September 1, 2009, 12:00 AM

Sponsored Supplement: Increasing the potency of e-mail marketing

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An e-mail campaign that offers a retailer`s best customers the opportunity to reserve a seasonal item not yet in stock can help the retailer gauge interest in the item before placing an order with the supplier.

"This type of campaign can help retailers figure out how strong sales might be for an item before inventory is ordered," says Experian CheetahMail`s Chong. "In this economy, retailers want to better allocate every inventory dollar. Without this type of feedback, retailers are basing their inventory decisions on a gut feeling. E-mail is more than a marketing and merchandising tool, it is a tool that can help retailers make broader organizational decisions."

One organizational decision that many retailers are struggling with in the current economy is how to effectively liquidate unsold inventory. It can be difficult for a retailer to liquidate limited quantities of an item, especially when not all sizes and colors remain. The dilemma facing multichannel retailers is whether to allocate shelf space in stores for items with such limited quantities.

Using e-mail to target shoppers that typically buy items on sale or from clearance bins is a way to effectively move the merchandise without taking up valuable shelf space in stores. "Apparel retailers can even create e-mail campaigns that target customers that fall within a certain size range or category preference," adds Chong, who prior to joining Experian CheetahMail worked for women`s apparel retailer Spiegel.

Experian CheetahMail`s services include campaign management; creative, strategic and analytical consulting; and data analysis.

E-mail and social media
One of the new challenges e-mail marketers face today is learning how to leverage the social networking phenomenon. More and more consumers are joining such online communities as Facebook, MySpace and Twitter, and using them to talk about their shopping experiences.

Because word of mouth is such a powerful influence on consumer behavior, retailers are searching for ways to create e-mail campaigns that can land their messages on a customer`s personal Facebook or MySpace page.

"There is a huge marketing opportunity through social networking sites, but the key for retailers is to get consumers talking about them in a positive way, rather than be the one to start the discussion," says Bronto Software`s Waite.

One technique retailers can use is to include buttons that allow e-mail recipients to post the content within the message to their Facebook or MySpace pages.

The content may be news about a product, a promotion or even a thank you for a purchase that includes a prompt to share thoughts about the shopping experience with friends in their social network. "Any prompt to post something to a social networking site should be presented as an option," says Waite. "The goal is to let the customer decide what they want to post."

Bronto Software provides such features as advanced reporting, web analytics integration, and dynamic content that enable retailers to deliver relevant, timely e-mail messages.

Virtual tailgating
Before retailers plunge into the world of social networking, they first need to understand who their customers are, where to find them, and how to reach them through social networking. Creating social networking events, such as a virtual tailgate party for a football game, and e-mailing notification to loyal customers likely to spread the invitation throughout their respective communities can be an effective tool for attracting existing and prospective customers.

"It is an accepted practice for sports apparel companies to sponsor events as a way to involve themselves in a physical community, and consumers in social networking communities don`t see much difference when it`s done in the virtual world," says Yesmail`s Hilts.

The event can feature contests that engage consumers, such as whoever sends the most tweets on Twitter from the game wins a coupon from the retailer. "Retailers can also encourage consumers to post live photos from the game using their cell phones to enhance the experience for people who are on the event page but not at the game," Hilts says. "The aim is to create a live event that is fun, non-intrusive, engages consumers and motivates them to share the retailer`s message with their respective communities."

In addition to providing full-service, self-service and hybrid e-mail marketing applications to create e-mail campaigns, Yesmail has developed social networking assessment tools for retailers who are ready to start or build out their multichannel marketing communications. After assessing their current program and where it makes sense to build out applications, Yesmail can help clients extend the power of their e-mail marketing programs by creating a plan to bridge e-mail with fan pages on Facebook, a branded Twitter page, or iPhone applets and widgets.

Finding friends
To help retailers follow postings on social networking sites Bronto Software offers tools for retailers to track sharing of their branded e-mails. Experian CheetahMail and Yesmail offer tools to track mentions about their brand on social networking sites. Silverpop makes it easy for e-mail recipients to post e-mail on social sites and track the viral results of those postings.

These capabilities allow retailers to not only measure their exposure on social networking sites, but also track which customers generate the most postings. "Brand advocates are an extremely valuable audience because they influence consumer attitudes toward a retailer`s brand," says Voigt. "Retailers need to know who their brand advocates are and what they are saying about their brand and then find ways to stoke the affinity they have for their brand through e-mail marketing."

One way to reward shoppers who post a positive review on a social network or who forward an e-mail to a friend is to e-mail them coupons. "Sending a coupon is a way to say thank you to the person that initiated the posting without coming across as a blatant marketing campaign," says Waite. "A lot of retailers are jumping on the social networking bandwagon, but they need to remember that social networking communities tend to be sensitive to perceived intrusions from marketers. It is always best to tread lightly as consumers will tell friends about bad experiences with marketers."

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