Test Message: Surviving the Stress

Our marketing vocabularies have expanded dramatically during the past few years.

Who knew words like spam, flame or autoresponder would become part of our everyday vernacular?

Seemingly without effort we have all incorporated these new terms and phrases into not only our daily work lives, but our daily anxiety load. Perhaps no term, other than spam, has evoked more tension and stress among the list professional community than “test message.” The simple definition of test message is an e-mail message sent for approval by the advertiser or mailer before a campaign's mass deployment.

The concept is fairly straightforward. A mailer sends the copy or creative to the e-mail list broker. The list broker then disseminates this copy/creative to all the appropriate list managers. The list managers then take the copy/creative and work with whatever option they have chosen to deploy the e-mail list rentals. Each list has predetermined headers and footers that go with any e-mail to be deployed.

The deployment house formats the messages using the copy/creative supplied by the mailer/advertiser and works to get the test message sent out for approval. Once approvals from the test messages are sent, the e-mail campaign is ready for transmission. Is it not surprising that a process that seems so simple can become so convoluted and complex?

Test messages are regarded as the dry cleaning process of e-mail marketing. You drop off your copy and everything should be fine. Perhaps if all dry cleaners operated flawlessly we would never need to switch. Clothes get lost, damaged, over-starched or just done wrong. E-mail list rentals unfortunately are no different.

What is very different is list companies' role in the marketing process. Our direct mail responsibilities seem like a vacation compared with our new role in e-mail.

We have gone from simple media planners and buyers to providing services normally done by editors, lettershops, fulfillment houses, technology experts and a host of other areas in which we have never been involved.

Among these new responsibilities is handling the receipt of copy/creative. Perhaps the simplest step, yet the one that causes the most problems. The main issues involve improper text formats, nonfunctioning or missing URLs, and the need for default text messages.

Most often when text copy is sent along to use as the message for the e-mail list rental, it is sent in a Microsoft Word document format. This format results in formatting errors. Formatting Word documents into pure text to be used in e-mail deployments results in characters and spacing getting interpreted incorrectly. The resulting inaccurate test messages cause more rounds of testing.

A simple solution: Send text copy over as a .txt message, rather than a .doc, and the formatting issues disappear.The URL or link inside the test also is often a source of test message problems.The reason: Most list owners not only want to see the message, but where the links in the message go. When copy is sent for approval, however, the links often lead to pages that are not yet “live” or functioning because of last-minute tweaks and updates.

List owners generally will not approve a message until they can see the actual pages to which the links lead.

Another major source of campaign delays are URL changes. Throughout the test message process, it is fairly common for mailers to send replacement links to be used in the original copy that was sent.

Even the slightest change to an e-mail message means the test message has to be redone and retransmitted and can result in dramatic delays. This takes time, and is an element of the testing process that is often the most misunderstood and frustrating.

The last piece to the copy/creative is to always have a default text message when mailing HTML, Flash or something other than text copy. Even if you order only HTML-enabled addresses, most list managers will require a backup text default for those recipients who may have recently changed e-mail clients.

To ensure the speediest and most accurate test message process, make sure that all text messages are sent over as .txt, that all URLs are functioning and are final and that all nontext messages are accompanied by a default text message.

Assuming any issues with receiving the copy/creative can be resolved, the next step is having the newly created test message approved by the accompanying list owner.

And here is another source of delay.

For many list owners, income from list rentals is ancillary. As a result, the delays come from workload triage, rather than from formatting or technical issues. However, these days most list owners are approving orders faster because revenue from any area is a priority.

After the list owner approves the test message, it is ready to go to the mailer.

Each rental generally has multiple pieces of copy to allow for testing. Add in this the HTML, text and potentially AOL versions, and now the number of test messages that need to be approved are at least six.

Upon the mailer receiving each version, the time is then taken to examine each message to ensure that everything is accurate. It is safe to say that at least half of all tests have some element that needs to be adjusted. Spacing, capitalization, broken images and any number of other issues can lead to the need for a re-test.

A re-test is not merely the transmission of a reformatted e-mail message, but an operational function that needs to go through a series of internal processes to again get deployed. All of this can take time.

E-mail list rental marketing has reached a point where most mailers only want messages to be delivered on Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday. Taking into account all the potential bumps in the test message process, and the limited window for actual mailings, it has become increasingly difficult to execute programs on schedule.

Not all list brokers and managers are the same. Some mailings go off without a hitch, while others seem to drag on forever.

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