Take Steps to Strengthen E-Mail Lists

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As Internet access becomes ever more common and other forces bombard it, the historic mission of the U.S. Postal Service - daily, universal service at a uniform price - becomes increasingly irrelevant and economically untenable.


Though the USPS is unlikely to disappear soon, we should not bet on its continued existence, at least not as currently constituted, in as few as five to 10 years. To ensure our own futures, direct marketers must develop alternatives to the medium most still count on to deliver the bulk of their commercial messages.


The best alternative uses the Web to deliver targeted communications to and solicit orders from customers and prospects. For Web-based marketing to reach its potential, both on its own merits and as a long-term alternative to postal delivery, direct marketers should take many of these steps:


View acquisition and maintenance of each customer and prospect e-mail address as equal in importance to getting and updating a physical address. Request an e-mail address on each initial order and/or request and verify its accuracy during each subsequent contact. To increase the odds they will provide it, give customers reasons to give you their e-mail address. One reason is for you to send customers order confirmation and shipping detail.


Test and lobby for the development of e-mail address correction services. A growing number of firms are getting into this area, some on a co-op basis, others as stand-alones. Even the USPS has raised the possibility of providing something like this ("national change of e-mail address"). Individual firms and the industry need to push any effort that will build this capability. We must test the effectiveness of available alternatives and push to expand those that are most effective.


Spend a growing portion of test budgets on offers and promotions that will establish how to most effectively reach customers and prospects via the Web. This challenge will be greatest in prospecting (click-through rates on unsolicited promotions sent to rented e-mail lists can be abysmal) and for catalog markets and others that offer hundreds or thousands of items.


The best opportunities will be on promotions to house names. You can expect e-mail messages presenting products or making offers to current customers will be much more readily accepted and responded to. Perfect Web marketing approaches with your house file and adapt successes to prospecting.


Place heavy short-term emphasis on testing creative ways to marry and integrate e-mail with snail mail. Have the former support and expand on the latter using such techniques as reminders or an e-mailed offer tied to a mailing but with its own strict deadline for acting (i.e., placing an order). Where long-term dependence on mail is greatest (e.g., catalogs), test the ability of e-mail to augment and substitute for at least some mail contacts.


Push tests of rich media, especially where a voice communication or streaming video adds real value. As access speeds increase and these tools become more available and accepted, direct marketers must learn how to take full advantage of them.


Set up timing and frequency tests for Web contacts. It is as important to determine when, how often and what messages to send to customer segments and prospects via the Web as it was to answer these questions using mail.


Test and develop ways for Web contacts to add value to the customer relationship. Possibilities include Web-only specials, increased access to customers' order detail (e.g., online order tracking, confirmation of shipping time and method) and newsletters.


Develop Web-appropriate metrics that augment sales data. Make sure message opening, page reading, click-through and other measures are clearly defined.


Recognize the importance of accurately tracking which promotion most likely stimulated each order placed and the Web's potential to drive recipients to order via phone, fax or mail. E-commerce sites should ask buyers how they arrived at the site and request a source code where a mail or other coded promotion is checked. Make this a prominent feature of order entry screens. Though response rates can be low, there are effective ways to lift them. These include:


o Prominently display customer numbers and source codes on all mail pieces and e-mails. Tell buyers that use of these numbers on a Web order speeds service. Ideally, a customer number will bring up the respondent's name, address, phone number and e-mail address, all of which she should be able to edit for errors. Do not provide prior credit card numbers or payment detail.


o Assign and print on outgoing mail a temporary ID for each rented name mailed. Load the associated name and address onto temporary customer files. This lets first-time buyers take advantage of the same tool set as customers and trains them to provide the information.


o Use unique URLs as a way to code orders to a specific list or promotion.


o Require that a customer wishing to take advantage of a special offer enter its source code. This is effective at capturing codes where special offers are common.


o Use a unique phone number on Web promotions to capture the extent to which the Web prompts inbound calls.


o Install software to track how customers got to your site (e.g., click-throughs by banner advertisement, search engine, etc.).


Failure to track the bulk of orders to their most likely source makes it tougher to determine how effective both traditional and new media, offers and approaches are. As always, direct marketers need to know what is working and what is not.


By taking some or all of these steps now, direct marketers increase their odds of a long, prosperous future. We will benefit from these actions whether the USPS builds a healthier future for itself or not. However, should its fortunes continue the downward spiral I fear, that could spell the difference between our own success or failure.


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