March 1, 2010, 12:00 AM

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For instance, many retailers send e-mails promoting popular products. But Footwear Etc. has found a way to select products that are almost certainly of interest to the individual consumer receiving the e-mail. The retailer’s site search vendor, SLI Systems Inc., created an automated system that populates e-mails with items for which customers recently searched and related items, such as shoes from the same brand or style.

SLI worked with Footwear’s e-mail marketing service provider, ClickMail, creating an interface that enables what is known as an HTTP Get Call. Footwear selects an attribute, such as brand, for which SLI enables searches on Footwear’s site. Immediately before each e-mail is sent, the ClickMail system calls the SLI system, which examines the customer profile looking for which brands the customer searched.

SLI does a quick site search for that brand and populates 12 spots in the e-mail with the most popular shoes from the customer’s brand. SLI caches the search and uses it again whenever that brand pops up for other customers, so there are only as many site searches as there are searched brands; Footwear Etc. carries about 30 brands of shoes. If a customer does not have a favored brand, then the system populates that e-mail with the most popular brands of shoes.

Nominal costs

Footwear Etc. declines to reveal the cost of the integration, but says that ongoing campaign costs are nominal because the site searches for the e-mails are included in a bundled fee paid to SLI. And the program is easy to operate. Marketing and merchandising staff need only pick the site search attribute for which they want to send a message, and e-commerce staff and SLI select that attribute in the integrated system. Everything else is automated.

“Every time we do a send with a brand preference, the people who have a brand preference always convert, open and click much higher,” says Mike Baranov, director of online operations at Footwear Etc.

The merchant conducted a site search-based campaign right after Christmas telling customers to come to Footwear Etc. to get what they really wanted for Christmas. It featured a hero shot of one of its most popular brands, Ugg, then populated the 12 spots underneath with customers’ brand preferences.

For customers with an Ugg brand preference, the open rate was 15.5%, click-through 6.5% and conversion 5.2%. For customers with other brand preferences, the open rate was 10.2%, click-through 3.5% and conversion 3%. And for customers without a brand preference, seeing a grid of the most popular products, the open rate was 5.7%, click-through 1.2%, and conversion 0.9%.

“The numbers for e-mails before the site search system were half of what they were after,” Baranov says.

United Art & Education, a teacher supplies retailer, also wanted a highly automated system that could send customized e-mails to customers. In this case, customers wanted easier access to order tracking information.

The retailer’s e-mail marketing services provider, ExactTarget, secured a script from FedEx that uploads package data to an Access database file. United Art & Education runs a query to the database every evening and exports tracking data to a text file that resides on its server. A $35 File Transfer Protocol (FTP) program links the tracking data to ExactTarget’s e-mail system.

After a customer places an order, the merchant sends out a simple e-mail with a big button in the middle that says Track My Order. All a customer needs to do is click on the button and a page on the FedEx site displays the requested information. This is a lot easier for the customer than clicking on a link to go to FedEx’s site and then inserting order numbers to get this same information.

The cost for the system is bundled into the ExactTarget annual fee, which is less than $30,000, the retailer says. Retailer staff set up the e-mail once, and its order management system tells the ExactTarget system when to send out an e-mail. The entire process is automated.

“Instead of sending a plain-text e-mail like we used to, we use ExactTarget to send customers a very nice e-mail with a simple hyperlink button,” says Mike Gugel, president of United Art & Education. “All of a sudden we’re sending out a professional-looking message that sends you right to your package tracking on the web rather than having to copy and paste and do all that other stuff. It makes it much more professional and easier for the customer.”

And easier for United Art & Education. Since it began sending out automated order tracking e-mails, there has been a dramatic decrease in calls to the contact center asking about shipments. “It virtually doesn’t happen anymore, and it has greatly reduced in-house contact costs,” Gugel says.

Socializing in e-mail

Like Footwear Etc. and United Arts & Education, Wisconsin Dairyland Fudge Co. wanted to make its e-mail marketing efforts more interactive and personal. It decided social networking was the way to go.

The fudge merchant has integrated icons with links to social networks Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, LinkedIn, Digg and Delicious so customers can automatically share the information and special offers in the e-mails with their family and friends. The goal is to increase the reach of the messages well beyond the e-mail list.

“This is a good way to get our name out there and provide customers current information about what we might be putting on special in the store or on the web site that day, with different codes they can access for a discount or free candy,” says Jane Heller, president of Wisconsin Dairyland Fudge. “It’s an inexpensive form of marketing-it’s free.”

Free in the sense that it is the customers posting e-mail messages on social networks, promoting Wisconsin Dairyland’s products. The cost of the integration between the social networks and the e-mails is bundled into the fee the retailer pays its e-mail marketing services provider, Delivra, which places widgets for each social network a customer desires into the e-mails. The widgets link the e-mail recipient to the sign-in pages of the networks. The system requires no retailer staff interaction.

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