Email Marketing for the Long Term

Let’s play through a little scenario, shall we?

You get home from work around 9 p.m. You’re beat. It’s been a tough day, and you’re ready to relax, maybe catch up on a few phone calls with your friends, watch a little TV or read a book, and go to bed.

You open the door, plop your laptop down on the kitchen table, and grab a cold one. Drawn by longing for your easy chair, you make your way to the living room, where you turn on the light and see…

There’s somebody IN your easy chair, a guy all slick and smiling and clearly expecting you. And not only is he sitting there, but he’s got a laptop and a projector showing a PowerPoint presentation on your wall.

“What the… !” you say, dropping your beer on the floor.

“Greetings!” he calls out with a practiced grin. “I’ve got an incredible opportunity! If you ever wanted to make money, here’s a sure-fire… ”

“Who are you, and what are you doing in my house?” you interject, your voice rising to just this side of a scream.

“Don’t you know? I’m from WebBargainStockScamHut.com! You clearly indicated you wanted me to come visit you in your home and present you with my fabulous opportunities when you didn’t check the ’opt-out’ box clearly displayed in four-point type on the back of that credit card receipt you signed at the grocery store yesterday. I’m in full compliance with government regulations! If you would like me not to visit you again, all you need to do is send email to this address,” he says, handing you a piece of paper with a cryptic-looking Hotmail account written on it, “and I personally will never contact you again! You gave your permission, after all!”

You back slowly toward your hall closet. You think you remember leaving a baseball bat in there for situations like this one…

Sound a little far-fetched? OK, maybe it is. But as I confront another Monday morning with my inbox stuffed to the gills with spam, I just can’t help feeling a little testy about “permission marketing.”

Here’s how it’s supposed to work. You, conscientious consumer that you are, decide that you want to be notified of new products and receive new information about your favorite products. You go to a web site, register, and check a box saying “Yes, please notify me about new products.” When new products come out, you get a polite email that directs you to the goods. You’re thankful because this email just saved you a bunch of time and provided you with information you wanted.

Unfortunately, judging from my own email box, that’s NOT how it works in many cases. Instead, you go on a site, register for extra info, download access or customer service, and probably forget to notice that the “Please-send-me-spam-for-the-rest-of-my-life” button is already checked for you. Isn’t that helpful?!

You click the submit button, and your name is added to the Email Marketing List of No Return. Yippie! You’re now permission-fodder!

All marketers (yours truly included) know that email works. It is cost-effective, generates strong response, and seems to drive a good amount of traffic. An Ernst & Young report detailed in the Los Angeles Times back in January pointed out that 14% of people surveyed said they clicked on email links. Users click 3 to 10 times more on links in email than on banner ads.

Let me repeat myself again before I have to dig myself out of a “gajillion” hate mails: I KNOW EMAIL WORKS!!

In the short term, at least.

Because even as direct email marketing is exploding (Jupiter recently reported that consumers can expect 1,600 commercial messages per year in their inboxes by 2005… up from 40 per year today), consumer trends seem to be heading away from a mindset that’s going to be receptive to blatant marketing messages and trickery. Check out my column last week for details, but the gist of the matter is this: Consumers are seeking more control in their lives, are becoming more cynical about marketing, and will not remain loyal to brands that don’t fit their lifestyles as the web opens up more and more choices.

If you aren’t giving customers what they want, they won’t come back.

And that’s been the biggest problem for e-tailers and dot-coms since the money started to dry up. Now that dot-com dreamers can’t convince their backers that “you know, profits are like soooo 20th century!” anymore, a lot of companies that spent loads of money on marketing (including Kozmo.com, iOwn.com, 800.com, Boo.com and Furniture.com) are pulling IPOs, firing staff, or going out of business.

Many of them were able to drive loads of traffic to their sites through many channels but weren’t able to build repeat customers — something that’s vital for long-term business success. Sure, they had lots of other problems, but I’d betcha that nonrepeat business was one of the worst. According to a Mainspring/Bain & Company report, the average e-tailer has to have a customer shop four times before becoming profitable… and online grocers must hold on to customers a stunning 18 months before breaking even!

Building loyalty and repeat business means asking not what you can do TO your customers but what you can do FOR them. Tricking people into “permission” isn’t a tactic that’s going to cut it over the long term. And as more and more email gets out there and people’s inboxes get even more clogged than they are now, staying in front of customers is going to really require marketers to think information before persuasion. Let’s start working for the long haul.

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