October 2, 2006, 12:00 AM


Not only are consumers quick to frown on retailers that violate the bond of trust by sending unwanted messages, but ISPs are deploying tougher spam filters. By following a few simple rules, retailers can produce relevant campaigns that break through the clutter.

Not only are consumers quick to frown on retailers that violate the bond of trust by sending unwanted messages, but ISPs are deploying tougher spam filters. By following a few simple rules, retailers can produce relevant campaigns that break through the clutter.


Rarely does a week go by that an online shopper does not find at least a dozen marketing messages in her e-mail inbox. Whether it`s a message promoting the latest sale, the newest arrival or a special offer for select customers, online shoppers are being inundated with e-mail marketing messages.

While some of the messages consumers receive are wanted, and even desirable, an increasing number are not. And the messages that consumers don`t want not only go straight to the trash, but many of them are deleted unopened. When this happens, it damages the retailer`s brand integrity with customers, who view unwanted mailings as a sign the retailer knows nothing about them and doesn`t care to learn.

Living up to expectations

"Every time a consumer decides to open an e-mail marketing message, it`s because they have decided it has some type of value," says Mike Adams, president and CEO of e-mail software developer Arial Software. "If that expectation is not met, marketers begin to train consumers that their mailings are of little or no value and the consumer learns to ignore their mailings and even think less of their brand."

As a result, retailers relying on e-mail marketing find themselves facing the same challenge that has arisen with other direct marketing media: how to keep messages relevant in order to turn sales, while respecting consumers` desires and rights to privacy.

It`s a delicate balancing act to be sure, but one that retail marketers can master by rethinking their e-mail marketing strategy and following a few basic rules that can help them keep e-mail campaigns fresh, desirable, and non-intrusive.

"It`s important for retailers to know their customer and use that knowledge when creating e-mail marketing campaigns," says Matt Seeley, president of CheetahMail, an e-mail marketing unit of Experian Ltd. "Transactional data and site movement tell retailers the story of who their customers are and what they want from them. This kind of information is what dictates content and frequency and leads to successful campaigns."

Gaining an understanding of customers goes beyond tracking what they buy, what they browse when shopping and how often they visit a retailer`s site. While that is useful data, it is little more than a snapshot of the customer`s personality, according to Seeley. "How a customer buys is almost as important as what they buy," he adds.

Cross-channel behavior

Successful retailers understand the behavior of the customer across all sales channels, as well as how they enter their site and they draw on that knowledge when crafting their e-mail campaigns.

"Knowing your audience as an e-mail marketer comes from paying attention to how customers shop and what they respond to," explains Luc Vezina, director of product and strategy management for Got Corp. Inc., an e-mail marketing company. "The goal is to collect information about the customer that helps create offers better tailored to their preferences. The information may be gathered over years, but it`s a linear progression in which small gains add up."

The first step to understanding customer preferences is to get the customer`s permission to send marketing messages. As basic as this concept sounds, it is not necessarily followed. For instance, some retailers ask for the customer’s preferences at registration but don’t act on them in the messages they send. Or worse, they apply the customer’s permission across multiple lists so messages never requested are sent.

The trust factor begins with the opt-in process. It is at that time that customer expectations are high about receiving mailings that are beneficial, as they anticipate doing business with the retailer. E-mail experts recommend that retail marketers take a proactive approach during the opt-in process to strengthen the bond of trust by giving customers the opportunity to tell them the types of mailings they want to receive.

The use of transactional e-mail for marketing messages poses a related but different set of challenges. While permitted under CAN-SPAM, retailers need to take care not to violate either the legal requirements on subject line and content placement or the customer’s trust and expectations relative to such communications. Sometimes that’s easier said than done.

"The first step in capitalizing on this opportunity is to carefully match your marketing message to the transaction at hand," explains R. David Lewis, vice president of market development for e-mail solutions provider StrongMail Systems Inc. "Relevancy is crucial when communicating with customers in a transactional mode since they have a higher expectation of being known. What retailers should be looking to do is extend the highly personalized web site experience into the transactional notices that flow from it, not create the equivalent of statement inserts for e-mail."

Quick surveys

The information can be gathered through a quick survey consisting of a few questions and boxes to check in response. Short, pointed surveys are best as they can be completed quickly and are viewed as non-intrusive. A good place to conduct a survey is at checkout, when shoppers can be asked if an e-mail message influenced their purchase decision.

For retail marketers who choose not to survey their customers about e-mail marketing preferences it is recommended they stick to sending the types of messages promised.

"If a customer signs up for a quarterly newsletter, that`s what they expect to see," says Stefan Pollard, director of consulting services for EmailLabs, an e-mail marketing subsidiary of J.L. Halsey Corp. "If retailers do not deliver what is promised, consumers will let them know their displeasure by not opening the messages and unsubscribing."

Nor should retail marketers ask for unnecessary information, such as postal address and phone numbers. "That`s information irrelevant to e-mail marketing and does not indicate that the retailer is paying attention to the types of mailings the customer wants to receive," continues Pollard. "Get what they`re interested in and the format they want to see that information presented in."

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