E-Mail: A Dialogue, Not Just Direct Marketing

Jack Aaronson

Updated · Jun 11, 2003

I had such a great time last week at ClickZ E-Mail Strategies. My session was about multi-channel marketing, but I got to talk about e-mail strategies during the final session — the most daring and unconventional of the two-day event. I speak at a lot of conferences, and I’ve never seen a format like this one (kudos to the organizers). “5 Experts/5 Minutes” was an expert panel run like a game show. The audience submitted questions the day before, and our moderator (Rebecca Lieb) gave each panelist exactly one minute to provide his or her take on an answer (a bell rang when time was up). The audience clearly enjoyed the fact we were all put on the spot (we had no idea what the questions would be). It’s also rare for marketers to have to be concise enough to fit a full thought into one minute!

Questions ranged from acquisition strategies to tech dilemmas. Today, I’ll highlight the question I was most passionate about:

The e-mails that we send have a return address of “no reply,” and it says clearly in the newsletter that people shouldn’t reply to the e-mail. Yet, people do. They either have a question or want to unsubscribe. What should we do?

That stirred my passions because no matter how well-intentioned the author, the company in question is missing a huge idea: E-mail is a form of interaction and dialogue. It isn’t just a direct marketing channel.

I was having lunch with a friend and fellow marketing expert just before that last session, and she said exactly the same thing. Her company thinks e-mail is like a catalog or any other direct marketing channel. It refuses to treat e-mail like a special communication channel. This is obviously a big issue.

Any communication with your customers should include the opportunity for them to make their voices heard. Never give them the impression you don’t want to hear from them. Your customers use e-mail for dialogues with their friends, families, and coworkers. “Do not reply to this email” sends a clear message: You don’t really care. You’re really saying, If you have negative things to say, we don’t want to hear you. We only care about your voice if you buy something or tell us we’re great.

The second half of the question was about dealing with all the e-mail the company receives. The fact it gets a lot of responses, even though its e-mail says not to reply, proves the point: Customers need to express themselves. They will, too, whether you want them to or not. How can you deal with responses efficiently?

There are tons of software packages that solve this problem. If you can’t afford software, your internal developers should be able to write a quick program to handle simple e-mail requests.

E-mail the company in question received largely fell into two camps: unsubscribe requests and customer service questions. It’s fairly straightforward for an automated system to look at incoming e-mail and weed out unsubscribe requests. Any e-mail with “remove,” “unsubscribe,” “take me off,” or similar terms can be automatically identified and acted upon. The program forwards the rest of the mail to customer service.

This way, customer service only gets mail intended for them. It doesn’t have to play list moderator. Considering at least 60 percent of the messages were unsubscribes, this cuts down considerably on the time spent responding to e-mail.

An automated system also removes “floodgate” fears companies face when opening up a new line of communication. People expecting a personal response get one through customer service. Those who expect to be taken off a list (and don’t require one-to-one attention) are automatically removed and sent an automated message to that effect.

Once you remove e-mail from the direct-marketing-only category many companies relegate it to, you’ll use the e-mail channel as you should: as a dialogue that encourages interaction with you.

Agree? Disagree? E-mail me and let me know!

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