Hard-Offer E-Mail: A Wager With Bad Odds?

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Why is it that a direct marketer can get thousands of clickthroughs on a link embedded in a promotional e-mail sent to 100,000 people and end up with only a dozen orders? Is it due to the list or the offer - or is it due to the inherent differences between e-mail and postal mail?

Recently a newsletter publisher shared the results of a campaign he did at the Newsletter Publishers Association conference in New York last December. This publisher did a postal mail campaign to get subs to a newsletter geared toward executives. He mailed to 60,000 names and set up three cells of 20,000 names each. The cost of a subscription was $99. The first cell, the control, told people how to order with only postal addresses. This drew 170 orders. The second cell was exactly the same but added a Web address, It received 110 orders. The third cell received a print piece with little copy and the Web address. More than 2,000 people went to the Web site with a result of seven orders.

In analyzing the results for cell one and two, the publisher concluded that the Web address distracted people and depressed response. But cell three completely surprised him in that it yielded so many Web visitors and so few orders.

"We have not learned how to develop a Web page that sells," the publisher concluded.

I've seen this high clickthrough, low order phenomenon happen with other publishers whose e-mail campaigns simply mimic their direct mail campaigns with a hard offer for one product at a time. It isn't the Web page that's not selling; it's the idea that if you lead them to the Web page, they will order.

Clickthrough rates are destined to rise. With 56K modems, DSL, T1 connections and faster computers, clicking on links takes less time. E-mail marketers continually quote their clickthrough rate that, in the paper mail world, would be equivalent to the number of people who opened the envelope. This is a statistic to which direct mail marketers never had access. And they were not handicapped by its absence.

Clickthrough reports, however, do provide another view of what's happening online that may cause marketers to rethink their copywriting strategies. In all the e-mail campaigns I've done, reports show that people tend to click most on the link closest to the top of the message. Does this mean that as people skim through their e-mail, they get a quick grasp of what it's about and click on the link without bothering with the rest of the message? If so, then perhaps messages should be even shorter than they are now.

E-mail may give you low-cost access to people, but it's on a monitor and therein lies the difference. People devote some period of time to reading their postal mail -- it only arrives once or twice a day. Direct mail packages can include slick inserts and lift letters. Recipients can put a promotion they want to respond to aside, tack it to the wall, let it flop across their desk for months.

E-mail, by contrast, comes streaming in all day long and is ultimately less visible. If you send people an offer requiring immediate payment, you may actually be sabotaging a great opportunity: Asking them to plop down their credit card number on a Web order form within seconds after they've seen your offer is a hard way to play the game. Add to that the fact that e-mail has almost no shelf life. Most campaigns peak within 48 hours. That one shot to get the order becomes no shot at all.

When e-commerce sites send out e-mail to prospects they're inviting people to a whole new world of possibilities. The bigger the store, the more there is to wade through. Usually there's a newsletter or new product alert list to join. It's all about relationship marketing and repeated contact. Lead generation is the cornerstone to his marketing campaign. Not so for the publisher marketing a lone product. Selling that one product and demanding payment up front online seems more like a wager with bad odds than a true marketing campaign.

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