationship with a business. The business intends to generate external revenue from list rental, either through an internal sales team or through a co-op. Permission can be established through the following:


• Opt-in question on the registration form, typically for e-newsletters, product/service updates and third-party offers.


• Opt-in question on the information request form, typically for product/service inquiries.


• Opt-in question on e-commerce/order forms.


• Opt-in promotion through banner advertising, display advertising and direct mail (rented).


• Opt-out question on the registration form, typically for e-newsletters, product/service updates and third-party offers.


• Opt-out question on the information request form, typically for product/service inquiries.


• Opt-out question on e-commerce/order forms.


• Acquisition e-mail campaign using a rented list asking for opt-in to newsletters, product updates or third-party offers. This would include a promotion or give away.


All forms must have specific questions for e-newsletters, product updates and third-party offers.


The need for industrywide e-mail marketing best practices is apparent. However, they must include relationships, respect, relevancy and revenue. Additional items for inclusion include list creation, opt-out, opt-in, frequency, privacy policies, merge/purge, National Change of Address, appending, etc.


The industry cannot afford to be overly restrictive and further reduce the number of names available for e-newsletter sponsorships/e-mail list rental. This will lead to reduced acquisition rates, higher churn rates, diminished campaign effectiveness, reduced selection, drastically higher campaign costs and reduced return on investment.


• Dan Dale is the marketing manager of e-lists at Cahners Business Lists, Des Plaines, IL, a division of Cahners Business Information. Reach him at ddale@cahners.com.

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