iMedia Connection

The new way to spread your email messages

Chris Marriott

Few things give me greater satisfaction than responding to an email sent to 50-plus other people in which someone repeats the latest urban legend making the rounds on the web. In my response to the entire recipient list, I simply write the word "hoax" and insert a link to the relevant page on the Urban Legends website. It's a subtle but effective way of branding that person a spammer. 

This brings me to the subject of today's column: forward to a friend (FTAF). It's true that consumers pass along viral messages all the time, though very rarely are they your planned marketing messages. People read and share things that interest them. If you are really lucky, it's your email.

FTAF campaigns began as a simple idea: Let email recipients pass along an email, and any offer therein, to people they know. The whole point of FTAF is that your friends have more credibility than your emails do. Back in the early days (i.e., 1999), email marketing proponents said much about the word-of-mouth and viral effects of friends-and-family campaigns. That marketers still look for new and interesting ways to leverage email's ability to replicate itself from customer to customer, at near-zero cost to the brand, speaks to the enduring attraction of this type of campaign.

So why do friends-and-family campaigns hold so much appeal? Well, on the most basic level, they serve as an excellent way of getting a message out to the market. The fact that a consumer receives an email from someone he or she knows means that the consumer is much more likely to read its contents.

On the other hand, this places a certain amount of responsibility on those who advocate your message, the forwarders. Therefore, in order for the campaign to work, your email has to make them look good to their friends. No one wants to be perceived by friends and family members as a spammer, so don't ask or expect them to forward something that isn't a really great offer. Marketers can sometimes look silly expecting routine emails to be forwarded by their customers.

The challenge of FTAF
Of course, getting the message out there is only half the story. Knowing who forwarded their emails, and to whom, also greatly interests marketers. Simply put, forwarders represent your most engaged customers, and their forwardees represent the cheapest and best qualified prospects you could possibly hope for. The desire to keep track of these customers and prospects gave rise to the FTAF link.

And that's where we find the first limitation of friends and family. A lot of people would rather use the forward button on their email client (e.g., Outlook) than click on a link in the email body. The reason for this is simple: The email client holds the forwarder's address book. By using the link provided in the body of the email, your customer will probably have to enter addresses manually. At best, the forwarder finds the process mildly inconvenient. At worst, it could cause enough frustration for someone to unsubscribe.

The FTAF button has another snag: Marketers cannot mail to the email addresses captured other than to fulfill the FTAF request. Thus, marketers cannot use FTAF to build their lists directly.

So why bother with an FTAF button and not just let the user click the forward button in his or her email client? Marketers can build landing pages just for FTAF recipients that encourage signing up for email. Of course, this page should also include the original offer; doing otherwise would come off as a bad experience for the forwardee. However, it should also allow one-click opt-in for future emails via a pre-populated subscription form.

Naturally, many consumers will simply hit the forward button. From the strict analysis point of view, this action clouds results. Email service providers that track clicks at the member level will only record one click on a link in an email, even if the recipient forwards it to 100 friends and each of them clicks on the same link. However, no marketer will complain if the email drives more business.

In any case, marketers should make sure to differentiate their friends-and-family campaigns by calling out the campaign's purpose. The email should include conspicuous calls to action to forward the email via the FTAF button (preferably). Consider limiting the campaign to especially valuable customers to enable a message such as "sent to our top 1,000 customers." A little exclusivity helps.

Share-to-social campaigns
The basic mechanisms of friends-and-family campaigns have proven themselves time and time again over the past 10 years. But that was then, and this is now. In today's world, social networks have overshadowed email as the shiny new toy, and share-to-social campaigns are fast becoming a viable alternative to friends and family.

Share-to-social campaigns have certain advantages over friends-and-family campaigns. To begin with, younger adults (18-24) often use social networks where they used to use email. According to a 2008 Forrester report, 53 percent of them have used social networking instead of email to communicate with friends. Any marketer looking to reach this audience, and the next wave, should look into a share-to-social approach.

Secondly, sharing content with your social network is easier for consumers to do than forwarding it by email. All it takes is potentially one click and everyone the consumer knows on Facebook can see it. Major email service providers are implementing a one-click "share-to-social" functionality that connects an offer from an email to the recipient's social networking profile. By clicking on the share-to-social button, the recipient adds that offer to his or her status update. With email, each address needs to be entered separately, and sometimes manually. The upshot of this is increased reach and a higher frequency of impressions, as the content will stay visible on your profile page until pushed down by later additions.

Then there's what I call "channel kudos." Social networks are also valuable brands, but there's no equivalent brand in the email channel. This has two consequences: First of all, the users themselves gain credibility by posting content to their favorite network -- it increases their visibility and their presence. Additionally, the marketer's brands can also benefit in the same way by being associated with the social network's brand. Every musician on MySpace and every group owner on Facebook will testify to this.

On the other hand, gathering customer data and quantifying the outcome of share-to-social campaigns is notoriously difficult. And we should not forget that the majority of internet users are still in Web 1.0; they can be reached by email, but not necessarily on social networks. To that point, a 2008 study by Ball State University said that 18- to 34-year-olds generally preferred email to social networks as a means for receiving marketing messages.

The bottom line is that friends-and-family and share-to-social campaigns behave just like any other marketing project. You need clear objectives. Does the marketer simply want to get the brand out there, or do they want to collect customer data? Is the objective to increase sales? Or simply to get more people signed up to the marketer's engagement program? How old is the audience? Where are they on the internet?

Depending on what the marketer wants to do, different channels, mechanisms, and types of content will work best. Friends and family is a proven workhorse that will certainly not disappear tomorrow, but as new options become available, so do new opportunities.

Chris Marriott is vice president and global managing director for Acxiom Digital.