March 28, 2002, 12:00 AM

Dumping the download

With the novelty of e-mails gone, marketers need to entice consumers to open their e-mails or suffer dismal response rates.

By Herschell Gordon Lewis

Joe Glutz runs a business-Joe Glutz & Co. You can reach Joe Glutz online at joe@glutzco.com.

Joe has added his personal online address for inclusion in every e-mail he sends to customers and prospects. To be sure the message goes out exactly as he wants it, he sends it as a total download. No upfront text. A total download.

A total download is a message that has no “Read this” or “I want you to take a look at what I’m sending you” or any personal words on your screen. What does come onto the screen when a target-consumer clicks on the message is a “Download” notice-notice of an attachment the recipient has to open if he or she is going to see anything. Nothing else.

Total downloads have become epidemic. We see them from major marketers such as Tiger Software, B to B Magazine, American Home Guides Inc., American Express Platinum Card, mailing list companies such as Edith Roman Associates Inc., Socketware Inc., SuperMarkets Online Inc.’s ValuPage and the Direct Marketing Association. And these are just a fragment of the total downloads I’ve opened this week.

The warning

Why would Joe-and American Express and all those others-send a total download instead of a message plus a download? Because that way, he knows exactly how the message will look when his customer gets it. The customer will see all the pretty pictures and bright colors he couldn’t pack into a basic text message without generating a frustratingly slow opening. And if he sent the message as an HTML-based e-mail instead of as an attachment, America Online might not support the format.

So what Joe has done is what too many retailers, catalogers, and service providers do: First, he thinks a neat package will achieve a click-through. Second, he assumes that what he sees on his screen is what everyone else sees on his or her screen.

Ah, but Joe isn’t typical. His e-mail goes to joe@glutzco.com. That isn’t a typical consumer address. What’s typical are the 32 million subscribers to America Online. They see a total download and read this:

Warning: If you don’t know who sent you this e-mail, be cautious in downloading this file.

And on it goes, suggesting the possibility that the file “may damage your computer system or contain objectionable graphics.”

Click! They’re outta here.

But Joe knows only that his beautiful download e-mail isn’t pulling the way his consultant told him it would. What he doesn’t know is that he should have opened with an introduction, telling the recipient what’s in the download (a clear benefit, please!). Even a simple “Open this for a special offer” would de-fang the skepticism and not mar his pretty offer.

The problem isn’t as severe if your targets are business customers because they’re less likely to have an AOL address. How difficult is it to segregate names that end in @aol.com?

Test, test, test

If you don’t believe a total download damages response, test. One huge advantage e-mail has over any other advertising or sales promotion medium is the ease of testing. Your test may show that a total download pulls more response than a download tied to a textual introduction. But if it does, it’ll be the first example I’ve ever heard of.

In fact, a test on which I worked as copywriter for an online vendor of holiday-related gift items showed these response rates:

  • Text with download = 3.8%.
  • Text without download = 4.2%.
  • HTML with download = 4.1%.
  • HTML without download = 4.3%.
  • Total download = 2.2%.

This online retailing organization not only is willing to test but also has a list big enough to validate the test, which suggests that the results this retailer achieved are applicable to the general market.

Okay, what does that prove?

My client concluded that text without a download-which, averaging the cost of HTML preparation against the total number produced, was about half a cent less per unit than HTML without a download-was the winner for this promotion, because net profit was higher. And the test validated the reluctance of consumers to open unexplained attachments.

Obviously, text costs less than HTML because text involves zero production. Another benefit is that zero production means minimal time to make changes. But, as is true of every other marketing technique, these results provide only a snapshot of what works and what doesn’t work today. Even two years ago, using HTML was dangerous when marketing to consumers because many computers and browsers weren’t able to handle HTML e-mail messages efficiently. Two years from now the capability of receiving HTML unquestionably will be more universal and HTML without a download may well work better than text without a download not only because consumers will be accustomed to receiving such messages but also because designers will have a better understanding of how to use the graphics to generate a response.

Do these numbers mean downloads don’t work? Not at all. They mean we have to be careful to use downloads when and if we need them. Attachments can be especially valuable when a retailer has a number of products to list and doesn’t want the computer grinding away interminably as it opens the heavy file. Those interminable messages can cause as many “I’m outta here” click-outs as total downloads.

If you believe you must include an attachment, then also include a lead-in that will whet consumers’ desire to download the attachment. What kinds of lead-in sentences validate a download? The answer to that question is surprisingly simple. “Here is whatever” or “I’ve attached whatever” or “Want to see whatever” are generics that work, especially if the message has an individual’s signature A few examples of download lead-ins:

  • Here are this week’s discount specials.
  • Attached: pictures of your new computer.
  • Want to see the bouquet just as your loved one will see it? Click the attached message.
  • Take a look at this!

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