Defy the Expected to Yield the Possible

Al DiGuido

Updated · Oct 18, 2001

The fourth quarter has traditionally been a critical sales period for scores of businesses, particularly retailers and their suppliers. It was no secret that this holiday shopping season was shaping up to be a potentially challenging one, and the international uncertainty that began with the tragic events of September 11 has further muddied an unstable economic outlook.

But challenges can also be opportunities: an opportunity to reinvent the way things are done; an opportunity to think more strategically about your marketing communications for the upcoming holiday season; an opportunity to try new things and build on the things that have worked in the past; and an opportunity to take control and make this holiday season a success, in spite of the challenge and pressures you face in today's environment.

So where do you begin? It all begins with being creative — having the courage to test new ideas and push the envelope. Though different tactics work for different products, services, and industries, there are several steps you can take to help reinvent the way you think about email communications.

These steps can take just a few weeks to implement and can yield unprecedented knowledge, build stronger relationships, and ultimately impact return on investment (ROI) through more efficient and relevant communications. Best of all, they can produce a formula that ultimately will give you a competitive advantage and drive more sales this holiday season. So, whatever your line of business may be, here's some valuable strategic and tactical advice to consider.

  • Append email to customer files. Though the growth of email marketing is undeniable, a large gap still exists between many companies' traditional or offline databases and their email data. An email append program consists of attaching permission-based email addresses to corresponding postal names and addresses on your customer file. There is no complete official industry position on email appending, but most agree that, if done properly by following best practices, email appending to existing active customers is acceptable. By following such best practices and working with a reputable provider, email appending can offer one of the easiest, fastest, and most cost-effective means to grow your email database while respecting the privacy of your customers.
  • Get personal with subject lines. In email marketing and communications, encouraging the recipient to open the message is half the battle, and subject lines have become even more important. Test your subject lines extensively; the power of email enables you to test quickly and cost efficiently, and it can make all the difference this holiday season. Subject lines that are benefit-oriented, personalized, and targeted consistently generate greater open rates.

    For one of Bigfoot Interactive's consumer packaged goods clients, we recently tested personalized subject lines versus nonpersonalized ones. The result: Personalized subject lines consistently outperformed nonpersonalized ones, yielding 13 percent higher open rates on average. On a mailing to several million records, this improved open rate created an opportunity for hundreds of thousands of additional consumers to respond to the company's offer and purchase its product.

  • Review and test your link strategy. Define your campaign goals and then prioritize your call to action according to your goals. Frequent email campaign goals include driving commerce, launching a new service or product, acquiring new customers, and bolstering a retention program. Give your most important links the most prominent placement inside the message, based on what you know about the consumer and his needs and wants.

    In addition, make sure you give email recipients the fast lane to their destination. Avoid detours and confusing directions. Bring them to a landing page that fulfills the promise of the email link.

  • Test and track customer segments — rinse and repeat. Reaching the right customers with the right offer is the key to success. Segment your audience — by interests, demographics, purchase histories, and so on — and be relevant. Use all of the data at your fingertips to analyze and create customer clusters. Execute various offers against several test cells, then refine your winning offers before running the full campaign. With email, it's never too late to test; testing will allow you to track trends and better forecast your sales during the fourth quarter.
  • Analyze individual profiles. Understand and analyze your data to understand the attributes that yield your most profitable customers. Define your key metrics for success, such as repeat buying and high referral rate. Initiate, nurture, and continually refine these relationships to create an ongoing and valuable bond with these customers over time.
  • Provide relevant content and offers. Keep the customer in mind by creating a benefit. Every effective email campaign includes a relevant and compelling offer or two. Relevance and the offer are key to response — and, of course, the sale. Focus on the needs and interests of your audience. What makes them tick? Is it discounts or coupons? A rewards program? Free shipping? New products? Electronics? Music? Find out what they want most, and offer it.
  • Survey customers. Knowing and providing what your customer wants is critical to building email messaging that generates a high response rate. By surveying your customers frequently, you can learn more about their preferences and needs. With this enriched information in hand, you can build better profiles of your customers and therefore create more relevant email communications.
  • Implement viral marketing. A successful viral email marketing campaign offers a self-replicating and inexpensive form of promotion, lends a high degree of credibility due to the nature of friend-to-friend communication, and increases traffic, revenues, and brand consideration. Remember to think about customer benefits — many top-performing viral campaigns provide an incentive to encourage forwarding.

    Best of all, viral marketing can significantly lower customer acquisition costs. A well-executed viral campaign allows you to amortize the cost of the campaign over a wider audience.

  • Think creatively. Now more than ever, it pays to be creative. Engage recipients with thoughtful, out-of-the-box creative that will break through the clutter and get higher response rates. Although HTML and rich media emails frequently produce better results than text-only messages, use them only when they are appropriate for your target audience. More important, craft your email campaigns with customized content based on the recipient's preferences, and personalize as much as possible.

    Just because your last newsletter gave you a 12 percent click-through rate doesn't mean you should use the same formula repeatedly. Bring fresh ideas to the table with each effort. Brainstorm. Take risks. Use humor when appropriate. Create something memorable.

    Ultimately, relevant, contextual content is always the big winner. Your customers have the definitive control over your marketing message: the delete key. Make sure your creative is informative, of value to recipients, and doesn't waste their time.

In a competitive marketplace, the key challenge you face is to construct meaningful email communications that provide a benefit to your recipients and engage them in an ongoing, long-term profitable dialogue. Reaching your customers and motivating them to act through email is a continuous process that requires a careful balance of strategy, creativity, direct marketing know-how, and enabling technology.

Now is the time to face your challenges to discover new opportunities. Those that can and do will emerge the big winners in 2001 and beyond.

Al DiGuido is Chief Executive Officer of Bigfoot Interactive, a provider of strategic, ROI-focused email marketing services and technology. Previously, he served as CEO of Expression Engines, Executive Vice President at Ziff-Davis, and Publisher of Computer Shopper, where he launched, a groundbreaking direct-to-consumer e-commerce engine. Prior to Ziff-Davis, he was Vice President/Advertising Director for Sports Inc.

Reprinted from ClickZ.

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