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May 1, 2010
by Kevin Zimmerman
Many people hearing the term, "email marketing," think of spam cluttering up their inboxes from unwanted (and, unknown) companies, or occasional notes about upcoming sales or coupons that may or may not be relevant to their lives and lifestyles. But while those are certainly parts of email marketing, they're hardly the whole picture. Nobody looks forward to combing through endless come-ons from get rich quick schemers and obvious con artists, and no legitimate business wants to find its electronic communiqués lumped in with such questionable company. Prudent businesses know how to target customers, both existing and new, in a friendly, welcoming manner.
In the broadest sense, every email sent to a potential or current customer could be considered email marketing, but most true examples of the practice refer to sending emails that try to enhance the merchant/customer relationship, and encourage or emphasize customer loyalty and repeat business; and/or that can help bring in new customers or convince existing ones to purchase something immediately. That "and/or" caveat should usually tend towards the "or" side, as few customers are looking for seemingly endless emails that feature various offers or incentives. Usually, such emails come off as unfocused mass mailings, which, of course, is what they are.
Most experts in email marketing recommend three common practices:
1) Each contact a business makes with a customer should be accompanied by a promise that the business will only offer information relevant to what the customer or prospect has already shared via their own activity (email inquiry, phone call, visit to a physical store).
2) Each email should be about underlining the business' authenticity and attention to its customers' needs, rather than those of the business. If carefully worded, and if your business already enjoys a community-style relationship with its customer base, then a, "We're all in this together/We need your help in reducing inventory," message might work, but for the most part, a customer should feel that the offer being made can enhance their needs in some way, not the company's.
3) Nurture one to one relationships with longstanding customers. A truly loyal customer won't necessarily be turned off by an obviously generic offer that's being blasted to everybody, but customers with long term relationships and/or significantly large order histories often expect to be treated as special. Addressing these valued customers as true VIPs, with their own special offers, can reap rewards, just as calling someone who made a single $10 purchase five years ago a "valued customer" can be like shouting into the wind.
The bottom line, as it is with so many subjects in the electronic marketplace, is to try to get to know your customers. This doesn't necessarily mean learning about where their kids are going to college and when their birthdays are, but if your business specializes in school supplies or special event gift ideas, it might. A "Help Us Get to Know You" survey sent after a completed transaction or two can be an effectively upfront way of showing how you'd like to be able to offer a given customer more individualized, relevant service. That data can then be mined to send out special birthday offers and so on, when those dates grow near. You must underscore how your collection of such data is for internal use only, and surveys, especially the first time, should be relatively brief. Drowning a new customer in paperwork isn't going to win too many fans.
Blast emails, wherein every single customer in your database receives a ten percent coupon good for the coming weekend, can be effective to your bottom line if done sparingly, but they won't help much in establishing those one-to-one relationships. The days of simply papering the Internet with word of an upcoming sale or new inventory are, for the most part, over. The byword for email marketers today is segmentation. By targeting the right message to the right person at the right time, a company can produce high response rates, more consistently satisfied customers, and improved return on investment (ROI). These goals can be achieved by observing the following principles:
Asking customers whether they'd like to sign up for your company's customer related emails or newsletters to alert them to forthcoming sales or other special offers can be an effective marketing tool. Rather than assuming every customer in your database wants to receive your emails, by asking them, you again underscore the point that you're looking to communicate or engage with them on their terms. Such an approach can also be used to build segment profiles of your opt-in customers. Either done manually or via software, buying patterns and trends can usually be obtained relatively painlessly, and a company can further drill down with targeted emails relevant to customers who buy a product every month, verses one who buys only once per quarter, or those who purchase at least $10,000 worth of product each month, verses those more likely to spend only $1,000 during the same time period.
Another advantage of email newsletters is that they're easy to forward to other people. Your business' loyal customers can effectively start working for you by giving their friends a look at what you're offering. If it's enticing enough, those friends may become loyal customers themselves, and the process can repeat almost infinitely. Just as it can be a matter of a few clicks to send out emails, it can also be quick to track results. Third party email marketing vendors can allow you to schedule email delivery for the optimal time of day or day of the week, when your customers are most likely to check email and/or respond, thus increasing the chances of their reading your message and taking action. Those same third party vendors can track which customers opened a given email, which forwarded them to friends, and who clicked on which links in the emails; all bites of information that can help you increase the relevance of your message to individual customers or customer segments. Incidentally, it's a good idea to include an opt-out choice on each subscriber-approved email after they've opted in. Not that you're hoping they'll drop out, of course, but including the opt-out choice will again emphasize your commitment to serving the customer's needs.
Email marketing can be effective for practically any business, not just those specializing in mail order items. Bicycles aren't usually something that one buys over the Internet sight unseen, but a chain of bicycle stores in the San Francisco area, Mike's Bikes, successfully launched an email marketing campaign that has increased sales. "In the past, email was primarily an unused platform," Kyle Stone, Mike's Bikes' web marketing manager, told marketing trade publication, 1to1. "Now whenever a customer signs up for a newsletter, they immediately get a discount on an online order, or they can bring that coupon into the store. We use that opportunity to cross channel between the web and our six retail locations." Stone said that new customer emails enjoyed an open rate of 70 percent, and that through segmentation, he makes sure that non-local customers receive only promotional emails with coupons, new product information, and the like, while local customers receive information about local cycling events and other San Francisco specific information.
Another rule of thumb to keep in mind with email marketing: As with most business related activities, grammar and spelling count. A jewelry seller trumpeting a new line of "neckalaces" is going to appear foolish at best, amateurish at worst, and few customers want to be dealing with amateurs. Composition of emails and newsletters should be done in Word or another word processing program, where spell checking and grammar checking are often done automatically. It also doesn't hurt to re-read the copy carefully, or even to ask a colleague or friend to peruse it, before sending it out.
When done right, email copywriting can result in end results that are as much as 67 percent higher, according to content marketing firm Mequoda Group. This doesn't necessarily mean that one should turn to a professional writer when composing customer emails, but taking a look at the numerous examples on the web, or even those emails and newsletters you may personally already subscribe to, might be beneficial. Most email marketing vendors employ templates that can be accessed online, and once hired, will work to make sure that not only are you sending out the right message at the right time, but also that it's correctly and professionally written.
A few suggested email marketing vendors, many of whom offer free trials of their products:
Topic: Web Tech Tips
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