Email Marketing: One User's View

All the pundits have declared that email marketing is on the way to being crowned the Killer App for 1999. I’m no pundit. But I am seeing it happen, and I want to recount a very specific project for an adventure travel site where email works.

First Things First

As with any project, you have to know what you want to accomplish. How many readers? How much are they worth? And how much will you budget to put those eyeballs in front of your page?

It is, after all, a question of ROI. Ad dollars lead to new viewers, and usually the success of the entire operation is dependent on judging correctly.

And while I believe that the email portion of the process is the most successful for the price, it is still necessary to pull together a complete marketing package that includes all the elements designed to bring new viewers on board, and to get repeat traffic from the old, existing folks.

Now, with the disclaimer in place, we start.

Why Email?

In many ways, email marketing is based on direct marketing concepts that have worked outside of cyberspace. The primary objective is to put an actionable message in front of a pre-disposed buyer. Within that formula, there are really only two variables: You can try to figure out who is a pre-disposed buyer, and you play with the message. At the lowest level, that translates into the list and the copy.

For anyone who worked in direct mail in a former life, email marketing is intuitively the most satisfying answer. You go find the buyer. It is quite the opposite of encouraging a buyer to find you.

Relationship Marketing vs. Customer Acquisition

In our world, we have divided the entire population into our own in-house list of registered users and other outside lists of potential users. In fact, this splits neatly into relationship marketing and new customer acquisition. Part of our campaign is aimed at each group.

For our in-house list, we practice relationship marketing, where we solidify the relationship of someone already registered on our site. We believe that the site itself is the primary draw, since by its very nature it conjures up tropical islands, azure seas, different cultures and the thrill of being in a place far from home.

Marketing to this group emphasizes the content of the site, the reasons that they stay a user. There’s new destinations, new festivals, constant update on the world of travel for the adventurous at heart.

To reach the unregistered group, it becomes a search for the right person. The demographics we have reviewed do not exactly show a precise profile of our target. After all, adventure travel is not the same as a business trip to Des Moines, and a simple indication of an interest in travel doesn’t seem to fit the bill.

Some surrogates may be possible — do health food aficionados also like to backpack? But frankly, we haven’t yet had the time or budget to test all of those alternatives. And more broadly, other factors may be the most important like age, for example.

In addition to target analysis, we also use free graphics and a contest for exotic trips as lures to encourage viewers to register.

Reaching A Broad Population

For customer acquisition, I wanted to reach the broadest population possible. Spam is poison, and email ads with merged content did not show measurable response.

We were left with two options: Vendors who would email to either an essentially undifferentiated audience qualified by some broad opt-in provisions, or vendors who would offer more highly targeted, smaller lists at a much higher price.

So we tried them both. What we found is that even with the right message, the broader-based targets have resulted in a lower cost per registration than other email options. This includes getting the viewer to the site. Then, having them register.

What Is The Message?

For the in-house list, we keep everyone up to date on content. If it is adventure that brought them there, it is adventure that will cause them to return. Weekly newsletters and new daily photos have moved the base traffic at the site up over 100 percent in the last two months. Everyone on our list gets at least four emails a month, some more.

For the rest of the world, the message is an attempt to get into their mind, to make them imagine a scene and then click through to the site. It is a psychographic message that doesn’t fall neatly along demographic lines.

Everything Is A Test!

Like every net-based ad opportunity, the immediacy of the response makes everything a test. Every day allows a new take on the copy, a new angle on the target, a new sense of when it does and doesn’t work.

Surprisingly, there weren’t many email marketing companies that were able to offer much direction there. Few knew what kind of copy would give us the best response, or even what list categories would best serve us. We got a lot of stock answers, or suggestions for approaches that had worked for a far different product. Given the explosive growth in the industry, that level of inexpertness surprises me.

Why It Works

Why email works seems to be the same reason that direct mail has worked: The target buyer is presented with a message that they might otherwise not ask for or even know exists. The advertising, to some extent, creates the demand.

Other vehicles — like search engine advertising — finds the buyers that are actively looking for what you are selling. It’s a perfect answer for a librarian, but a lousy one for a direct marketer. I want to convince people that we have what they need — even if they don’t quite know it yet.

What of banner ads? Yes, they work. But they are usually terse, sometimes glaring, and seem to be declining in value. In fact, some are downright annoying.

An affiliate program can drive traffic. But promoting it offers the same basic challenges as promoting site traffic.

While all of these are a part of the plan, email has shown the most consistent ability to generate traffic inexpensively. And that, after all, is indeed the bottom line.

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