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Back to the Business Of E-Marketing

In the wake of last month's terrorist attacks, I have heard many marketers say that what “we do” is insignificant in comparison. Trivial, even.

I have had those thoughts myself, especially in the days immediately following Sept. 11. But our healing process will begin only when we can truly get back to business. And part of getting back to business means getting back to marketing — including e-mail marketing — insignificant though it may seem.

We are entering what is normally the thick of the holiday marketing season. And I dare say many marketers — including myself — are wondering how last month's tragic events will affect this upcoming season.

Most campaigns that went out during the week of the disaster (after it was too late to stop them) saw poor results, both online and offline. Understandably, the target audience was not receptive to anything over and above that terrible incident. But based on monitoring outside e-mail promotions, as well as reviewing my own agency's current projects, it appears that — for many of our clients, at least — outbound e-mail marketing plans for the foreseeable future are not drastically changing, despite the low response they potentially may glean.

During a normal October, most offline mailers — retail catalogers mainly — already have their promotions out the door. And, over the past few years, this is the season when e-mail marketers begin to ramp up. This normally high season is an issue for most: For some with timely offerings, it could be a great time to promote offerings. For others, it could have an extremely negative effect on results.

But how does a marketer with a normally strong autumn/pre-holiday set of offerings develop a timely campaign now — in the wake of the disaster and on the edge of a war? And how does a marketer do that without coming across as (despite all good intentions) falsely patriotic and/or self-serving?

I do not have the answers, but there are essentially three routes you can take. You can err on the extreme side of caution and cancel all campaigns in the coming months … in this, what is normally one of the strongest seasons. Or you can take a walk on the wild side and dive in headfirst, and develop and deploy your campaigns as you normally do to take advantage of the season. Or (and obviously I saved my own recommendation for last) you can tread lightly and test/analyze as you go … test/analyze as you go.

How? Stick with the tried-and-true, which need adjustments for these turbulent times, but they are strategies that are within your reach that would enable you to market with lower risks.

· Keep an eye on the competition. If your main competitors are aggressively e-mailing their house lists (of which, I would hope, you are a member), you can benefit from this by e-mailing test segments of your audience at alternative times. And once you have accurately gauged your competitors' schedules, you can then send test segments during those times as well.

· If you discover that the times that they promote are viable, you can attempt to send larger, closer-to-rollout quantities that will beat them to the punch. Or, conversely, you may discover that you need to scale back or cut back altogether, and then can save a good portion of your budget.

· Create a flexible schedule for the weeks ahead. The great thing about e-mail is its allowance for fast escapes. Unlike direct mail, where the printing process requires weeks of planning and turnaround time, you can cancel an e-campaign — especially if it is an internal one — at the drop of a hat, if need be.

· Plan for that, because this is obviously a precarious time. In other words, other unexpected factors can affect the outcome of your e-mailings, including more dramatic news events, poor economic news and — as you now know — much, much more. You still need to be able to roll (so to speak) with the punches, so create your schedule with plenty of what-if scenarios built-in.

· Quickly apply key learnings from tests to optimize your rollouts. Have you ever completed a successful test and — thinking you had a winner on your hands — sent a much larger quantity, a version of same, at a later time only to discover that your follow-up campaign did not do as well? This could have been (and most likely was) due to poor seasonality conditions, or other timing issues.

Now, more than ever, you need to think — and act — fast on your feet. With every test cell you create, you need to have a backup rollout prepared to go out immediately. E-mail is a fickle realm, and successful tests do not always translate into successful rollouts, and, often, results may not even be relative.

In rigid testing with our agency's clients, we found that for a true rollout to be successful, it has to be sent within a week of the test campaign, preferably on the same day and at the same time. This is a tactic that needs to be stressed, now more than ever.

Of course, you also can start testing current market conditions by e-mailing your control on a regular basis (weekly, biweekly) to smaller segments of comparable, yet unique names from your house list. Just be sure you test segments of at least 10 percent of your list's universe each time to get a statistically valid reading.

Whatever happens in the coming weeks and months, this cautious strategy not only will help you with your budget, but also can help shore up your reserves for future successful e-campaigns, a future where “terrorist” is not a household word and, therefore, has no effect on how or when you market your products and services.

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