How to Optimize Your Opt-In Strategy

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Flip through any of the trade publications and you'll see one direct marketer's full-page print advertisement with no graphics and few words conveying one prime message: It has more than 6 million opt-in e-mail names and addresses. Pretty impressive. According to a report by Forrester Research, Cambridge, MA, more than 70 percent of companies see opt-in e-mail as "very important" or "important" to drive Web site traffic and, ultimately, sales.


With ads and research like that, opting in is not a choice for marketers, but a necessity. E-messaging provides the conduit for highly personalized and timely electronic communications. Many organizations use permission-based marketing techniques to build their e-messaging lists. PBM requires companies to ask customers and prospects to grant permission to contact them to convey their offers.


And opt-in e-messaging spans not only e-mail but also other electronic communication channels: cell phones, pagers and voice mail. Marketers can reach customers and prospects at work, home and on the road. But remember, consumers are still calling the shots when it comes to their communication channel preferences.


It's easy to understand the proliferation of opt-in e-messaging, especially the e-mail channel. First, there's the wealth of e-mail contacts. Thanks to the success of America Online and other Internet service providers, more than 40 million American households have e-mail addresses. Add to that the sum of our work e-mail addresses, and it's even more gargantuan. Second, e-messaging is relatively cheap; no postage is necessary. Outbound e-mail messages cost only pennies apiece. Third, e-mail campaigns have high response rates.


According to Forrester, opt-in e-mail's response rate is about 18 percent. Compare that figure with direct mail's paltry 1 percent to 2 percent, according to the GartnerGroup, Stamford, CT. And with e-mail, how does getting most of your responses back in 48 hours sound?


Furthermore, e-messaging is fast to implement. With a plethora of application service providers and service bureaus, companies can start sending opt-in e-mails within days.


Now for the bad news: PBM will become so omnipresent that individuals will quickly reach the threshold of the number of opt-in personalized messages they can absorb. "A coming glut of opt-in e-mail will erode response rates," predicts Forrester.


However, there are initiatives to implement so your consumers won't treat your companies' opt-in e-messages as spam:


Verify internal opt-in lists. You need opt-in customers' and prospects' e-mail addresses and possibly other e-messaging numbers. If, like most organizations, yours has a small set of e-communication addresses, consider testing them. If your addresses were obtained prior to the PBM movement, your first program should ask customers for permission to send them material about products and services that interest them. By learning from a relatively small subset, you will gain knowledge to roll out effective programs to larger audiences as e-messaging addresses are collected.


Build new opt-in lists. When gathering addresses, entice customers and prospects with a germane newsletter or real-time information that they would want to receive immediately -- since real time is the essence of e-messaging.


Rent opt-in lists. If you are eager to perform e-messaging but lack addresses, consider the many opt-in sources for e-communication addresses. These sources will enable you to conduct campaigns to groups of recipients who have opted in to receive information. When using opt-in lists, remember:


o Make sure that the source of your names provided individuals with a clear and explicit opt-in statement.


o Ask for recency information. How often have these names been mailed and how old are they?


o Check list locations. For example, do you want to target prospects in specific regions of the United States or abroad?


Use outsourcers to deliver messages. When using ASPs and service bureaus, have them adhere to the following guidelines:


o Have your service provider drop mail Tuesday through Thursday to avoid the Monday and Friday mail purge.


o Choose your subject line carefully, and make it catchy.


o Format the message for quick and easy understanding.


o Pick a friendly and memorable "From" line. Test names to the left of the @ mark -- for example, "Friendly name"@company.com.


Choose the right format. Is HTML more effective than text messages for your particular e-mail message? How should your newsletter be formatted? How much copy should you include in your other e-communication formats?


You will discover that many techniques that apply to direct mail also apply to e-mail. If you are uncomfortable setting up your initial campaigns for e-messaging, lean on an outsourcer. Capitalize on e-messaging's uniqueness. Embed in your e-mail communications URLs to which you want to drive customers, and track how many click throughs were made to a particular Web address, who clicked through, and in which order individuals clicked on URLs within messages. Any good outsourcer will capture this data for you. Make sure that you have a database capturing and assessing e-messaging information. Knowledge of customers' click throughs and responses as well as the range of subsequent behaviors (inquired, requested more information, filled out an application, converted, etc.) needs to be maintained. And remember that e-messaging will allow you to cost-effectively execute follow-up communications with the unconverted.


Provide an opt-out policy. There are ways to lure back your consumers. As GartnerGroup points out, "Always make customers feel they control information flow. If a customer opts out of future marketing e-mails, consider more subtle methods, e.g., marketing messages in online billing statements and customer service updates."


Offer relevant, personalized messages. According to a Forrester study, companies are using outbound e-mail more for promotions/discounts (66 percent) and newsletters (48 percent) and less for alerts/reminders (24 percent) and product releases (34 percent). However, only 20 percent of these broadly targeted campaigns personalize anything more than the name of the recipient. Amazon.com is the expert in tracking customers' purchases and making new offers based on customers' purchase history. For instance, when a customer has a history of purchasing a Stephen King book, Amazon.com informs the consumer of King's just-published novel. This is the epitome of a "relevant and personalized" offering rather than the superficial e-mail with the customer's name in the message.


Maintain opt-in lists. Maintaining electronic addresses and numbers becomes another challenge. Like phone numbers, consumers could have more than one e-messaging address. These addresses change frequently, and they are susceptible to typos when initially keyed. Opt outs should be captured in a timely manner to avoid irritating consumers with unwanted correspondence. Maintenance hygiene should be performed every time your database is updated.


Companies can deliver welcome opt-in communications by taking these additional precautions. If not, consumers receiving irrelevant information in their clogged inboxes will be faced with one option: hit their delete key.
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