August 28, 2008, 12:00 AM

SPONSORED SUPPLEMENT:E-mail marketing: Sweating the details to create success

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When sending any e-mail message, retailers need to design templates that ensure relevant text appears on a stand-alone basis, rather than embed it in graphic elements that the recipient’s e-mail application can automatically block. When that happens, what text appears will not make sense unless the recipient clicks on the prompt to download the blocked images.

“A lot of retailers don’t take this into consideration,” says Adams of Arial Software, which provides the Arial Software Campaign Enterprise application that supports an unlimited number of mailing lists, databases and mailings and interfaces with any database. “If the text of the message does not make sense without the image, the retailer is missing the boat, so it had better be relevant by itself.”

Adds Olrich: “A simple test is to imagine all the images being blocked out, then imagine all the system text being blocked out. If in either case, you can’t make sense of the e-mail, then the balance is off and a creative refresh of the template is likely in order.”

One way to ensure that images appear in a message is to design HTML templates. A good e-mail template can have a long shelf life as long as the HTML stays current with e-mail client changes and consistent with at least online branding.

“HTML templates allow for the inclusion of colors, tables and graphics that do not have to be downloaded through the e-mail client, but still look good,” adds Adams.

Watch the display

Just as retailers need to know that e-mail applications can block images within a message, they must remember to format messages to ensure they display properly regardless of the e-mail application used by the recipient.

“Every e-mail client interprets the format of the message differently, so what looks good in Microsoft Outlook may be unreadable in Google Gmail,” says Bronto Software’s Colopy. “Messages have to be tested in different e-mail clients to ensure the integrity, readability and appearance of the message.”

List segmentation also plays a key role in creating message relevance, starting with broad demographics, then going down into more targeted lists based on purchases, navigation paths through the site or the types of offers to which a customer responds.

“Applying as many data attributes as possible to customers helps develop more refined segmentation strategies,” Deutsch says. “Knowing the customer’s persona makes it possible to create value-added offers that are relevant.”

While relevancy of content, proper message formatting, and list segmentation are important, e-mail campaigns can still miss the mark if they are sent at inopportune times. Because consumers check e-mail at all times of day, there is no magical hour, day or time of year to reach them. Instead, retailers ought to consider timing e-mail campaigns around events, such as the arrival of new products or a selling season.

“Retailers that frequently update their inventory have access to new content and products that can be used to create e-mail campaigns with a sense of exclusivity, such as offering a sneak preview or advance sale,” says Harrison of Yesmail, which offers full-service, self-service and hybrid e-mail marketing applications to create e-mail campaigns. “If the retailer is planning a big weekend sale at one of its stores, they can send an e-mail on Thursday promoting it.”

Make the timing right

During the holiday season, properly spacing out when e-mails are sent takes on more importance because frequency and quantity of mailings increases dramatically. “If a retailer is steadily increasing the frequency of mailings during the holidays, they shouldn’t come so close together the recipient feels bombarded,” Harrison says.

Sending messages that open a dialog with customers when the customer opts into the mailing list or registers on the retailer’s site, for instance, can also help retailers zero in on the best times to send a message. In these instances, customers expect a welcome message, which can ask a question or two about their shopping preferences, what types of offers they want to receive and timing of the messages.

Once a retailer has established a dialog with a customer, that retailer can engage the customer in soft marketing techniques, such as pitching items the customer is likely to be interested in based on the preferences gleaned from the dialog. “Customers expect some kind of follow up or confirmation when they register on a retailer’s site, so that is a good time to engage them from a marketing standpoint,” says Responsys’s Olrich. “The aim is to build momentum in communications with the customer to quickly prompt a purchase.”

Soft marketing messages can be sent at any time, compared to promotions tied to a specific selling season, such as back-to-school. “These types of communications provide a value-added element that goes beyond a discount or free shipping,” says StrongMail’s Deutsch. “Customer churn from mailing lists is related to the value of the content in the message.”

Customers who specify they want to receive e-mail alerts about upcoming sales or special in-store events consider such notices to be a great value.

“If a customer has indicated they want to know when the latest iPhone becomes available or a DVD title is released, that creates an opportunity for retailers to further differentiate their mailings. Customers that express this level of interest have identified themselves as more interested than the normal subscriber,” Harrison says.

The importance of following up

Incorporating rules into e-mail marketing applications that automatically generate a follow-up mailing when a customer has browsed an item several times without making a purchase or abandoned a shopping cart after placing an item in it is another way to create timely messages.

“A follow-up message can be sent within 24 hours and not necessarily be tied to the specific action taken by the customer on the web site,” Harrison says. “The aim is to time the e-mail to when the customer has shown some level of interest in making a purchase and include a further incentive to help spur action.”

Resending marketing messages that were not opened is another timing technique. Re-mailing only works when the overall campaign has generated a good response rate.

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