September 28, 2005, 12:00 AM

SPONSORED SUPPLEMENT: Making the most of the email marketing tool

When the CAN-Spam Act became law nearly two years ago, many e-mail practitioners worried about the effect that the new e-mail regulations would have on the use of e-mail as a marketing and customer relationship tool. Nearly 24 months of experience have shown that while CAN-Spam has done little to reduce unsolicited e-mails in consumers inboxes, it also has not dented marketers ability to communicate with customers via e-mail.

What it has done has been to help tune marketers into the importance of how they use e-mail and how well they target their e-mails to customers. The overarching theme in todays e-mail market is relevance, says Matt Seeley, president of CheetahMail, an e-mail services provider that is part of Experian Inc. It has to be relevant to the consumer at the individual level.

The Permission Wave

Closely related to the CAN-Spam issues were concerns over the deliverability of e-mail. While the federal government was looking to regulation to keep consumers inboxes junk-free, Internet service providers were looking to technology and their own internal systems to achieve the same end. That created a challenge for e-mail marketers trying to figure out how to get around spam filters. That issue , too, is now under control, notes Loren McDonald, vice president of marketing for e-mail services provider EmailLabs. There was a lot of talk about the death of e-mail and many people were blaming the ISPs for all their problems, McDonald says. But today most companies have moved on from that. They realize that deliverability issues were a bump in the road and now theyre focusing on improving e-mail practices.

In fact, the future of e-mail will be as far from spam as it can get, some believe. Were seeing the Permission Wave in the evolution of e-mail, says Mike Adams, CEO of Arial Software Inc., a provider of e-mail management software. A lot of people have moved from one level of e-mail marketing to another. The future will be all about relationship marketing.

That notion is gaining wider acceptance throughout the market, says John Harrison, vice president of strategy and client services for e-mail services provider Yesmail, a division of infoUSA Inc. He believes that the new focus on making e-mail messages relevant to consumers will finally allow the promise of big customer relationship management initiatives to come to fruition. Until about a year ago, there was lot of talk about building big CRM databases, Harrison says. Now a number of our clients have moved beyond the talking stage. They are realizing that what you can do with e-mail will be driven by what you know about your customers and what you can do with that data.

Trust is everything

The raw numbers about how many e-mails a retailer sends each week or each month are irrelevant today, marketers say. The real questions revolve around why retailers send e-mails to certain customers, how often the customer wants to receive e-mail and what the customer does with the e-mail.

Successful e-mail campaigns start with trust, Adams notes. Trust is everything, he says. Its almost like dating, where you start with limited trust. You ask for a single piece of information, like name or birthday. Gradually you deepen the relationship and prove your merit as an online marketer who deserves their trust. Trust is a process, not a status. It evolves over time.

And its a process of building up data, Adams says. Theres no one characteristic of a single e-mail that will prove that youre legitimate, he says. But, he adds, it starts with sign-up. Set expectations during the subscription process-tell customers what theyll get, how often, the length and so on, he says.

In addition, even marketers who understand the problem and how to address it may not have an easy time building up that trust. We talk to marketers all the time who truly understand, but there are always limited resources in any organization, Adams says. A lot of organizations are still just trying to get the coupons out. Thats all they can deal with today.

One way that marketers can succeed is to build on existing relationships in logical ways, for instance, using a recent transaction to communicate with a customer and extend the relationship. Online retailers today should be taking advantage of the order confirmation e-mail, Seeley says. It shouldnt just say, Heres the order you placed, thanks. It should also include a brand message and tell the customer about other products they may be interested in that are related to the product they bought.

Tracking the results

In addition, Seeley says, messages should be presented in an attractive HTML format and retailers should have the ability to track e-mail messages, including knowing how many e-mails consumers open, how many click on something in the e-mail and how many clicks result in purchases. Those are all crucial elements of relevance. In the last six months weve seen a huge push toward making this happen, Seeley says. People are ready to act.

In addition, Adams encourages retailers to take a non-commercial attitude toward e-mail. You need to go outside the bounds of a commercial conversation, he says. Show passion for what youre doing and connect with subscribers at that passionate level. Fashion is a good example of something that consumers and retail marketers can share passions about, Adams says.

The product and the sale become the byproduct of two people jamming about something that really interests them, he says.

Two developments have taken place in the past year that will help online retailers achieve relevance in e-mail marketing. The first is the growing awareness of the need for a customer database that allows a retailer to tie together all a customers activity, both online and offline. The key is figuring out how to get the best view of the customer and that means integrating all sources of data-transactional, analytic, demographic, psychographic and e-mail behavior, Harrison says.

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