Inside e-mail marketing firm e-Dialog

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It's 8:45 a.m., and I am riding with Jean Borgman, public relations director at e-Dialog, from Boston to the e-mail marketing firm's headquarters in Lexington, MA, where I will spend the day.

9:30 a.m. We are buzzed into the offices, a new development since the firm became ISO 27001-certified-information security standard. We are greeted by Jared Chase, the marketing associate who helped organize my tour. We are swept into the main conference room and soon joined by senior marketing manager Nancy Darish.

Ms. Darish takes me for a spin of the offices. The space is laid out like a giant horseshoe filled with cubicles. It starts in reception, a vibrant orange sitting room reminiscent of the firm's Web site.

Turn right and you hit creative. A box of Dunkin' Donuts is open on the table, as workers chomp at their computers. We peek at the recently redecorated conference room at this end: red and purple walls, a modern white light fixture made out of modular plastic shapes, a couple bean bag chairs and a tall table with bar stools. This is a new initiative to add color to the gray and white office atmosphere.

Professional services is more straightforward. The walls are papered with handwritten goal sheets from the recent annual client conference. Each client has a sheet with two columns, one with 30-day goals and one for 90-day goals.

Around the corner is the most creative of all, engineering.

"The dark cave," Ms. Darish said. All the lights are out, as the workers unscrewed the light bulbs themselves.

10 a.m. Account director Ben Ardito, senior account manager Steve Blondin and program manager Laurie Lerner assemble in the main conference room for a meeting about what their account team is up to. Mr. Ardito is back from a trip to e-Dialog's Seattle office, where he pitched a new client in the area. The sales team starts the acquisition, but the three-month courtship includes visits from experienced account directors.

Ms. Lerner and Mr. Blondin discuss the previous day's meeting at client SmartBargains' office. It was a weekly meeting to keep up on the account. This one focused on the 30-day/90-day goals that wall papered the office during the tour. These goals include turning first-time buyers into loyalty members through various initiatives. Ideas were generated based on the e-Dialog e-reports.

"We get a lot more accomplished in their office than on the phone," said Ms. Lerner, who is on the phone with the client almost every day.

11 a.m. The production team assembles in the main conference room to discuss the busy upcoming fourth quarter. Production manager Mike Pappagallo, senior campaign associate Amy Pepler and Audrey Batista-Viera, director of e-mail production, gather around the table.

Campaign associates work with clients and developers to pull the e-mails together on a day-to-day basis. Ms. Pepler is working on travel firm CheapTickets' weekly e-mail campaign and is in the creative phase.

"I'm waiting on the changes from the client and the designer," Ms. Pepler said. "I have to get the creative approved by the end of the day."

Today is Thursday, when the creative has to be finalized for Tuesday's mailing. Friday and Monday are reserved for the developer to write code and for testing. Also, because the travel sector involves time-sensitive offers, last-minute prices are solidified on Monday.

Ms. Batista-Viera is planning for Q4, "a very busy time because of our retail customers," she said. Because of the extra work for staff at this time, she is finalizing a motivational initiative to reward employees. She meets with CEO John Rizzi on this later today.

Noon. It's lunch in the conference room with Tim Ryan, creative services director. We look over this week's National Football League newsletters. The design is complex. Recipients can select a favorite team, and content is based on that team's colors and logo, statistics refer to that team's past week and stories cover the team's highlights.

12:45 p.m. In the colorful conference room in creative, senior account manager Steve Bodin and marketing analyst Clark Hubbard are sifting through various analytics for an upcoming quarterly meeting with a travel client. They are deciding how to present clear information from the many available metrics.

"Maybe we can just pick one brand and show the trends within that brand," Mr. Hubbard said. "That may be the only way to make it presentable." Mr. Bodin agreed.

The travel company wants to see whether sending a destination such as Boston as the subject of the e-mail results in bookings to Boston, or whether customers merely open the e-mail to book travel to another desired destination. Mr. Bodin did not have the results just yet.

1:15 p.m. Back in the main conference room, I see the tools involved in creating an e-mail, Campaign Builder 6.0 and Insight Builder, with Ms. Darish; Jeff Britts, director of product development, and Robert MacInnis, marketing systems architect.

The system lets customers configure mailings based on type (promotional vs. transactional), audience and content. These tools can be customized for the client.

"We try not to pin our clients into a specific tool set," Mr. Britts said. "We look at what will work best for that particular company and go from there."

2:40 p.m. At the end of the dark cave in engineering, the light is on in John Doub's office. He is director of technical production.

Engineering is a cornerstone for an e-mail database firm. When consumers enter their information on an e-Dialog marketer's Web site, they actually enter it directly into a page hosted by the e-Dialog site. This keeps the information current.

Mr. Doub tells me about a recent viral campaign he worked on. The mailing asked recipients to e-mail a discount promotion to three friends. If these friends signed up, then the original recipient got a check for $50 from the client.

Mr. Doub is busy handling e-mail campaigns; his wall calendar hasn't been changed since August.

3:15 p.m. Rick Buck is director of deliverability and ISP relations. In his office, he is looking at a Swiss Web site to determine whether it is legal to transfer data in and out of Switzerland. E-Dialog mails in the European Union, but Switzerland is not in the EU.

Deliverability is key to marketers.

"People pay us a lot of money to put their e-mails in the inbox," Mr. Buck said.

With the holiday season approaching, Mr. Buck is preparing for the busy e-mail season and keeping up to date on the ever-changing spam filters that Gmail, AOL, MSN/Hotmail and Yahoo will be sure to apply.

3:30 p.m. Kara Austen-Leigh, senior manager for customer support, joins us in Mr. Buck's office. She is in charge of opening response e-mails that don't fit into the language of the automatic screeners.

When customers write back to unsubscribe, report a change of address or ask a question, it is not always clear in the language that they use. E-Dialog gets 15 million e-mail messages a month, and 10 percent are opened by human beings. The response management team handles all kinds of issues.

"When a person is deceased, we handle it with care and respond personally saying 'sorry about the loss,'" Ms. Austen-Leigh said. "It is a little rude for the standard un-sub option that says, 'Sorry to see you go.'"

Responses of the week are papered on the wall. They include cheers for favorite sports teams to NFL newsletters, as well as a 79-year-old who responded to an e-mail titled "Intimacy and Your Immune System" with "I'm seventy-nine and still enjoying sex with my wife. Richard."

4 p.m. I meet with CEO John Rizzi, who addresses the unique response management service and brings up the name e-Dialog.

"We see any visit from a customer as a golden visit, so we try to continue the dialogue," he said.

His company takes on only long-term clients with one- to three-year contracts. The e-Dialog e-mail marketing platform is about building long-term relationships with consumers, and so the firm works the same way, he said.

CTO Ken Lajoie comes in, and we discuss the importance of a sound infrastructure. E-Dialog's extensive ability to leverage information from a database in real time and make it actionable is what makes the firm unique.

Mr. Lajoie told me that all of the data storage is outsourced to Savis, a data center five miles down the road. This high-tech facility is equipped to use chemicals instead of water in case of fire, so as not to damage the information systems with water.

4:45 p.m. I leave as the two executives begin their meeting on priorities for Q4, where they will decide what to triage.

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