May 23, 2002, 12:00 AM

When interactive e-mail talks, customers talk back

Creating a dialogue with customers was the goal of e-mail campaigns of Calvin Klein and The Dial Corp.

The latest twist in crafting e-mail marketing campaigns is to create a dialogue. Proponents argue that marketers should take advantage of the interactivity that e-mail provides—both in prompting consumers to take an action and in the ease of sending e-mails so customers can stay informed. “E-mail marketing is an oxymoron,” says V.A. Shiva, CEO of Cambridge, Mass.-based EchoMail Inc. “Blasting out e-mails can have a severely negative impact on e-mail marketing and customer relationships, fundamentally hurting ROI and brand awareness.”

EchoMail was behind two successful interactive e-mail campaigns recently. Fashion designer Calvin Klein this spring ended a three-year dialogue with 1 million customers who sent e-mail addresses to Calvin Klein so they could correspond with characters in a soap-opera style series of commercials for Klein’s cK One fragrance.

When Calvin Klein launched the cK One scent in 1998, the company wanted to use new technology to create a marketing buzz about its new unisex fragrance. Calvin Klein had considered promoting a web site, but decided web sites were too impersonal. Thus it opted for a more personal e-mail campaign, hoping to create a conversation with consumers and some marketing buzz. Each of the 16 characters in the commercials had an e-mail address that appeared at the end of the commercial. While the e-mails did not directly promote cK One, the e-mail addresses included the brand name, such as Calvin Klein had expected the campaign to run for six months.

The EchoMail system managed all the incoming mail to the cK One character addresses. To keep the story going with consumers who sent e-mails, the company used a script writer to maintain story lines based on particular consumer responses. EchoMail, which has 200 clients, 30% of which are retailers, uses technology to analyze customer replies so companies can respond appropriately.

While not engaging in soap-opera marketing, consumer packaged goods manufacturer The Dial Corp. has been using e-mail related to soap in another way. It affixed a sticker to its Purex laundry detergent bottles encouraging customers to visit the Dial web site for a chance to win prizes, including a Chevrolet Tahoe. Dial says 78% of customers who bought the product at major supermarkets nationwide logged onto the Dial web site, providing 234,000 e-mail addresses.

When customers enter the code from the sticker into the Dial web site to see if they’ve won a prize, Dial asks them to fill out a survey on laundry habits and sign up for an e-mail list. Dial expects to use the list of consumers to get feedback on new products as well as to run promotions. “We’ve become much more integrated with offline and online promotion in order to build better customer relationships,” says Ann Toca, manager of advertising, promotion and Internet for Dial. “We’re getting our database to a size that we can market to and we’re getting results we like from the interactive web program.”

Companies are still struggling with what their customers want to get from them in e-mails, says David Hallerman, senior analyst at New York-based researchers e-Marketer Inc. “Any e-mail program that allows customers to give real feedback is going to work because consumers want to be self-directed not bombarded with information,” he says.

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