When The Fonz Clicked Delete: Email has jumped the shark

June 20th, 2007

Like Lohan trips to rehab and Cardinals’ “this is our year” chants, most of us have had it up to here with email.  Spam has gone from annoying to ridiculous. I got an insane, indecipherable missive from a German derelict this week. 417 times. It looked like he slapped a sausage on the keyboard to form random word forms, and then fired out the email.

For marketers, it’s been too easy. Email requires little technical or budget pain compared to other marketing channels, and those advantages have resulted in marketers beating the golden goose to death with a huge “Send” button.

Getting great response rates from email is tougher than ever. Email volume is massive and the technical rules of the game have changed dramatically in the past 12 months.

Here’s what you need to know to be a successful email marketer, now that doing so has gotten substantially more difficult.

Mind Your Rep

Whether or not the major ISPs delivered your email to the inboxes of your subscribers was formerly determined by the content of your email. Viagra references were lumped together with more innocuous offenses like exclamation marks, use of “click here” and “free”, and unusual font colors into a naughty list that would get your email filtered.

That’s clearly a pretty blunt instrument with which to decide email validity. Consequently, many ISPs have now switched to delivering email wholly or at least in part based on the reputation of the sender. Mercifully, it has nothing to do with high school and that night on the roof.  Instead, reputation is determined by the percentage of your subscribers that mark your email as spam. You may have heard that people rarely click “unsubscribe.” That’s true. Instead, nearly all consumer ISPs (AOL, Earthlink, Cox, et al) have a “mark as spam” button prominently located. Instead of taking the time to unsubscribe, consumers click the spam button, and like Prom writ wrong, there goes your reputation.

Consequently, it is more critical than ever to not send email to anyone that hasn’t specifically requested it from you, and to only send content of value. Given the importance of reputation to the success of your email campaign, it’s better to have a small, quality list than to have a big list of dubious merit.

Your Trojan Horse Has Shipped

A proven method for increasing the frequency of your email communication without annoying your subscribers and putting your reputation at risk is to engage in transactional email.

Transactional messages are anything that gets sent out based on either a user action or relationship status change. Thank you for subscribing. Your order has shipped. Your order is delayed. Thank you for your bill payment. Your customer service request has been received.

All of these emails can be configured to include valuable promotional and informational content alongside the core transaction messaging. And it works. A study by MarketingSherpa found that consumers read transactional emails from trusted brands frequently or very often 75% of the time, compared to 55% for regular email communication.

Open Sesame

When it comes to measuring the success of your outstanding new transactional email program, give pause when using open rate as a metric. If you have Outlook (or Yahoo! mail and others) you may have noticed that images in emails don’t load unless you click “load images” in the message. Email open rates are tied directly to images. If an image (like your logo) loads in the recipient’s email program, the email has been “opened” and will be counted as such. This is true even if the email is only seen in the preview pane.

With images turned off on many browsers, however, open rates have plummeted. We have seen a decline of approximately 50% for every client over the past year.

Consider using click-through rate or total clicks as your main barometer for email success. Both are reliable and not influenced by technology or email software variations.

Also, because so many images are not loading, it is absolutely imperative that any graphics in your email are solely illustrative. You should never put an offer, headline, phone number, or any sort of important information in a graphic unless that same information is also prominently included in text.

The Name Is the Game

Everything you’ve just read is of course invalid unless you can convince people to subscribe to your email program.

As much as half of your Web site traffic may enter your site on a page other than the home page. Thus, you should include your email sign up on every page of the site. Incidentally, this is true for other key promotional elements on your site. Remember than any and every page of your site could be a visitor’s entry point and that page needs to be clear and persuasive.

While you’re at it, include the actual sign-up form on every page. Don’t make people click to another page to sign-up, we have found it to reduce response rates.

Lastly, make sure people know what they’re going to get from you. Again, it’s like high school. Set clear expectations at the beginning, and nobody will be disappointed. Add a link to a sample email newsletter above your sign-up form. Your response rate will increase, your spam complaints will decrease, or both.

Is email the bright and shiny new toy it once was? Sadly, no. But by following the evolving rules for email success, you can continue to outflank your competition and create valuable online relationships with your customers.

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