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Commentary: What e-mail marketers need to do

The spam plague threatens to eviscerate e-mail effectiveness. Marketers need to follow best practices in program design, message creation, testing and measurement to ensure success with consumers.

Commentary: What e-mail marketers need to do
By Forrester Research
Special to CNET
April 30, 2003, 1:45PM PT

By Jim Nail, Senior Analyst

The spam plague threatens to eviscerate e-mail effectiveness. But messages that offer true value don't get trashed. Marketers need to follow best practices in program design, message creation, testing and measurement to ensure success with consumers.

More than 70 percent of consumers now say that they receive too many e-mail offers and promotions, reporting an average of 110 messages per week. But permission-based e-mail still works: Consumers report opening two-thirds of the messages they have opted to receive from retailers, manufacturers, media companies and financial services providers. Here are 10 best practices to keep e-mail relevant and effective:

Customer value should drive design
Two-thirds of consumers say that most of the e-mails they receive don't offer anything that interests them. Marketers can change this perception by creating programs around benefits that consumers want and allowing subscribers to pick and choose content.

• Think service, not marketing. Unlike traditional paper mail, e-mail is low-cost, so not all communications have to be hard-sell, buy-now pitches judged on an immediate response. Wells Fargo takes a softer, service-oriented approach with mortgage refinancers, offering to send an alert only when rates hit a level the subscriber sets. To someone with an existing 6.5 percent mortgage, a marketing blast announcing 6.0 percent rates is an annoyance, while a single message a couple of weeks later when rates drop to 5.75 percent is a valuable service.

• Overcommunicate consumer control. Consumers consider anything that is not interesting or relevant as spam, so a simple opt-in is no longer enough. Marketers must give consumers more choices about content and frequency. Marketers have three choices in identifying subscribers' preferences. One, at a minimum, marketers should offer several opt-in options, such as the seven choices Motley Fool offers visitors that range from "Investing Basics" to "Investing Strategies." Two, create a preference center where consumers check off topics of interest: The Economist gives subscribers the option to sign up for alerts when an article on a topic of specific interest like the Asian economy is in the magazine. And three, link e-mail customization to consumer profiles used in site personalization, as Lands' End does with its "Just For You" tool.

• Deliver customized content. Maturing campaign management and templating tools from e-mail vendors like Bigfoot Interactive make it easy to dynamically incorporate products and messages that reflect a consumer's preferences. No need to build sophisticated predictive models: Shoe retailer Nine West uses basic data like geography and gender to avoid sending women's snow boots to Texas cowboys on their list--thereby improving results and eliminating annoyance.

• Demonstrate value, not information. Companies like Dell Computer make a mistake by having a small subscribe box on their site that states only: "Get the latest product info and special offers." Hewlett-Packard devotes more space to attracting subscribers, offers "Product support, tips & tricks, projects, and special offers," and shows what it offers by posting a sample issue for visitors to inspect.

Content should be succinct and engaging
More than 60 percent of consumers delete most e-mail without reading it. To survive consumers' screening process, marketers must, one, avoid giving consumers a reason to delete the message, and two, let consumers know the benefit of reading the message. The best messages balance clarity while encouraging a bit of curiosity.

• Say who you are. Recognizing the sender doubles consumers' likelihood to open a message. ZDNet Shopper's sender address,, shouts "spam" and begs to be deleted, while audiophiles recognize as coming from a trusted expert.

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• Write clear but enticing subject lines. Cryptic subject lines like "Nice Package"--used recently by Starwood Hotels--raise suspicion of spam, while uninformative ones like "Palm Voice, Volume 16" fail to give consumers a reason why it will be worth their time to open the message. But spam has also tainted traditional direct marketing teasers like "Free." Martha Stewart clearly communicates the products it is promoting while intriguing consumers to open the message with lines like: "New Arrivals: Spring Flowers and Martha Stewart Baby."

• Keep messages short and scintillating. Consumers lose interest in or don't want to waste time wading through lengthy e-mails. Digital Impact advises clients to limit images and links to keep file size below 55KB. Different products will require different mixes of text and graphics. Pictures are worth a thousand words for products like apparel or gardening, while a synopsis or review is more helpful for a jacket photo, book or CD.

• Engage--don't shout at--consumers. Consumers are in an interactive frame of mind while online, and marketers should include more than static articles, promotions and product pitches. sends salary calculators, and Procter & Gamble's HomeMadeSimple newsletter incorporates surveys to keep subscribers actively engaged. Survey responses tell marketers more than open and click-through rates do because they check the pulse of core product loyalists.

E-mail is not direct marketing
E-mail's similarities to direct mail lull marketers into thinking that proven offline concepts will guarantee online success. E-mail's differentiators--low cost, ease of testing and fast response--require new approaches to unlock its full potential.

• Apply experimental design to create test plans. Without paper and printing, e-mail makes testing variables like targeting, offers and subject lines much easier. But a typical offline direct marketing approach might quickly create hundreds of tests. Experimental design has been used for decades in manufacturing, psychology and the sciences to maximize learning gained from research. Marketers can use this discipline to select a few combinations of variables for an in-market test, and then use the results to predict the highest-response package.

• Benchmark performance over time. Rather than using industry benchmarks of open or click-through rates to track the relevancy of their e-mails, marketers should monitor how their customers' responsiveness changes over time. For example, Quris models how a consumer's engagement with e-mail increases or decreases to diagnose the health of the brand relationship. Several unopened e-mails may signal a potential defector who needs a special offer, a reminder of the value of the e-mail, or a link to his profile so he can select more engaging content.

© 2003, Forrester Research, Inc. All rights reserved. Information is based on best available resources. Opinions reflect judgment at the time and are subject to change.