How Not to Ask for E-Mail Addresses

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There's an interesting paradox about developing e-mail lists that few marketers may be aware of. Millions of surfers plunk their e-mail addresses down in exchange for very little: the promise of announcements on selected topics, ads, coupons, newsletters, reminders. But when it comes to gathering e-mail addresses from your paid customers, it's another story entirely.

Circulation directors at Men's Health, Forbes and American Baby magazines noticed a 20 percent drop in response rates to direct mail offers that asked for e-mail addresses on the order form in exchange for a free e-mail newsletter or a special discount coupon.

Why would people who are signing up for your product or service hold back their e-mail addresses? Conventional direct mail wisdom says that as soon as you add more fields to the reply form, response drops. People also may be reluctant to offer their e-mail addresses if there is no privacy statement on the order form stipulating how you will use that e-mail address. A new customer may want to subscribe to your magazine, but he does not want his e-mail address rented to others only to receive a lot of unwanted messages.

No trust has been built yet between buyer and seller with a first order. It is probably inappropriate to ask for the e-mail address at this time, nor does it prove worth doing, given that it depresses response.

Perhaps it is the digital divide at work again. People online love the flight and variety of cyberspace. They could surf until they bust. E-mail speaks to them.

A subscriber to a print magazine still believes in paper. He opened your offer sent by postal mail, responded in pen, uses the postal system for his reply and finds postal delivery acceptable. This offline buyer also plans to read your magazine in print.

Cyberspace may mean nothing to him. Or he may view it as a place to receive a few e-mails from family and friends. A business-to-business customer might be guarded with his address, as e-mail is his lifeline at work and he wants his e-mail box uncluttered. Just like the adage, "Close 'em the way you find 'em," if you find a customer using "paper marketing," that's probably what he'll want more of -- paper, not e-mail.

It is also possible that people don't ante up their e-mail addresses because there is no apparent reason to do so. As a marketer, you will reap the immediate benefit of lowering your communication costs, but what's in it for your customers?

Barnes & Noble offers a discount on a future purchase to people who send in their e-mail addresses. My gym will give me an extra guest pass for my e-mail address. So it appears "bribery" may be the key to gathering names. In the offline world, it may be an offline, hard-copy or hard-cash premium that will help garner those e-mail addresses more readily.

Offering customers online access to archives or a special content area as a premium does not seem to pull that strongly.

The jury is still out on the best way to collect your customers' e-mail addresses. But think twice before you slap a field for the address on order forms in direct mail marketing campaigns. It could do more harm than good.

•Sarah Stambler is chief e-mail campaign strategist at TechProse Inc., an electronic marketing consulting firm. Reach her at

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