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Make E-Mail Work for You and Your Audience

To e-mail, or not to e-mail, it’s no longer a question.

With apologies to Mr. Shakespeare and “Hamlet,” this statement describes the state of interactive marketing. E-mail techniques are routinely incorporated into online campaigns. It is no longer enough just to create a gorgeous, but inherently passive, Web site. Smart e-marketers are designing the more active technique of e-mail into their electronic marketing initiatives to keep their customers and prospects coming back.

The Internet’s promise as a virtual salesperson — offering just the right information at the right point in the buying cycle — is coming true. Effective e-mail is a critical part of that kind of closed loop e-marketing, but you need to design it into your e-marketing initiative as carefully as you would your Web site, fulfillment process or e-commerce interfaces.

In planning your campaign, it is useful to consider the following:

Who will get them? Blindly sending e-newsletters to anybody and everybody who might have purchased something off of your Web site is sure to turn off your customers and ensure that they never return. And not ever sending them anything has become equally bad practice — visitors look forward to interaction … when it is on their terms.

Your e-mail address file is, in direct marketing parlance, your house file. It is comprised of individuals who have been “touched” by your company in some way, ranging from recipients who have purchased from you multiple times … to dissatisfied customers who bought once and e-mailed you for merchandise return instructions … to casual Web site visitors who anted up their e-mail addresses to receive some PDF files of company brochures.

In creating your programs, think carefully about the segments that comprise your house list, and design in different approaches for each. An “approach” in this context refers to many factors, including content of the e-mails, their frequency, degree of personalization, etc.

From the “two steps forward, one step back” department, as you grow your inhouse e-mail list, you will also start to receive unsubscribe requests, aka. “un-subs.” Be sure to plan out how you will handle these requests, whether you are broadcasting inhouse using a vendor; nothing will get your recipients angrier — or the e-mail spam complaints flying faster — than an ineffective un-sub process.

While the list you grow is invariably better than the list you buy, you should also test use of purchased e-mail lists. Experiment with them to assess their effectiveness in attracting customers, building Web traffic or adding subscribers to your e-newsletter mailing list. However, be sure to check into how the list owner acquired the list (i.e., was it “double opt-in” or simply “failed to opt out”?), as this will impact not only your results, but keep you out of some bad light in associating with a perceived purveyor of spam.

Check into what you can do with targeting with these lists as well; e-mail lists typically do not have nearly the segmentation capability as their postal counterparts.

What will your e-mails contain? The old adage about “different strokes for different folks” could not be more true in regards to e-mail marketing. For instance, if you are a travel agency, you might consider asking those same visitors who requested a PDF brochure if they would also like to receive a monthly e-newsletter containing travel planning tips.

You can forward money-saving electronic coupons to your repeat customers for use on their next trip, to encourage loyalty with this valuable audience. Dissatisfied customers might receive a follow-up e-mail from the CEO of your company, inquiring if they felt their issues had been dealt with effectively.

So in regards to effectiveness, e-mail content is as important as segmentation. In fact, today’s personalization technologies make it possible to assemble e-mail content dynamically, based on such factors as the recipients’ recent buying history, lifestyle, family status, personal preferences — so that no two e-mails you broadcast to a given segment would be the same.

One financial services company took advantage of its knowledge of customers’ preferences and buying history to broadcast personalized e-newsletters comprised of snippets of content of interest interspersed with targeted special offers. The programming to ensure that each piece of content went to the appropriate recipient was not a piece of cake, but the results made the effort worthwhile. In designing programs, take advantage of what you know about your target audiences, as well as what you can provide to each member that will be of compelling value to each member’s particular interests.

Where will you send it from? When you receive an e-mail from a friend, you typically recognize the return address and open it because of your familiarity with the sender. The same is true with e-mail marketing: Send out your e-mail from an address that your audience will recognize … and trust.

It sounds simple, but you would be surprised at the instances in which this does not happen. Many e-marketers contract with service providers or application service providers to broadcast e-mail on their behalf; unfortunately, the return e-mail address is not that of the marketer, but an address associated with the service provider to facilitate automated handling bounce-backs or e-mail returned to the sender. If you go the route of using an outside provider (and they do offer many advantages over doing it yourself), arrange with the technical folks on both sides for a return address that carries at least some reference to your company’s branding.

Also know that many e-mail recipients respond to automated e-mails they receive with queries. Be sure to incorporate appropriate processes and technology to separate automated bounce-backs you receive from one-to-one responses from customers and prospects. It could well make the difference between a happy, paying customer and a convert for the competition.

In a similar vein, consider your subject line carefully as well. Treat the five or six words you have available as you would a headline on an advertisement — they are the key to driving response. If your e-mail contains a free offer, reference that offer (especially that it is free) right in the subject line.

When will you send your e-mail? There are numerous different kinds of e-mail, each with a different target audience and a different purpose. But when you send out e-mail is as important to its effectiveness as many of these other factors.

E-newsletters are typically broadcast on a regular schedule, say the second Tuesday of every month. If you do not have broadcast schedules for your periodic communications, establish them and stick to them, in the same way that a publisher stops at virtually nothing to ensure that a monthly magazine hits the stands on time. And publicize your schedule in each e-mail you send. Assuming that your audience is well segmented and your content appropriately targeted and personalized, your customers and prospects will appreciate your punctuality and perhaps even begin to associate it with the quality of your company’s services.

On the other hand, if you have a pitch on your Web site encouraging sign-ups or subscriptions, take advantage of the opportunity to automatically and immediately send back a (short) thank you note. Not only will visitors feel confident that their registrations were processed correctly, but you will have a quick verification (assuming you do not get a bounce-back) that you have valid e-mail addresses.

E-mail associated with customer service inquiries is another matter. Arrange to automatically and immediately send out e-mail confirmations to customers who contact you that you have received their queries. Include a tracking number, if appropriate, for subsequent queries by customers. Indicate in your return e-mail what your response policy is, in terms of when customers can expect to hear back from you. If you do not have a response policy, create one, stick to it and track your actual performance against it.

How will you send your e-mail? As noted, you have many excellent options for broadcasting e-mail, regardless of the type. Alternatives, however, can typically be broken down into two categories: inhouse and outsourced. Each has advantages and disadvantages, and there are pros and cons associated with each vendor you might select should you choose to outsource. Consider different approaches.

Inhouse means that you — or someone in your company — write, lay out and broadcast your e-mails, and of course process bounce-backs and un-subs. This gives you maximum control over your e-mail operations, and in the (hopefully rare) event that there is a problem, you may have more direct control to get it corrected. Unfortunately, if your creative or technical resources are also tasked with other responsibilities, your program may fall victim to other priorities and schedules may slip.

Use of a services provider may help overcome some of these challenges. With the right vendor, your program will presumably be in the hands of professionals who each focus their energies on particular aspects of the e-mail marketing process. Presumably, your selected vendor has sufficient personnel to ensure that your programs run on schedule. However, the dot-com debacle over the past 12 months has put many marketing services companies out of business or in a weakened state, leaving many marketers looking for another service provider under pressure, or — more seriously — looking for their data.

Marketing services providers can make a real difference for you and your program, but caveat emptor applies now more than ever. Check out not only the services provided by a prospective vendor and the personnel they will assign to your account, but the financials, senior management track record and financial backing as well.

Why are you sending your e-mail in the first place? If the role of a salesperson is to help customers buy, the role of e-mail is to help them buy online. As you plan and evolve your company’s e-mail programs, take the time to think of this compelling medium in broader contexts, e.g.:

• What role will e-mail play as part of your customers’ buying cycles?

• Is it your preferred channel of communications with your customers, or one of many means in which you can interact with them?

• How will you know if your e-mail efforts are succeeding?

These are just some of the strategic factors to consider in rolling out effective use of e-mail across your company, and its target audiences.

But, as more and more firms are finding, e-mail programs can be well worth the effort in terms of customer perception, response rates and return on investment. To paraphrase this time from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” “E-mail is such stuff as marketers’ dreams are made on.”

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