E-Mail Action Creates Choices for Catalogers

Opt-in e-mail marketing has gripped the direct marketing industry. There are books being published, there are conferences and there are huge statistics. Everyone's talking about it, and everyone knows they better do something about it. It's the killer app that's gone mainstream in a big way.

It's like the dot-com domain scramble of '96 and '97, but without the same gold rush heartbreak. This is a communications channel that will not run out. No one is going to get left out (unless they opt to leave the party altogether). Creative vendors will find endless wrappers and enhancers to put around e-mail to give marketers a steady stream of new and improved functionality. But you can only have one pizza.com.

Future availability doesn't cancel the urgency or call to action of opt-in e-mail marketing surrounding marketers today. Every Web technology vendor is tendering a solution. The top three or four dedicated e-mail marketing companies are growing like wildfire through rampant customer growth and a healthy dose of mergers, venture capital and pending initial public offerings. Then there is the open field of Web-based commerce, analysis, design, advertising and automation companies joining the field through partnerships and technology add-ons that are hoping to entice customers using the classic one-stop-shop model.

They all want a piece of the action. They've seen the future of e-mail and Internet marketing, and it's HOT. Why so Hot?

Marketers want to get in on the action because, as a few case studies have shown, there are marketers already using it to make millions in repeat business. Yes, this sounds like the gushing soundtrack on a late-night infomercial, but the true story behind e-mail is by no means far-fetched.

Once you are maintaining an e-commerce-enabled Web site, you only have two challenges: drive qualified prospects to the site and create ongoing, profitable relationships with them.

Opt-in, personalized, targeted e-mail is the perfect vehicle for both tasks. Catalogers, retailers, pure e-commerce players and even brand advertisers have started to come forward with numbers that astound their counterparts struggling to squeeze 1 percent conversion from a 90-day card mailer or 0.6 percent click-through rate from banner advertising on a major portal.

First, e-mail can usually garner click-throughs ranging from 10 percent to 20 percent on an average day. Next, it does it all overnight. The big pop comes when the actual sales are tallied and it becomes apparent that a single campaign doubled Web buys for the week. You'll hardly have time to notice that you've added an organizational wizard to your marketing arsenal — streamlining campaign management, campaign testing, list cleansing, and other marketing chores.

The e-mail gamut. Already, in these early boom days, marketers can find any level of e-mail marketing functionality from a multitude of vendors. There are simple bulk mailers, Web-based and packaged, that organize a list of e-mail addresses, then blast on-off messages to the list. More advanced packaged programs bundle in database capabilities, making possible the targeting and tracking of e-mail campaigns. Then there are the add-on e-mail packages designed to work if used with another piece of core software, like a Web personalization system. At the top of the food chain are services that provide great flexibility in list management, targeting and tracking, all from the convenience of a unified Web-based interface.

The decision for catalog marketers is not whether to do e-mail marketing, it's where to find the right tools for their needs.

Evaluating e-mail marketing choices. Naturally, I have my personal bias. But I think the following pointers deliver a very critical and practical view of what it takes to move into the e-mail marketing big leagues on the Internet today.

Choose a system that is easy to use. This is the only way to fight the Internet's demands for speed and constant change. The KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) principle will prevail. Yahoo was the simplest search engine; Ebay was the simplest auction. When you make a selection for marketing employees or customers, you can't afford to become encumbered with an app that's too complicated for you or them to use efficiently.

Choose a system that works for your needs today. The Internet grows by giant leaps, so if you take 90 days to implement a system, chances are it will be insufficient by the time it goes live.

Similarly, find a system that offers scalable functionality. The system should be able to handle 1,000 e-mails today and 1 million e-mails tomorrow. Another good gauge would be to see if the system provides strong support for a single individual as well as an entire enterprise.

Find a system that helps you acquire more opt-in e-mail prospects. Once you see the powerful results of your first few campaigns, you'll want more addresses.

Unless shopping at the low-end, choose a company with superior customer service. Functionality will converge for the leading e-mail marketers over time. The ability of a service team to respond quickly and intelligently to your ongoing marketing needs will provide the clearest advantages. Count on integrating your traditional, Web and customer data into the system over time. A true, complete solution is still a few Internet years away.

Enjoy the excitement of the fresh application of this old technology. Luxuriate in what e-mail can do for your business model. You don't need to spend 1 million dollars in e-mail marketing to see it generate a significant percentage of your Web revenues.

Jim Williams is the founder and general manager of MarketHome, which is a now a division of MySoftware Co., Palo Alto, CA.

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