June 9, 2005, 12:00 AM

What dogs taught Petco about e-mail marketing

Dogs and online shoppers share some traits: they’re easily distracted, respond to rewards, and building relationships with them takes trust. At Petco, that translates into an e-mail marketing program that works by addressing all three points.

Petco Animal Supplies Inc. director of e-commerce Heather Blank finds that what works for training dogs also works for building and using an e-mail list among site visitors. “Reward them with treats and they’re yours forever,” Blank told attendees at Internet Retailer’s Annual Conference & Exhibition this week.

That parallels the idea of providing incentives to online shoppers so as to entice them to opt into e-mail marketing lists, but an effective program does more than simply dangle goodies. Blank says marketers need to explain the value of signing up for e-mail at registration. At Petco, that includes things like receiving pet care tips by e-mail, and advance looks at new and upcoming merchandise. Registration is also the time to explain the benefits of signing up for e-mail, such as the idea that with advance notification through e-mail, for example, the customer need never miss another sale. An added incentive such as a discount off the first order after opting in sweetens the deal further.

The second rule of building and using an e-mail list to parallel dog training is the need to keep the dog--and the customer--interested so they don’t stray. “Express your thanks," Blank said.. “This should be the start of a long term relationship.” Blank pointed out that online visitors who don’t already shop Petco stores may need different incentives to sign up for e-mail than those already familiar with Petco, for example.

Treat a dog right and he stays loyal; and it’s the same with customers acquired through e-mail marketing, Blank said. “That means building trust. Link to your privacy policy, and don’t ever sell your e-mail lists to anyone else,” she added. The right combination of offers and communication leads to what Blank terms “the seducible moment” at which the customer is most likely to opt-in or buy. “Find their weakness and exploit it, and deliver on the seducible moment,” she said. “At Petco that`s the emotional bond between you and your pet.” That’s why e-mail reminders of the pet’s upcoming birthday or adoption date, along with an offer, are e-mailed to subscribed customers.

As to finding the offer that will motivate a purchase, Blank suggested one way to get that information is by putting a wish list feature on the site. “It`s your customer shouting at you to tell you what they want to buy,” Blank said. For that reason--and as another enticement to customers to buy--Blank said Petco will shortly rollout a gift registry for pets.

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