'Tis the season - are your e-mails ready?

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Every year, the holidays seem to generate more food, more parties, more travel, more spending, more advertising and, now, more e-mail. Surveys indicate the biggest increase in holiday marketing for 2006 will be e-mail, which means consumers will be inundated with messages vying for their attention. For companies banking on the last two months of the year to deliver a big portion of annual sales and profitability, doing e-mail right is a must.

How can you maximize the season's potential? For starters, don't wait. Lay the groundwork with these steps:

• Pick a test partner. If you don't already use a deliverability service provider (DSP) for testing, pick one now. A number of good companies can help you test messages before you send them out. The two most popular are Pivotal Veracity and Return Path.

• Make it readable. An HTML readability program lets you confirm your e-mails will appear the way you want them to when opened.

• Seed listing. Most DSPs offer e-mail seed lists containing recipients at a variety of domains so they can determine what percentage of your messages land in inboxes and identify where and when deliverability problems may be occurring.

• Protect yourself. Spam, scams and fraud are rampant. Monitoring programs can track domains, IP addresses, URLs and brand names to ensure they are not used by unauthorized parties.

E-mail marketing in this crucial time of year is more than just adding a seasonal image or greeting to existing campaigns. Pull out all the stops:

• Stick to the subject. Create subject lines that stand out and appeal to recipients' current needs. Keep it short, make it urgent and focus on benefits.

• Don't follow the crowd. Test different days to send your messages. If the entire world is trying to get messages to customers on Monday because it is the beginning of the week, try sending on Wednesday.

• Make it personal. While most stores and TV ads would make us think everyone celebrates Christmas, this obviously is not the case. E-mail is one mode of advertising that can be personalized, so if you have the information to customize your messages, use it.

• Be responsive. One study showed 88 percent of customers expect their online inquiries to be resolved within 24 hours. Gear up for holiday traffic spikes so you can fill orders and respond to customer requests quickly.

• Make a suggestion. Use existing data to leverage customers' previous purchases and create re-marketing messages that could drive additional purchases.

• Be relevant. Timely, non-selling content could make customers more receptive to your promotional messages. Consider a timesaver newsletter, weekly holiday recipes or super shopper tips. n

Spencer Kollas is director of deliverability services at Premiere Global Services, Atlanta. Reach him at kollas@premiereglobal.com.

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