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'Tis the Season To Be Testing

This is the season to shop … and promote. And spend a ton of money on marketing, with (hopefully) a healthy holiday return.

Given the economic and industry challenges, now — more than ever — marketers that are responsible for pushing products online need to make the most of their dollars during this holiday season. To do that, you need to devise e-mail promotions that get results. Big results. Just in the nick (so to speak) of time.

So how do you do that, exactly? Or, at the very least, what will give you the best shot of reaching those lofty goals? You need to test a variety of components, and you need to ensure your tests are given top priority.

For experienced direct marketers, testing is second nature. And the beauty of e-mail is that you can get from A (test setup) to Z (test results) in a nanosecond, compared to direct mail. In other words, it could take as few as three days, if necessary, to turn around a test campaign with a set of results you can count on.

The question is: What tests will yield the most valuable results; that is, results you can apply to your holiday campaigns for maximum impact, maximum conversion and sales? And what is the best way to set them up?

It all boils down to a handy document that is little used called the testing strategy. Marketers often create their tests on the fly, or — especially for offline direct marketers — the medium does not afford them the luxury of testing more than three or four variables … and who needs a document for something that simple? (Note: I am talking about pure creative and offer here — not lists, of course, which can have you testing six ways to Sunday.)

With an e-mail, you literally can test a hundred different things as long as each test cell is big and/or complete enough to provide statistically valid results. Due to the lack of time from now through your very last holiday promotion, however, focus only on those tests that have the most potential of boosting your revenues this season.

Here is a little advice before you begin, especially if you are just starting to promote your wares online: Do not bother testing HTML versus text. Chances are probably, oh, 99 percent or so that an HTML-based promotion will beat a pure text-based one hands-down, regardless of whether your products have strong “curb appeal.” A side-by-side test of this kind would have been smart a few years ago, maybe even a year ago. However, HTML likely will win out, provided the layout and design are truly above par and of the high quality that online shoppers are used to seeing in their inboxes these days.

Beyond that, what follows is my quick hit list of test suggestions that can potentially yield the biggest lifts in response. Keep in mind we are starting with the big guns and drilling down from there.

Format test. Yes, believe it or not, an HTML e-mail can be made up of many formats. And format is important because an e-mail has limited space and the format plays a key role in creating tone and in directing the recipients' eyes to a certain location within the promotion. It is the backbone of your promotions and, to a large extent, your company's brand via e-mail. I have seen a solid format glean as much as a 40 percent lift due to this.

Just to give you the quick tour, there is the letter format, complete with salutation and formal close, which is designed and can showcase one or multiple products. The postcard — often a big winner — is an ideal format for simple singular-proposition-type offers. This format usually contains two or three very short paragraphs, a headline, a graphic and a logo. Finally, there is the catalog, which contains very little direct response copy to speak of, but instead showcases products with quick description links.

Once format is done, test price variables. One such variable is location. In fact, one upscale catalog marketer using e-mail does tremendously well with a high price point ($150 average sale from an e-mail promotion) by not putting prices in the e-mail itself. Instead, she teases recipients with a provocative headline, a fine-tuned design and luxuriously displayed products. If recipients want to learn more, they click on any of the product shots or links and are taken to the specific site pages where they can discover more details, including pricing. If your products are on the high side (especially for the Web, which can be as low as $25-plus), consider a test that shows products without pricing and run it against your control with pricing.

Another excellent test that can help increase your return on investment by several degrees is price point minimums. Again, Web users, for the most part, are still not quite trained on buying high-ticket items online. A price point test will help determine their threshold with your products. A test that pits, for instance, your $20 to $30 products against your $40 to $50 ones may have weaker clicks and conversions but may provide significantly higher overall revenue per e-mail.

Once you have calculated results on the tests above, you can start testing more of the nitty-gritty details such as special offers versus standard offers (does free shipping really give enough of a boost to substantiate the additional costs?), subject lines, and even — dare I say it? — the “from” line. (Another word of advice: Test the “name” part of the from line, the section that goes just before the sender's e-mail address.) Preliminary results with one client indicate that this area is a very significant piece of real estate — maybe even more important than the subject line — to entice recipients to simply open the message.

So get out those spreadsheets. Sharpen those pencils. And develop a quick test strategy that makes sense to your unique business. You will then be well on your way to figuring out the variables and components most likely to give your e-mail campaigns the highest response and bring in the cold, hard cash.

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