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A great new use for email marketing

Christopher Marriott
A great new use for email marketing Christopher Marriott

My wife is fond of saying, "That's settled law." She's a lawyer, so she's supposed to say things like that. I bring this phrase up because in respectable email marketing circles, it has been conventional wisdom ever since CAN-SPAM that email is not a tool for customer acquisition. Or as my wife would say, "That's settled law." I even wrote a column related to the topic back in May 2008. (Yeah, I've been churning these babies out for a long time!) Not everyone in the industry shared this view, but those who didn't were considered little better than spammers -- people who operated on the fringes of the respectable email marketing world.

To this day, those who offer email lists for rent and those marketers who use them are generally shunned. Watchdog organizations like Spamhaus are waiting to pounce on those who practice this type of customer acquisition. God help you if there is a spam-trap in that list you just rented. Large ESPs are loathe to send out emails to addresses on rented lists for fear that their reputations will be compromised with the major ISPs, thereby negatively affecting the deliverability of all of their clients' email campaigns.

For all of these reasons, since the passage of CAN-SPAM in 2003, the email channel has been considered a tool for eCRM and customer retention. You use it to get your current customers to buy more, more often, from you. Sure, it has played a supporting role in customer acquisition. As far back as 2006 (sigh), I was writing about how email could be used to capture leads generated by searches. It was a smart tactic then and remains a good idea to this day. More recently, we've seen the adoption of email programs that automatically trigger personalized emails to prospects who abandon their online purchase during check out, otherwise known as cart abandonment campaigns. It also works with existing customers, but that can't be considered customer acquisition since they are already a customer. It's surprising to me how few online retailers use this technique, though the number is growing.

But something grabbed my attention recently and caused me to rethink my notion that, generally speaking, email isn't an acquisition tool. To be frank, I stumbled upon it doing some research for a recent speaking engagement. I visited a website of a marketing automation company to review some statistics on automated marketing campaigns. I had originally found the company using search. I spent some time on the site and then went about my business elsewhere. Within 30 minutes, I received an email in my inbox from the company that read:

You're invited to participate in a 1-minute survey about your 2012 marketing programs. In return for your time, you'll be entered into a drawing to win an Apple MacBook Air.

We'll announce the winner on November 28th, 2012.

This survey is by invitation only, and is sponsored by XXXX Software. Thank you in advance for your participation, and good luck!

I don't know about you, but this is the first time I can recall receiving an email from a site to which I believed myself an anonymous visitor. Obviously, I wasn't. After examining the email from the company, I realized that it had read a cookie on my browser placed there by an email newsletter I receive from a digital publisher. That cookie contained everything it needed to send me that email. If you're a privacy fanatic, you probably just had a minor stroke. For the rest of us, however, I think this is a powerful new way to use email marketing to acquire new customers.

Why do I say that? First, I looked like a good prospect. I had raised my hand simply by going to the company's website. The fact that I had linked to it from a search engine was further evidence that I represented a good prospect -- someone in search of a solution to a marketing challenge. And finally, the fact that a cookie had been placed by the publisher of an email newsletter on the subject of digital marketing indicated that I was interested in a topic directly related to the company's products (as opposed to an email newsletter about cooking).

Second, the company had no idea why I left the site without doing anything. Maybe it wasn't a good fit for me. Or maybe I ran out of time and had to leave to do something else before I had my answer. If it was the latter, sending me the follow-up email was a great way to keep the conversation going.

Regarding the email the company sent to re-engage me, I thought it was well done. (I loved the "invitation only" part.) There wasn't any blatant attempt to sell me anything. It was a simple "give us some information we can use in exchange for a chance to win a major award" approach. And that was it. There were no further emails from the company despite the fact that I didn't take the survey. It was "one and done." From this company's perspective, it now appears I have no interest in becoming a customer at this point in time.

From where I sit, the only downside to this type of email marketing is to the provider of my email address. The email from the software company complied with CAN-SPAM and provided a link at the bottom of the email to unsubscribe from further emails. Given the fact that the publisher held my opt-in, had I opted out of further emails, my action would have opted me out of receiving any emails from the publisher as well as any of its partners (like this software company). One would hope the publisher is monitoring the activities of its partners very closely, as it is at risk for blowing up its opt-in list.

This is exactly the kind of new thinking that I was talking about in this column, and I am happy to see marketers experiment with new ways to use email in the conversion path. I can already hear the purists howling: "It's a privacy issue!" Or "It's not an opt-in email!" Guess what? I don't care about that if the tactic is successful. It didn't bother me, it shouldn't bother you, and it's a great new use for email marketing.

Chris Marriott is a data-driven digital marketing consultant.

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to leave comments.

Commenter: Chris Marriott

2012, November 13

Hi Craig! Yes I am certain as I had never heard of them before.

Commenter: Craig Swerdloff

2012, November 13

Chris, are you certain that the marketing automation company didn't already have your email address (along with an existing cookie) from a previous session?

Commenter: Jen McGahan

2012, November 13

Got it. Thanks very much for the explanation.

Commenter: Chris Marriott

2012, November 12

Hi Jen! Thanks for the comment. Based on your question, I realize I wasn't I might not have been as clear as I should have been in the column. The software company was able to read the cookie because they had contracted with the publisher in advance. Otherwise they would not have been able to use the information in the cookie to get my email address. Third party publishers are no longer just selling our email addresses to other companies, they are also selling access to the cookies they drop. In both cases the end result is an unsolicited email to us. The major difference is that in the case of the cookie, we've at least raised our hand in some way that we might be interested.

Commenter: Jen McGahan

2012, November 12

I'm with you Christopher; more delighted by the ingenuity than pissed about privacy. Of course marketers are a different breed than most. : ) Very interesting about that highly specific cookie-tracker. Would love to know more about that.