E-Mail's Low Cost Makes Us Lazy

The problem with e-mail is that it is too cheap. As an ROI marketer, I never thought I would say such a thing. Normally, I love cheap media. But about e-mail, it is true.

The low cost of e-mail has made us marketers complacent. Lazy, even. Our cost per thousand impressions are low, so our costs per order are low, and we can mail like crazy. But face it: We send out a lot of junk. Most commercial e-mail messages deserve to be called spam today. They are awful. Bad writing, no targeting, crummy offers.

And there will be consequences. Our bad behavior is killing the Golden Goose. Consumers can delete this stuff as fast as we can send it. And worse, they are fast developing an attitude toward commercial e-mail that harms us all. An attitude that it is all junk. That none of it is valuable or relevant. It is an annoyance to them. And they are going to demand legislation. Bye-bye, Goosie.

It is time for us to wise up. What should we do to save ourselves and this fabulous new medium? Some people think the medium needs to become more expensive, that some artificial cost-shifting must be imposed so the economics make us more conservative in our use of e-mail. But far be it from me to support any remedy that increases marketing costs.

There is another way. We marketers must take steps to improve our campaigns and reduce the level of annoyance we cause. We need to act now, and we need to discipline ourselves. If we don't, someone else might do it for us.

Here are some principles we need to follow, religiously.

· Make it relevant. Above all, the message has to have some usefulness to the recipient. Our mantra needs to be value.

· Target the message. Sounds like Direct Marketing 101, but many of us seem to have forgotten about it. What we have been doing is closer, in principle, to mass advertising. Drenching the unwashed marketplace with a fire hose. So it is time to go back to the basics, to the fundamentals of direct marketing. Our messages are addressable. They need to go to the most likely prospects, not to just anyone.

· Segment the file. In retention communications, even if e-mail campaigns are managed separately from the rest of the customer data, it is important to segment by such e-mail-based behaviors as response to various offer types, closed sales, nonresponse and whatever other high-level categories make sense.

· Personalize. The e-mail medium lends itself to personalization so beautifully. Why aren't we taking full advantage? Every message should greet the recipient by name. The content of each message should be adjusted to be maximally relevant.

· Make great offers. There's DM 101 again. We need better incentive offers, and good value propositions.

· Test. The single most important variable is the subject heading, which has to do the job of an entire outer envelope — in only 35 characters. This is a tough challenge. But it is so easy to test variations. Let's get busy.

· Write well. The stuff that is coming into my inbox is embarrassing. The medium may be electronic, and instantaneous, but it is still personal. Write real copy, from a real person to a real person. Keep it short, but not so short that you do not get the benefit across. Put all the technical and legal gobbledygook at the bottom. I suspect we are allowing e-mail copy to be written by the wrong people. Hire the best copywriters you can find. They are out there, and the good ones are gaining a lot of valuable experience in this new medium.

· Monitor frequency. Just because we can mail does not mean we should. Survey customers regarding their preferences, and honor them. Test frequency and cadence with customer segments, and analyze opt-out rates or click-through rates to establish the best frequency for your situation.

The author thanks Reggie Brady for her wise advice in preparing this column.

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