June 28, 2007, 12:00 AM

E-mail marketing may be all grown up, but marketers still have lessons to learn

Being the best at e-mail marketing means eschewing “batch and blast” in favor of innovation and customization.

Internet Retailer

E-mail is a valuable tool in every Internet retailer’s marketing arsenal. It helps a retailer get the word out, quite literally, about products and promotions, and helps cement branding efforts.

But e-mail marketing has now reached a point where it no longer is the new, vanguard marketing medium delighting consumers by its novelty; rather, it is accepted and in fact valued by consumers just as other marketing mediums such as direct mail and television commercials are accepted, says Shar VanBoskirk, Forrester Research Inc. senior analyst who specializes in e-mail issues.

She cites Forrester research that backs this up. “E-mail has reached a maturity in terms of consumer penetration, 97% of online consumers use it; marketer penetration, 97% of marketers use or plan to use e-mail marketing this year; and consumer attitudes toward the medium, 77% of consumers feel they get too many e-mail marketing messages, and 72% delete most e-mail without reading it,” she explains. “For marketers this means they can’t just do e-mail marketing and expect it to get them noticed. They must be the best at it in order to get consumers to value their messages.”

Batch and blast

Being the best means innovating. And many experts point to the practice of “batch and blast” as endangering e-mail marketing innovators.

Big business is faulted by some economists and analysts as being short-sighted, focusing too heavily on the short term and not enough on the long term. A similar criticism can be made of e-mail marketing practices, says Dave Lewis, vice president of market development at StrongMail Systems Inc.

“It’s so easy to dump 5 million messages using the e-mail medium. A retailer might do this because it needs to make a sales objective for the week and it knows a certain percentage of consumers will respond,” Lewis says. “Where that backfires, though, is while there will be some people who click through, enabling you to meet your sales objective, there also will be people who make decisions to unsubscribe or complain, or simply delete your e-mails. This affects your reputation and your ability to really reach customers.”

Too many marketers use e-mail in this way, as a broadcast medium, Lewis contends, and overlook narrower, customized, more effective uses of e-mail messages.

“You can send out 5 million messages, all the same, all at the same time. But the technology and the medium permit you to customize each message personally to a customer, relevant to their online behavior, all centered on your brand,” he says. “Marketers still see the Holy Grail as list size when it actually is the percentage of customers on your list who are engaged with your brand.”

Relevancy, Lewis says, produces an engaged customer.

Getting annoyed

“Many blanket e-mails have no understanding of you as a customer,” adds Greg Galloway, vice president of online marketing at Elevation Inc., an interactive marketing and technology consulting firm. “You can tell 100,000 other people have received the same message. And you can start annoying people with these messages.”

To be successful, all retailer e-mailers must create e-mail marketing programs that balance user needs and business goals, VanBoskirk says. “Most marketers today place too much focus on their business goals-sell product, liquidate inventory, drive brand awareness-and disregard the needs of their customers-save money, find a gift, manage loyalty points. No matter how creative or well-timed an e-mail message is, if a user doesn’t find any value in it, the marketing program will be useless to the marketer.”

But even with highly relevant e-mail messages, web retailers still face hurdles.

“E-mail marketing has gotten much harder in the last couple of years. Marketers must overcome a lot of challenges, including maintaining list quality, staying on top of e-mail design and rendering, and dealing with different e-mail providers such as Google and Yahoo,” says Stefan Pollard, director of consulting services at e-mail marketing software and services company EmailLabs. “Consequently, marketers must educate themselves, because if you just keep doing the same thing as last year, you won’t keep getting the same results.”

One growing challenge is consumers’ changing perceptions of what constitutes spam, Pollard says. “Recipients think of spam now as something that is unrecognized, unexpected or unwanted. For example, they may have opted into a program they thought would generate one e-mail every month but wind up getting five or six. That is unexpected and unwanted,” he says. “Further, recipients have become much more savvy at scanning their inboxes and making decisions very quickly. So if an e-retailer is not using the subject line well and messaging well, its e-mails can get deleted very quickly.”

To avoid the delete button, retailer marketers must learn how to best gauge what consumers want from the e-mail medium, experts say.

Don’t take for granted

“It comes down to rolling up your sleeves and doing the heavy lifting, and not taking the communication for granted,” Galloway says. “Get the right measurements in place and figure out all the right variables to get it down to as close to a one-to-one message as you can. It’s figuring out your success metrics up front and making sure you have measurement methods in place to determine if you are successful.”

And once measurement methodology is in place, testing becomes a key best practice.

More e-mail marketing managers are embracing testing as a driver to improve metrics, says Craig Smith, founder and managing director of Trinity Insight LLC, an e-commerce consulting and services firm. Sample testing of variables, he says, can include subject and sender lines, greeting text, images and creative, promotions, time of day, testimonials, and HTML vs. text-only.

“With so many variables existing within a single e-mail campaign, a marketer has a plethora of items to test to help achieve success,” Smith says. “Ultimately, the brands that get the most out of e-mail marketing are the ones that provide their opt-in list with content shoppers actually care about.”

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