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The Dark Side of E-mail Marketing

  |  December 22, 1998   |  Comments

Let's talk about the concept of our "email intimacy"...and use it to show how e-mail marketing can screw up your online brand. Needless to say, this will likely generate megabytes of hate mail from those who have had success with e-mail marketing, but Tom is willing to put up with it.

Boy did Nick Usborne hit the nail on the head last week! Nick's article, Killing the Killer App illustrated the concept of the internet user's relationship with his or her mailbox really well. I had a major crisis a couple of weeks back in trying to decide whether to remain on the WWWAC list. This crisis came about for the same reasons Nick described in his article. (Ultimately I unsubscribed but that's another story for another time.)

This week, I'd like to take Nick's concept of the "intimacy we have with our mail" and use it to show how email marketing can screw up your online brand. Needless to say, this will likely generate megabytes of hate mail from those who have had success with email marketing, but I'm willing to put up with it.

Think, if you will, about the last time you got a piece of junk mail in your 'analog' mailbox. If you're like some folks, you just throw it away. However, people can get agitated by catalog companies and other direct mailers if the volume of junk mail gets out of hand.

Last year, I called a stock broker and gave him an earful after receiving eight separate manila envelopes from him in my mailbox at work. I was tired of receiving them. They really bugged me - to the point where I would never in a million, kajillion years ever consider using this guy as my broker.

Why did it bug me so much? After some reflection I realized that there were a few reasons -- all of them emotional.

  1. I kept mistaking the broker's package for something else I was expecting. Mr. Broker's envelope was the same size envelope that a media kit comes in. At the time, I was putting together a media plan and was expecting several kits from various media properties. Every time I got an envelope from Mr. Broker, there was a little emotional letdown when I realized the material wasn't what I was expecting.
  2. The message insulted my intelligence. You've probably received these things before "Last month, Mr. Fibber McDupe made 235 percent on a $15,000 investment, blah, blah, blah. You don't need $100,000 to invest, blah, blah, blah. Send us money now."
  3. The packages kept coming. Despite my failure to respond, the envelopes kept coming until they literally clogged my mailbox at work.

There were probably other reasons for my reaction to this barrage of junk mail. But let's get to the point. After receiving this junk, I was really tempted to walk down to this guy's office and cram his manila envelopes down his throat. Sideways.

Let's port this concept over to the internet. Many of the marketers I speak to are considering email marketing, but they rarely consider that their target might have a negative response to their message. They typically give arguments like the ones listed below:

  • Users opt in for this sort of thing. If we buy only opt-in lists, we'll be reaching people who are interested in our product. Yeah right. That's probably what Mr. Broker was thinking when he bought the list with my name on it. More importantly, I know that I've given several companies permission to send me information on 'relevant products and services.' When I get junk mail, do you think that I ever remember checking that box on the purchase form?
  • It's more acceptable to use email because users can delete the message if they don't want to read it. Remember what Nick Usborne said about information overload? Most people don't have the time to look at all that stuff. If there's too much email to delete, checking your email box becomes more of a chore than a pleasure. That's when people become resentful.
  • Even if someone has a negative reaction, odds are they won't remember that the mail was from us. Think again. It's very easy to hit the reply button and rattle off a few choice thoughts than it is to write a letter. It's even easier to post spam to a newsgroup or discussion list with a nasty addendum. And remember, you recall things a lot easier when you write them down (or type them, as the case may be.)
  • If someone's not interested in our email offer, they just decline to respond and that's it. That's it? Remember, these people continue to walk the Earth after they get your message. They continue to talk to their friends and, more importantly, they continue on as netizens. They might mention your message in a negative light to one of their friends, or even several of them. They might even do something nasty like the newsgroup/discussion list scenario above. Remember, word of mouth is still one of the most powerful forces on the internet.

Maybe there are too many players in the email marketing game. The internet is still growing rapidly and many of us are already inundated with hundreds of commercial emails. Can you imagine what will happen as the internet continues to grow?

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Tom Hespos

Tom Hespos heads up the interactive media department at Mezzina Brown & Partners. He has been involved in online media buying since the commercial explosion of the Web and has worked at such firms as Young & Rubicam, K2 Design, NOVO Interactive/Blue Marble ACG, and his own independent consulting practice, Underscore Inc. For more information, please visit the Mezzina Brown Web site. He can be reached at thespos@mezzinabrown.com.

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