Keeping the Faith on E-Mail's Value

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It should surprise no direct marketer that e-mail is the most popular application online, as noted by the Pew Internet and American Life Project in March. It also should be no surprise that e-mail - despite and because of its popularity, ease of use and youth as a medium - is mired in controversy around its efficacy as a marketing tool.


Lost in the spam controversy is e-mail's potential as a medium that can capture audience eyeballs and drive response. Yet with all of its promise, it continues to hold complex challenges for the online marketer and its target audience.


Despite these challenges, research continues to show that people appreciate and want marketing communications via e-mail. DoubleClick's latest e-mail trends report noted that open and click-through rates rose 3.2 percent and 10.7 percent, respectively, from the same time last year.


But spam has pulled the focus away from e-mail as a viable marketing tool. Its most promising characteristics of ubiquity, low cost and delivery of compact, easily digestible, actionable information have allowed for skyrocketing growth but also increasing misuse and rapidly mounting user frustration.


Remember that e-mail is a very young mass media tool. We are experiencing the defining period that will shape the medium's future and its ability to succeed as a marketing device.


In the coming years, spam will be combated with tools such as filtering technology, legal tactics and, potentially, a complete rewrite of e-mail protocols. None of these tactics will fully eliminate spam. The features that make e-mail such an effective communications mechanism are too alluring for spammers to pass up.


I think e-mail will emerge from this phase and enter an environment of more "controlled" spam as a stronger, more vital tool than before. The challenges marketers face today are how we can continue to grow effective e-mail use, find solutions that best meet needs and best prepare for e-mail's re-emergence as an effective, mature medium.


Success requires old-world techniques, new-world thinking and the ability to think and react quickly. This is reflected in e-mail trends that recognize that a tool with great mass market potential may better serve clientele in tight/highly interested target groups and where marketers can break through the spam clutter to develop and maintain relationships with customers.


These trends leverage a vision of e-mail's value for the user, an understanding of multichannel marketing, distinct integration with a Web site and a strategy of adding value to the e-mail relationship.


The first step in developing an e-mail strategy is understanding your recipient. Ask yourself what will prompt you to take your finger off the delete key when you see a marketer's message.


Begin with your house list. This is probably the best and oldest of the old-world techniques. Your house list contains the committed recipients, customers and information seekers who opted in for information.


House lists are never big enough, and temptation always exists to expand the list through purchase. However, before you buy lists, consider whether you have done enough to grow your list organically. This may require coordination among multiple channels in your organization: Setting up e-mail collection on your Web site, encouraging e-mail address submittal from customer service, forward-to-a-friend incentives or business reply cards.


Always add value. Too many e-mail messages are about the offer. Ensure that your message goes beyond the offer - in the subject line, in the immediately viewable content and in the message body. For example, you might:


· Offer maintenance tips to existing customers you wish to cross-sell.


· Position an offer within the context of seasonal information.


· Include links to tools that can help your customers run their business.


· Present customer success stories.


By giving recipients more than an immediate offer in their initial scan, your message gains further credibility. More importantly, as "whitelist" filtering techniques - which require a sender's name to be in a recipient's e-mail address book - gain credibility, you may find that you need to ask your recipients to add your address to their address book. Adding discernable value to your e-mail correspondence helps ensure that your recipients go that extra step to maintain communication with you.


Give recipients options. If you are engaged in a long-term conversation with an audience, it is worth finding out how you are doing? Are you speaking too loudly? Too often? Surveying, polling and actionable tools can help maintain your relationship with recipients by working to tailor communications in terms of frequency and variety.


A recent Quris study noted that e-mail recipients tend to maintain an average of 16 non-personal e-mail relationships. Recipients often scan and move on from these e-mails. Even so, the marketer gained recipient share of mind. The challenge for a marketer who owns this relationship is to retain it. The challenge for the marketer who doesn't is to break into this circle. Respecting your recipients can help.


Plan, test, measure, test again. One of the most inadvertent supports of spam is the concept of the e-mail "blast." This term conjures the effects of an aimless volley that your recipients may feel as they struggle to go through their inbox. The only way to avoid this situation is to develop your e-mail communications as an ongoing campaign, with goals and metrics attached.


A key aspect in any campaign is the need to test and measure results against goals. Testing can include creative, subject lines, offers, landing pages and even sending time. And of course, all testing should leverage e-mail's unique capability to deliver real-time metrics.


Leverage multichannel potential. Online marketers like to think the channel exists in a vacuum. We learn over and over that the vast majority of the audience for our message exists in a multichannel world. Messages must be tightly integrated and coordinated among appropriate and available channels.


Lower expectations. Even with all of this potential, marketers must learn to quell their natural optimism and level with clients. It is a challenging time for e-mail marketing, and the hurdles we're trying to clear may grow taller before they disappear. This is not a welcome message in an environment that expects immediate results from such a popular medium. Too many e-marketing schemes have lost their luster rapidly after being touted as the next big thing.


As e-mail and online marketing evolve, the possibilities and challenges will grow. By balancing knowledge of user needs and the benefits of the medium with solid planning and the ability to adjust to changing situations, marketers will find that e-mail continues to provide an outlet for successful campaigns.


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