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The costly mistake most email marketers make

G. Simms Jenkins
The costly mistake most email marketers make G. Simms Jenkins

In my speeches and client visits, I regularly preach that email needs to give more than take. That means marketers need to go beyond using email to hit the numbers and push products and services. Make it meaningful, unique and, above all, relevant to the recipient. Those key ingredients should be part of the desired customer relationship formula. Yes, they are all buzzwords but ones that should direct all aspects of your email program.

BrightWave Marketing  examined a rarely visited but key component of the "right email mix"; the reply to feature of broadcast and targeted email campaigns. Our goal was to find out what happens when we replied to permission-based emails from an array of disparate companies that fill our inbox with special offers, business-oriented services, purchase confirmations, industry newsletters, and of course, free shipping.

A week's worth of replying to commercial opt-in email messages reveals a great deal about how companies treat (or mistreat as it appears) their subscribers. We received over 40 opt-in emails from a wide range of companies, both big and small. These included B2B emails, industry newsletters, consumer-oriented promotional emails and even a presidential candidate's campaign newsletter.

The results were shocking. The perception that email is an easy one-to-one communications tool may be the problem, as most companies evaluated could not close the communications loop or even receive responses from their subscribers, much less reply to them.

Some highlights:

We only received six actual human replies out of 41 replies to emails we signed up for. The responses were received within 24 hours and sufficiently answered the questions posed in the replies. While we won't reveal the companies that failed to reply, we will give a pat on the back to the companies that did respond, as they are a diverse lot reflecting the nature of the emails we replied to.

  • Sam's Club -- the giant warehouse unit of Wal-Mart.

  •  Slatin Report -- a commercial real estate newsletter. 

  •  Thin Data -- an Email Service Provider. (It should be noted other ESP's newsletters were replied to but alas, we received no responses.)

  •  Thrillist -- a daily email geared towards men: think Daily Candy for men. (It should be noted here that not only did we get a prompt reply, but we got it from the CEO.)

  •  Zoo Atlanta -- one of the nation's top zoos. (This organization shall receive the quickest reply award as we received a reply six minutes after we replied to its email newsletter.)

  •  UPromise -- a savings network for parents to save money for their children's college education. (The company immediately sent an auto reply saying it would reply within 24 hours, and it did.) 

Three replies were automated messages; two of them stated that the email address did not receive replies while one auto reply said we should expect a response within 24 hours (which we did).

Six replies immediately bounced. These were direct inquiries upon receiving the emails and were questions that related to the desired action/purpose of the email. For example, one email was from a major airline confirming a transaction and highlighted hotel and rental car offers. Our reply was asking about the rental cars and it bounced immediately. This is certainly not a very effective cross promotional effort in our book.

We never received any type of response from the remaining 26 emails to which we replied. Interestingly, some of the email addresses that were displayed upon hitting the reply button hinted at our fate, although none mentioned that replies would not be answered anywhere in the body of the email. These included [email protected] and [email protected]. On the other hand, one reply email address was [email protected] but we found that address proved to be in name only as no reply was received.

How to avoid this?
The first place to start is to identify where replies go and audit this process from the subscriber side. Most email managers may not be able to tell you what happens during a response and this appears to be a major problem.

We know from strategic engagements that this is often the case as many in-depth operational reviews have revealed an information black hole when it comes to knowing where any replies go and who handles them.

What may be lurking?
First and foremost, CAN-SPAM-required unsubscribe requests are likely in the batches of replies that each email campaign receives. If these requests bounce or don't get received and removed, you may be violating the law. Ironically, one email newsletter we asked to be unsubscribed from featured content about email best practices.

What may grab more marketers' attention are the missed sales opportunities occurring when replies to emails go unanswered. More than 25 percent of our replies that received no response were requesting more information on a product or service. Not everyone will complete the action you desire, such as clicking on the "buy now" button, so this is simply an inexcusable way to let revenue disappear.

If email truly wants to take a place at the big boy's marketing table, marketers will need to ensure their campaigns are designed and executed from the subscriber's side, going beyond the send button and sales and marketing point of view. Let's hope this information opens some eyes.

G. Simms Jenkins is founder and principal of BrightWave Marketing, an Atlanta-based email marketing and customer relationship services firm. .


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