Breaking Down the Barriers to Right-Time Messaging

  |  January 25, 2011   |  Comments

Communications should not be promotional or transactional; communications should simply be "right-time" and based on subscriber behavior.

Despite the proven effectiveness of e-mail marketing and the fact that most consumers name e-mail as the preferred way to engage with a business, many in e-mail marketing continue to struggle with program effectiveness. In many cases the issue goes beyond the e-mail team and points to a core problem within the organization itself: "silos." Silos for e-mail marketing, silos for search, silos for direct mail, and so on and so on.

Today, e-mail subscribers do not subscribe to newsletters or promotional communication. Subscribers sign up to have a relationship with an organization or brand. That relationship means that communications can no longer be siloed and that e-mail, as the most pervasive communication medium, needs to be aware of and involved in all customer communications.

Communications should not be promotional or transactional; communications should simply be "right-time" and based on customer/subscriber behavior – not a date on a promotional calendar. Achieving "right-time" marketing is no easy task, but many organizations are starting to figure it out.

Here are some things to consider if your organization is looking to move from scheduled, batch-centric campaigns to data- and event-driven programs with increased relevance and value.

Automation Is the Key

For too long, e-mail marketing has lived alongside direct mail as a campaign-driven channel. Programs are developed and scheduled, assets and content are assembled, and campaign managers deploy communications to segments. While it will always be useful for e-mail marketers to group programs into campaigns for reporting purposes, the actual execution of the communication should be automated. This means that e-mail deployment should occur based on API calls and triggers from other business systems. Calls into the call center, changes in account status, and activity on a website all serve as flags that a subscriber is engaging a brand.

Just this week, I stopped by Best Buy and purchased some audio/video equipment. Later that afternoon, I received an automated e-mail asking me to opt in to receive electronic receipts from Best Buy after shopping. Apple has been doing this for years, and I love having all of my receipts in an e-mail folder for later review. There was no campaign or segment in this case, just an action from a subscriber and a corresponding, automated response from the brand. The result is an enhanced customer experience and increased loyalty.

Automation Requires Awareness

In the Best Buy example, the e-mail channel was immediately aware of my interaction with the brick-and-mortar store and was therefore able to engage me in right-time messaging. Awareness is one of the most complicated aspects of right-time messaging because it requires the brand to break down internal silos and build a better overall customer experience.

In this case, the point-of-purchase system within the Best Buy store immediately recognizes that I am a Reward Zone member. This is not fully automated; in fact, it required the associate to inquire as to my participation in the loyalty program and then input my phone number during the check-out process. Once identified as a "Reward Zone" member, Best Buy's system became aware of two things: my e-mail address, and the permission levels I have granted the brand for communication. The database flags me as a loyalty member that has just completed a purchase and also sees that I have yet to grant permission for online receipt delivery. This triggers an e-mail template to acquire permission. In this example, the e-mail channel is aware of 1) The POP system, 2) the loyalty program, 3) the preference center, and 4) customer lifecycle, all of which combine to launch the right message to me.

In order to achieve awareness, most brands will require collaboration between IT, e-commerce, and marketing. While such cooperation is rare, the improvement in customer experience is well worth the exercise.

Awareness vs. Integration

Right-time messaging requires a serious look at integrating the e-mail channel with business systems. However, integration itself is not the true hurdle. Brands have done an excellent job integrating e-mail with e-commerce systems, campaign management, CRM, and website experiences. The challenge is integrating the channel with multiple systems at one time. This is what makes e-mail truly aware and empowers an e-mail marketing organization to change the game in customer engagement.

Awareness goes beyond integration; it leverages an event or activity to initiate a decision on message content and then executes the message. This is what differentiates right-time e-mail marketing from what e-mail experts have referred to as transactional or triggered messages for years. Shopping cart abandonment can happen by simply integrating e-mail with a Web analytics solution like Omniture. Purchase confirmations can be executed by integrating e-commerce with e-mail. Right-time messaging occurs when e-mail is made aware of a communication opportunity (purchase or cart abandonment) and then leverages automated decision making with other business systems to determine the content and cadence of communication. Access to multiple business systems enables decisions to be based upon the communication opportunity and a customer's loyalty status, lifecycle stage, etc.

The first step in moving down the right-time messaging path is awareness – awareness of all customer touch points that could provide a communication opportunity for the e-mail channel. The second step is to determine what data and insight an organization has across systems to make that communication opportunity as valuable as possible to the subscriber. The last critical step is collaborating within the organization to automate the process.

Yes, right-time messaging is more complicated than scheduling a mailing to all consumers in a segment for launch next Friday, but it is infinitely more effective, and your customers will soon expect nothing less from you and the e-mail channel.

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Ryan Deutsch

 Ryan Deutsch was vice president of strategic services, StrongMail,  up until July 2011. There, he worked closely with senior e-mail marketers at large brands to help them increase subscriber engagement and improve program effectiveness. Before that, Deutsch served as vice president of marketing automation at Premiere Global Services, where he was instrumental in managing customer relationships with numerous global brands. Previously, Deutsch held senior sales and marketing management roles at Twelve Horses and Springdot.

An online marketing veteran and industry thought leader, Deutsch has more than 14 years of direct marketing experience across the catalog, retail, and publishing industries. Deutsch is a regular contributor to marketing industry publications, including MediaPost, DM News, BtoB Magazine, and Chief Marketer, and is a frequent speaker at industry events, including the DMA Annual, eTail, Email Evolution Conference, ad:tech, and the MediaPost Email Insider Summit.

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