June 2, 2005, 12:00 AM

Life After Spam

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The body of the e-mail message also affects whether the consumer acts on the message. “E-mail is about brevity,” Baker says, adding that people make a decision on e-mail in about three seconds. “I can’t tell you exactly what content works and what doesn’t. But if the intent of the message is promotional and you can’t push that impression in three to five seconds, you’re failing.”

A recent Arial survey found that by an eight-to-one ratio, customers preferred a table of contents with a web link to a text message. “They don’t want the e-mail to be full of content, where they have to scroll down,” Adams says. “That finding surprised me because a couple of years ago it was about 50-50.”

Adams attributes the change in attitudes to the heavy volume of e-mail consumers have to contend with. “People have such a short amount of time to spend on each e-mail,” he says. “If it’s not right there in the preview pane, they’re going to trash it.”

What a retailer puts in the subject line of an e-mail also can make a difference. “The subject line is extremely important, and it will continue to be,” Carr says. “Make sure it’s consistent, make sure it’s informative so they know what you’re sending.”

Prominently displaying information about opt-out lists and other CAN-Spam requirements on web sites also can help online merchants win the trust of their customers, Carr says. “When a user sees all this information, sees that you’re making your best effort to protect them, they’re more likely to trust you,” he says. “When they trust you, they’re going to be more open and respond.”

The importance of frequency

Starting off messages with a statement that the customer requested e-mail updates also can increase the effectiveness of the message, Yaar says. “We’ve seen some fairly substantial-high single to low double-digit-increases in click-throughs when you include sentences like ‘you’ve requested that we inform you once a week about the following things.’”

Placing instructions in large print on how to unsubscribe to a newsletter also can make consumers more comfortable with an e-retailer, Yaar says. “You are sending your customer the implicit message that we understand you may not want this information so we’re going to make it easy for you to remove yourself.”

The frequency of e-mail also can make or break a campaign. Carr counsels merchants to send e-mails only once a month or every few weeks, unless they have something really powerful to offer consumers, for example, coupons or a link to a daily news site. Indeed, more frequent mailings could drive consumers away because they will be perceived as junk mail.

Still there are customers who want to get daily e-mail updates, Sweetser says. “There’s a loyal customer base that wants to get their deal of the day,” he says. “That type of frequency is really dependent on the audience.”

For the retailers e-Dialog works with, customers select the frequency via a permission-based pop-up box on a weekly or monthly newsletter, Sweetser says.

Once retailers establish a relationship with customers via e-mail, they still face another challenge: getting through the spam filters of ISPs. Getting past those barriers is a combination of science and art, Sweetser says. E-Dialog does spam reviews of clients’ e-mail campaigns to head off problems. “Content with the word ‘free’ capitalized and bolded twelve times is just screaming to be filtered and put into bulk mail,” he says.

e-Dialog , like other e-mail marketers, has mailboxes with the major ISPs and checks them daily to see whether clients’ e-mails were delivered, he adds.

Despite all the obstacles, e-mail marketing will continue to be an important tool for online retailers, observers say. For one thing, it’s cheaper than other types of advertising-about a penny per name compared with 50 cents to $1 per piece of direct mail or catalogs.

It also gives online retailers the ability to change messages on short notice, as opposed to print and other ad campaigns where changes take weeks or even months.

Strategy focus

It appears that more online retailers are beginning to take the advice of e-mail marketers, Sweetser says. “Clients are more strategy focused,” he says. “It’s not about just getting it out the door, but who are we sending it to, what are we trying to learn, what deeper insight are we trying to get, and then applying that.”

As for now, online retailer’s heavy reliance on e-mail marketing continues.

In fact, e-mail marketing has the most value as a retention tool, Yaar says. The use of e-mail to acquire customers is losing effectiveness-as much as a 20% to 30% drop-as search engine optimization increases, Yaar says. “But as a retention tool, e-mail is still very, very powerful, because it can draw customers back to sites,” he says.


For the Guide to E-Mail Marketing Products and Services, click here.

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