Targeted E-mail: A Case in Point

Bruce McCracken

Updated · Apr 30, 2003

Permission-based targeted e-mail is extremely useful in building relationships with customers. As a communicative medium and marketing channel, it can provide important information of great value to customer in an expedient fashion. Knowledge can be gained on the customer and, in some cases significant amounts of money can be saved by the enterprise while providing increased customer service.

In the late '90s, financial services provider Charles Schwab & Co. of San Francisco built a high performance e-mail system internally with John Funk serving as a consultant. Funk had founded two e-mail service providers. When Funk founded his third e-mail company, Quris (pronounced Cure-iss), in 1999, Schwab became the first client. Schwab knew that it was not a matter so much of technology but rather the creativity and expertise to use it.

Jim Nail, senior analyst for Forrester Research, explains the unique considerations in implementation from the creative design perspective. “The first thing to know is that e-mail is a lot harder than it looks. Because people deal with e-mail on a daily basis, they think that is all there is to it. It is one thing to do your daily correspondence, it is a very different matter to go to the scale of doing hundreds, thousands, millions of e-mails at a time. There are lots idiosyncrasies that require specialized expertise. As you get into the targeting of dynamically generated content to individual users and profiles, you are getting into computer programming.”

Michael Raneri, senior vice president for Schwab, explains the decision to go with Quris. “Our core competency was not e-mail. We realized that there was a special expertise that needed to be developed in the marketplace. We saw e-mail as an emerging opportunity. We had a very specific problem. We had a lot of customers calling at the end of the day inquiring about news and prices for the stocks in their portfolio. That is a very expensive phone call. We wanted to create a product that would send them a synopsis of the news and closing figures for their portfolio as a cost effective way for them to get their the information they need.”

Nail observes that Schwab recognized their limitations in the new medium, something many companies fail to do. “E-mail is not like direct mail. Often, a company gives the job to the direct marketing person and they pull a big list and mail a bunch of stuff. People are getting fed up with the amount of e-mail that isn't relevant to them.”

Raneri continues, “A lot of the original target e-mail we did was around alerts and market data so that customers could receive an e-mail when a stock hit a certain trigger. This was in late 1995. We designed news, stock alerts, or basic market commentary on market events. We used a couple of small vendors, but there were problems in performance and production support. As we grew, though they claimed they could manage growth and scale, they could not.”

Quris is a full service agency according to John Funk, president/CEO, for Quris, which is headquartered in Denver, CO. “We not only do technology but also the creative, strategic and analytics. We constantly work on enhancing effectiveness and readability. We do research collaboratively with surveys of the subscribers and focus groups. We crawl into the results to understand what is really working to create intellectual capital to get the programs right. The more we do, the smarter we get, and the greater the value to our customers.”

The experience and acquired expertise in the new medium cannot be understated according to Nail. “There are new things that you can do that you could never do before. When you have a new tool, you don't really understand all of the things that you can do with it. You need somebody with experience who will think differently about what kinds of communications and campaigns you can do with this different medium.”

In January 2000 Schwab outsourced to Quris. Design and execution was critical, according to Raneri. “It was not going to be to a vendor in the direct mail space, as it required a much more thoughtful approach. The mistakes that you can make in doing that are so numerous, and you only have one opportunity to get it right. So we had to test and learn to be certain that what we planned to do was going to be effective and respectful of the reader. We approached it from a very specific perspective, what does the client want from Schwab.”

Nail points to wisdom of the Schwab philosophy on e-mail. “The Quris/Schwab example is a best practice. They came at it from a customer-centric perspective as opposed to the traditional direct marketing mindset of fishing with hand grenades. They understood the fundamental difference with e-mail is that it is so much more personal for people. The main thing is to approach it from the consumer perspective.”

The orientation towards the needs of the customer is the driver, as observed by Nail. “What is of value to the marketer is not necessarily of value to the consumer. Getting a day end summary of your portfolio is of tremendous value. E-mail is not only a new way of doing things, but actually superior for the consumer. It is cheaper, better, faster and smarter. The medium allows delivery of something new that simply was not possible in any other medium.”

Personalization was designed into the product. Every stock in the portfolio of every individual recipient would be in the e-mail. The e-mail was to be sent within an hour and a half after the market close. A template was designed to have a user interface that allows the reader to navigate around within the e-mail. Analysts and writers create the content and all information is sent to Quris over a VPN (virtual private network).

The development phase took four months and involved considerable testing, says Funk. “We have very experienced staff members and we know how to program for troublesome e-mail applications. We have a test lab to replicate all different configurations and environments to ensure they look right.” The compatibility with all possible configurations was tested for presentation display value. Lists were assimilated with each individual account with data segmentation down to individual client to provide total personalization.

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