June 19, 2008, 12:00 AM

Customer reviews emerging as an e-mail marketing tool

Customer reviews continue to increase in popularity among online shoppers. This success is breeding a new trend, experts say: Customer reviews in e-mail marketing.

Customer reviews are fast becoming a mainstay of Internet retailing and are a popular Web 2.0 feature among online shoppers. Many shoppers seek out and rely on the opinions of their peers when making a buying decision, eschewing marketing copy for what they perceive to be more objective information.

As more retailers adopt customer reviews, a new trend in e-mail marketing is emerging: Using customer reviews to bolster marketing copy in an attempt to increase sales. E-mail marketers can leverage customer reviews, creating an altogether different promotional message.

“A customer sees a product with positive customer reviews as almost pre-approved, it’s almost guaranteed to be good. People like to hear stories from other consumers who have used a product, and that is where reviews come into play, information from real people instead of a marketer who is trained to like a product,” says Julie M. Katz, an e-mail marketing analyst at Forrester Research Inc. “More consumers are using ratings and reviews, and e-retailers can increase revenue gained through e-mail marketing by using customer reviews.”

Organizations that tap into the power of ratings and reviews are showing a type of transparency customers can appreciate, says Matthew Seeley, CEO of Experian CheetahMail, an e-mail marketing firm. “Anything a marketer can do to build a sense of community and elevate the customer voice will be incredibly powerful,” he adds.

However, while some experts see reviews as a treasure just waiting to be exploited, others caution that inclusion of Web 2.0 features, whether reviews, videos, blog posts or others, can actually send marketing e-mails off message.

“As soon as you start playing around with more stuff embedded in an e-mail, the more you are using e-mail marketing as a standalone channel, which is not what it should be,” contends Adam Sarner, an analyst who specializes in e-mail marketing at research and consulting firm Gartner Inc. “Retailers should not be spending time on that as much as they should the quality of the message and who they’re sending the message to. Social media can be a distraction. E-mail marketing messages must be a pointer to your web site, not a standalone experience.”

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