E-Mail’s Seven Seconds

  |  April 7, 2005   |  Comments

Once a recipient opens your e-mail, you’ve got seven seconds to make the pitch. Does your creative meet the deadline?

Over the past few months, I’ve spent a lot of time meeting with all kinds of technology companies that offer a dizzying array of interesting inventions. I’ve heard promises of more efficient delivery, secure messaging, better tracking and analytics capabilities, a reduction in spam, search engine optimization, and so on. Though several technology platforms can potentially aid marketers in their quest for more effective and efficient customer communications strategies, once again we may be deluding ourselves and avoiding the obvious.

I fondly remember two great mentors of mine, George Holtane and Dick Itanaga, and their counsel at a time when I thought I was the world’s greatest expert on advertising. We sold 14 ft. x 48 ft. billboards on major freeways to national advertisers. George and Dick were creative specialists. They won all kinds of awards for converting TV and print advertising to display units whose viewership was, at best, seven seconds.

"You only got seven damn seconds," they would chide agencies and hotshot salespeople who thought they knew better. "Your customer is speeding by in his car... distracted by the kids, radio, traffic, and endless review of his to-do list."

The tendency with such large messaging canvas was to say too much. Viewers would be distracted with so many words or confusing graphics, and the message was unintelligible. The vast size of the medium became its undoing when an overzealous marketing manager or creative director used every inch to grab attention. I sat in many contentious meetings with cigar-smoking Dick, who lowered the boom on messaging that looked good on the light table but would never work "on the street."

George was the real creative wizard in the house. He was a man of very few words. When he spoke, whether at work or socially, his comments were insightful, incredibly witty, and, at times, biting. He was the most direct person I had ever met.

As a young sales executive, I worked local accounts and typically sit next to his easel (in the days before the computer), laying out a series of print ads for a prospective account. I would say, "Do your magic, George. I need to convert this print campaign to outdoor." Then, I’d bolt for the door. "AL, SIT DOWN!" he’d boom, stopping me in my tracks.

The grilling would begin: Who are the client’s customers? What’s the company’s unique selling proposition? Who are its competitors? How does its product measure up? Why do customers buy its products? Why not? What is the campaign’s goal? How will the client measure success? What action does it want someone to take after seeing the message? In what markets will we display the unit? In what locations will we post the billboard? Has the client ever done billboard advertising before? And so on.

The rapid-fire questions would leave me with no time to answer; George was making his point. There really was no magic to building an effective messaging strategy. He needed information, help in understanding the strategy, customer profile, and competitive landscape. He would send me away. In the neighboring office, Dick always seemed to overhear these sessions. Chomping on his cigar, he would give me one of those laughs and say, "Seven seconds, kid, seven seconds."

Billboards, like tootsie rolls, seem to be part of my DNA. I can’t travel on many roads without noticing them and remembering my early days with George and Dick. Yesterday’s billboards have been replaced with email communications in my world. The two are incredibly similar. Many believe if email messages are larger and bolder, like billboards, the medium will have more effect.

Marketers operate under the mistaken assumption that every email message delivered is a mission accomplished. They measure effectiveness only by delivery and open rates. Low undeliverable rates are a reason to celebrate. Modest open rates of 25-40 percent are clear indications the medium works superbly. Those operating email sending through corporate IT infrastructures lament the lack of performance measurement statistics, unsure why insurgents are plotting to overthrow those who prevent them from accessing data.

It’s in the spirit of George I ask, do you have a messaging strategy? Is it working? What are the success metrics in your company? Are you acquiring or losing customers? Are your customers more or less responsive than six months ago? Did customers spend more or less with you last year than the previous year? Have your inactive customers already signed up with competitors? How does your offering stack up to the competitive set? When was the last time you took a hard look at your value proposition to answer that question that should keep you up at night: is your product or service still relevant?

E-mail messages are the traffic and distractions of the Internet thoroughfare. Like billboards, your email messages have very little time to grab travelers’ attention and convert attention into action. The road is filled with all types of competing messages -- a virtual Times Square of billboards. Fail to grab attention and move users to action, and your competitors will steal your customers and prospects.

Put down those spreadsheets and head over to the marketing, messaging, and creative departments. Stop blaming inbox clutter as the reason your campaign isn’t working as well as it should.

Whether its billboards, TV, print, or direct mail, advertising is a competitive discipline. Your message battles your competitor’s for the consumer’s attention and wallet. Organizations that differentiate themselves and are relevant win every time.

If you don’t hold your agency or in-house creative team accountable for campaign performance and success metrics in your company, you’re missing the boat. Dick and George would routinely deal with hard-edged creative types hell-bent on misusing the billboard canvas. For those who chose not to listen, George’s rule prevailed: "Don’t blame the billboard business, we’re only the messenger."

Seven seconds... it’s not a lot of time.

Until next time,

Al D.

Want more email marketing information? ClickZ E-Mail Reference is an archive of all our email columns, organized by topic.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Al DiGuido

Long recognized as one of the direct response industry's premier innovators and a pioneer in e-mail communications, Al DiGuido brings over 20 years of marketing, sales, management, and operations expertise to his role as CEO of full-service digital marketing company Zeta Interactive. Formerly Epsilon Interactive's CEO, DiGuido also served as CEO of Bigfoot Interactive, CEO of Expression Engines, EVP at Ziff Davis, and publisher of Computer Shopper, where he launched ComputerShopper.com, a groundbreaking direct-to-consumer e-commerce engine. Prior to Ziff Davis, he was VP/advertising director for Sports Inc. DiGuido also serves on the Direct Marketing Association's Ethics Policy Committee.

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