The Conversion Jigsaw Puzzle

Now that sizable house e-mail lists are more common, many companies have increased their use of e-mail for conversion and retention, as opposed to purely acquisition marketing strategies.

Acquiring new customers with e-mail is one thing. You rent a few opt-in lists that target your audience, pull together a solid lead generation offer and send. It is not really that simple, but it is not rocket science.

Retention e-mail marketing is another issue. Cross-selling and upselling to existing customers through a new medium such as e-mail can present upfront challenges, but is arguably easier than trying to convert a new lead into a new paid customer.

Conversion through e-mail can be the most daunting because it is about turning that new lead, that stranger you just acquired, into something else — an ally who opens his wallet to you. This metamorphosis is not easy, nor is it for every business. It requires at least three core components to have any hope of making it work. Here are the general pieces of the puzzle:

An e-mail list of people who want to be there. You should have in place a strong infrastructure to collect e-mail addresses. That typically means including a sign-up form on many pages of your site — one that goes to a viable database that can be accessed easily for tracking results on different campaigns, and one that can pull and e-mail subscribers based on category of interest; geographic or demographic information; recency, frequency, monetary value variables and more.

Most important, make sure those names truly opted in to receive communication from you. The most profitable names are those that actually took an extra step to sign up for your e-mail offerings.

Look at the much-talked-about check box with the address collection form on your Web site. Though it is true that you likely will collect more subscribers by having the “Yes! I'm interested in receiving future e-mails from you …” box below the form pre-checked, a good portion of them are certain to be unwitting subscribers.

Quality rather than quantity is key to successful follow-up efforts — especially the very first paid offer — and an unknowing group of people does not a quality audience make. Grow your list slowly and by degrees. That means either allow them to check that opt-in box or, if you are determined to have it pre-checked, send an immediate e-mail that will quickly allow them to opt out.

Solid, relevant offer(s). I give the offer at least 50 percent of the credit for the success or failure of any campaign. For instance, a marketer should not expect to get stellar results by taking a brand-oriented ad campaign and spinning it into a direct response e-mail … without a bit of tweaking, that is. Unfortunately, this has happened quite a bit in the past year, what with marketing decision makers used to mass media so eager to break into this space. The main difference with most brand or mass awareness ad campaigns is the lack of a legitimate offer.

Just as it is offline, for a direct response ad to work, a momentum should be created in order to build response. That momentum often is generated from an incentive of some sort. In publishing, gifts or premiums are used as part of the inducement for a target audience to subscribe from a direct mail piece. Same goes for many catalogers to get people to buy. And even most cosmetics counters at large department stores offer specials — via direct response signs and displays — touting the companies' “free gifts with purchase.” Those do not come about by accident: There is a method to the madness.

If you want to sell or promote something of value within an e-mail, particularly if it is a first-time sale, you need to offer something of value as well. This means you need to budget for incentives. For the best potential response, be sure the incentives that are part of the offer are both relevant and at least partially related to your ultimate offering. For example, an online (or offline) bookseller promoting with e-mail to a house list of leads may give away a gold-plated bookmark with the purchase of X dollars worth of books. Or a digital camera manufacturer may give away a case of photo-quality printer paper for the do-it-yourself developers, or free Internet access with a free Web site to host its images for so many months.

Granted, to make it relevant, it may cost you some bucks. But the best offers are those that contain this intrinsic value.

The good news is that if you can get people to respond once — if you can get them to open their wallets and pocketbooks that first time, even if you need a pricey incentive to do so — many of them likely will pay up again with or without an incentive. I cannot overstate this: The offer is so vital, especially when promoting with e-mail to new customers and prospects. Do not overlook it or put it at the bottom of your bag of marketing tricks. It needs to be top priority.

KISS products and services. At the risk of using that much-overused acronym — and offer and strategy notwithstanding — an e-mail campaign's response rates are only as good as what the campaign is promoting. Therein lies the reason to keep those products and services easy to understand and easy to purchase. For example, it is difficult to promote, and get a decent conversion percentage from, a very complex and/or high-end suite of services within an e-mail. Typically, products and services of that nature fall under the business-to-business space, and the best way to market these is with subtlety and over time, embedded in e-newsletter content that is relevant to the target audience. However, that is more about generating awareness than response.

Think loss leaders and/or lower price points when selecting products and services to promote within a conversion e-mail. If you have nothing that falls in those categories, you probably are better off developing a content-rich newsletter that keeps your name and sales force contact information handy and top-of-mind.

Bottom line: The above components — along with a well-planned strategy and a means to execute — can help ensure at least a modicum of success with a conversion campaign. It may sound like common sense, but take a look at your own inbox. Sign up for a few e-mailed lead generations and see how those organizations promote to you — to get you to convert to a paid offer — from that point forward. You will be surprised how many e-mail marketers plan their conversion strategy without the above most basic components in place.

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