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How to turn your email program into a dialogue

Wendy S. Roth
How to turn your email program into a dialogue Wendy S. Roth

Too many email messages resemble the stereotypical used-car salesman. He is the slick guy who blusters past objections, ignores questions, and directs shoppers to the cars he wants to push instead of the ones they came to check out.

The successful car salespeople have refined their techniques over the years, spending less time talking and more time listening, answering questions, and using information instead of patter to overcome objections. They've learned what many email marketers are just now beginning to realize: The sales experience has to be a two-way dialogue in order to deliver the best results for both sellers and buyers.

Talking is one end of that street, and listening is the other. You've probably got the talking part down just fine, but what are you doing to listen to your readers?

Email as part of a dialogue
Email succeeds as a direct marketing channel, in part because it's the medium that gives you the most one-to-one experience with your customers and readers. The intimacy of the inbox requires emails to hone in on personal preference and converse with the recipient rather than talking at him or her.

Building greater customer dialogue into emails has a number of tangible benefits. More often than not, this approach helps to build stronger brand relationships with customers and prospects and, more importantly, motivates them to act. Conversational emails can also optimize your messages for social networks, making them a destination by themselves instead of a disposable sales message. This gives your emails greater shelf life.

Where to build dialogue
There are a number of ways to liven up emails and add the element of conversation:

Dialogue within the message:

  • Add contact links. Include more than your email contact address and postal address (required by law for U.S. emailers). Also add -- as relevant -- your customer support, call center, or main office telephone numbers, with the area and international code if you market overseas.

  • Add a feedback link. Encourage users to click on a link to express opinions either about your products, company, or anything related to your market niche. Distinguish it from your customer-service links and phone number so someone's critical product or service query doesn't get overlooked.

  • Start a user forum. Link to it in your email messages, even in your transactional messages. Incentivize customers to join and clearly explain the benefits of such a community.

  • Publish reader comments or product reviews. Publish these in your email messages, or devote an entire message to reader opinions. This can work in tandem with the feedback link to ensure these comments are worked into relevant reviews.

  • Answer reader questions in the newsletter. Share knowledge on how-tos. Answer questions about your products, editorial policy, or whatever is on readers' minds. For every one person who writes in, maybe 100 or 200 are thinking the same thing.

  • Use polls and surveys. Post mini versions in your regular emails, or link to a poll or survey at your site. Swap out one of your regular mailings for a reader-dialogue issue.

  • Blog in your newsletter. Publish a blog post or comments in your newsletter and link back to your blog's site. Allow comments without moderation, except to remove messages that are libelous, in poor taste, or obvious comment spam.

Dialogue from other sources:

Social media -- blogs, microblogging, and social networks -- will help you begin conversation with subscribers, customers, or potential patrons. It will also help you listen immensely, and get a glimpse into your customers/prospects unfiltered feedback and thoughts on your brand.

  • Open a Twitter account, and list your Twitter name in all of your emails. Post to your account frequently to engage your audience, but also use the medium as way to listen and, if appropriate for your business, as a customer reaction channel. Use Twitter search regularly to see what others are saying about you.

  • If your brand touches consumers directly or those likely to be active on social media, consider starting a Facebook page (more information here). A fan page looks like an individual account page but doesn't have the same 5,000-friend limit of a regular Facebook account. If MySpace, Bebo, or another general social network fits your demographic better, open accounts there too.

  • Use a blog-tracking service to follow what others are saying about you.

  • Track web visitors to see where they come from (referrer sites) and where they go after they leave your site.

However, all of this dialogue-building is useless, unless you...
Pay attention and respond! Your subscribers and customers are talking, you are now paying attention -- but what about taking some action?

No matter how many channels you use to join the conversation, you have to monitor and participate in all of them. Otherwise, there could be a perception that you are not truly engaged. Consider some of the following:

  • Eliminate "do not reply" where it occurs, whether it's part of your email address (as in [email protected]) or a message in email. It projects to readers that you may not really be listening.

  • Then, monitor every mailbox where you receive messages, including the one associated with your sending address. Even if you tell people not to reply to it, they will, with unsubscribe requests, comments, and questions.

  • If you venture into social media, remember that the cost of these free social networks is the time needed to contribute to the conversation. People will criticize brands if they don't.

  • Designate one or two people as your "point people" to monitor and respond to questions and comments no matter where they turn up.

  • Concentrate on building relationships and de-emphasize the hard sell. Certainly post company news, hot deals, and other promotions in your posts, but balance them with genuine conversation.

Conversation, not lecture
Giving your subscribers a voice in your email (and joining the conversation with them via social media) takes time and attention. But your reward is an email message that says more to your subscribers than "sell, sell, sell!"

Wendy Roth is the senior manager of training services for Lyris Technologies.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.


to leave comments.

Commenter: Kelly Lorenz

2009, July 07

Great ideas, Wendy! You are 100% spot on that engagement with subscribers is the name of the game these days. In order to break through the clutter, in order to provide multiple touch points for your customers, in order to get more buzz around your brand, you really have to take advantage of the concept of dialogue and engagement.

This article is going in my "share" folder today! :)

Kelly Lorenz

Commenter: Harry Thuillier

2009, July 07

Excellent article! I'm writing a customer newsletter as we speak and will certainly implement some of these strategies. One of the most useful ideas was 'answering reader questions'. As a producer of high end automotive equipment, this will be useful. I sit near the support staff so I have just asked them what the most pressing customer questions are, and will be featuring 'how to...' sections in the next newsletter.
Harry, Racelogic