As consumer spending slows, online marketers are eager to retain traffic and minimize customer acquisition costs. As a result, they are taking steps to reach users who fit their target profiles. One of the quick answers -- easy to organize, inexpensive to deploy and fully trackable -- is to boost the frequency and reach of email marketing.
The logic is sound: In an ever-widening retail landscape, why not talk to the most people in the most direct manner possible, as frequently as is tolerable? More than 90 percent of online retailers email in-house lists, so leaning on those lists is a potential easy win.
Pushing the envelope
In recent months, more and more companies have been testing the limits of their lists. Monthly emails have become biweekly; weekly newsletters send midweek alerts. Companies also have become more brazen in their targeting. For example, some sites automatically add customer email addresses to lists without requesting permission. Others reinstate old, dormant emails.
Despite the hardships retailers face, these tactics are not always good for business. In the short-term, they may improve total opens and clickthroughs, but irritating users can create long-term brand damage, and ultimately hurt sales.
As with all online best practices, there are "right" and "wrong" ways to conduct opt-in email correspondence. A good email marketer is doing at least two of the following things right -- and mirroring as few of the accompanying anecdotes as possible.
1. Ask permission before sending email. This is an obvious, necessary component of successful email marketing, but many sites find it easiest just to add every address they receive to their lists. In the past six months, several ecommerce companies opted me into their programs simply because I completed a transaction on their sites. A few days or weeks after the usual order confirmations, each sent an unexpected piece of email marketing. One website even culled my email from an abandoned shopping cart. (The same site has emailed me every single weekday since. I haven't unsubscribed, mostly out of incredulity.)
A slowing economy does not undo the basic need for sites to empower their users. Inviting users to opt into emails ensures that in-house lists are populated with active, interested readers. Sacrificing this for volume only frustrates those who didn't want to subscribe.
2. Be transparent. Changed email frequency? Switched providers or functions? Re-launched an email that hasn't been sent in a while? Let users know, so they're not caught off guard, and so they don't react by hitting the unsubscribe button.
Some sites have refreshed their email lists in recent months, bringing former and lapsed recipients back into their marketing databases. But they don't tell their "new" subscribers; they just add them to the ranks.
I currently receive email from a major bookseller and a major credit card issuer, neither of which emailed me in 2007. This is less frustrating than blind opt-ins, but the messages have an air of desperation to them: a brand nightmare.
3. Accept limitations. As with site design, email marketing must account for variations in user access. Not every user checks email in Microsoft Outlook with images enabled. Be sure to account for the different ways users may read, subscribe to and unsubscribe from mailing lists, and make each function as easy as possible to achieve. Also check that email is not getting stuck in spam filters -- a sure sign that marketing messages aren't well formulated.
My bank recently prompted me to provide a new email address, stating that my current one was not working. This was inaccurate: I simply read its email messages in plain text form, and I hadn't clicked on a link in a few months. I resented the bank's impatience and am now even less likely to read its marketing pieces.
4. Let 'em out, not just in. With so many options, users will be quick to dismiss sites that abuse the privilege of direct contact. This includes opt-outs for email marketing, online and on-site.
A great new site I found started sending twice-weekly updates I didn't need. The email format is garbled and I can't find the unsubscribe link. Whether this is clever or erroneous, the effect is the same: These emails now go straight to my spam folder.
5. Be the good guy. The end result will be a more satisfied user who recommends and reuses your site and its services. The short-term effects of a larger mailing list are alluring, but the risk of alienating the users who don't bite is real.
How well is your company handling the email needs of customers? If this list looks foreign to you, it may be time to tweak-or overhaul-your email marketing strategy.
David Wertheimer is director of strategy at Alexander Interactive.