Nothing Personal: SWM 35 seeks email marketing that’s relevant

January 30th, 2005

Once upon a time you could send and receive email without incident. Like leaving your doors unlocked or eating medium-rare hamburgers, the glory days of email were blissfully free of hassle and worry.

Email has literally transformed the way we communicate. 31 billion emails are sent every day in North America, according to research firm IDC. But despite its speed and a Paris Hilton-esque ubiquity, email is under siege.

IDC says spam now accounts for 38 percent of all email, up from 24 percent in 2002, and the smorgasbord of increasingly crafty email viruses and frauds is causing a great deal of agitation among the populace.

“People are getting fed up with all this spam nonsense, and when you’re scared to click on something for fear of getting scammed, that’s not good,” says Kevin Maxwell, Product Manager for Scottsdale-based anti-spam service SpamElimination.com.

Millions of Americans now use some sort of spam blocker, whether personally purchased or installed on their behalf by their ISP or the company IT guys in the basement. These spam blockers can be very effective by “reading” email content and other technical attributes and then filtering presumed spam to a special folder or refusing to deliver it altogether.

The trouble is, spam blockers don’t have a lot of nuance to them. Like civil war medicine, it’s very much an “if in doubt, cut it off” mentality. This results in up to 20 percent of legitimate, permission-based email being undelivered, according to Michelle Eichner, who heads the Scottsdale office of Pivotal Veracity, an email deliverability management company.

Between the spam filters and the fact that people aren’t as intrigued by email as they used to be (I want to “check this box for information and special offers from us and our partners” about as much as I want a case of monkey pox), true email marketing success can be as unlikely as an Emmy for “The Swan.”

So what’s a marketer to do? First, pay attention to the deliverability of your email program. If you don’t know what your open rate and click through rates are, find out. It’s possible that your well-crafted email is falling on deaf inboxes, because your URL has been blocklisted (bad) or blacklisted (really bad), or that the text or graphics in your emails are getting them filtered out, especially by big ISPs like AOL.

Second, and perhaps most importantly, send emails about which people give a damn. The days of “batch and blast” are ending. All the spam filters and Pivotal Veracity research in the world won’t save you if nobody cares whether they get your email or not.

Today’s best email marketers are taking the time to learn about their customers’ habits and desires, and sending targeted, personalized email that matches those attributes. Most companies are still sending the same email newsletter to their entire list, and whether the recipient is a 55 year-old woman who smokes a pipe and plays foosball, or a 23 year-old male needlepoint whiz, the contents of the email are exactly the same. It’s a shotgun approach that necessitates generic messages and offers, and generates results that can be good, but rarely great.

The best emails, the ones you actually look forward to receiving, are those that are designed especially for you. My wife raves about the monthly email from babycenter.com that talks about what your 36 month-old should be doing developmentally (eating dirt, evidently), and I’m especially fond of my “your fantasy football team is losing again” messages from cbssportsline.com.

We’re using new technology from Exact Target, to help clients easily create simple profiles of their customers by importing attributes like name, gender, zip code, and other data, and then broadening the profile by inserting survey questions into each email newsletter. Each month, we know more and more about who has subscribed to this email and what they want from it, and can then tailor the content of the email accordingly.

Like paint-by-numbers for Internet geeks, Exact Target enables us to create multiple versions of copy and photos and automatically inserts the right one when the email gets sent. So, at the same time, one subscriber gets the coupon for pipe tobacco, and another gets a free trial offer for Cat Fancy magazine. Remember how impressed you were when you got your first Amazon email with that famous “people who bought this also enjoy that”? This is the evolution of that idea..

Called “dynamic content” this personalized approach to email marketing is likely to be the norm before long, especially for online retailers and other ROI-driven emailers. But it has applications far beyond e-commerce. We’re working on a pilot program for the Phoenix Convention & Visitors Bureau where people interested in visiting Phoenix check boxes that match their interests (dining, horseback riding, pro sports, art galleries, etc.) and within seconds receive a dynamic content email brochure that includes information and special offers matching their interests.

This targeted approach requires some effort, but is the email equivalent of a one-to-one conversation, rather than the yelling through a megaphone at a crowd method previously utilized. And if it forces companies to send increasingly relevant and personal email, maybe there’s a silver lining to the spam craze (beyond the wide availability of body part enhancing patches, of course).

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