From Casual Opt-Ins To Optimal Relationships

E-mail is not the end game.

Everyone is talking about email as marketing’s latest killer app. ClickZ’s Effective Opt-In E-mail Marketing Strategies conference held November 8-9 in San Francisco was a sold-out success. And rightly so, since email’s power as a marketing tool has been well documented.

A seminal Forrester report (“Opt-In E-Mail Gets Personal,” March, 1999) highlighted the cost/benefit advantages of email. And every day, companies are jumping on the opt-in bandwagon by collecting email addresses and delivering outbound content.

In fact, we’ve seen companies of all kinds adding e-messaging to their marketing mix.

Nobody appreciates the concept of opting in more than radio station management. Their customers are opting in, or out, every time they change channels at the car dashboard or click the remote to switch from a broadcast to a CD. Promotional events and contests have been around for decades. Connecting one-on-one with listeners is tough.

One major market rock radio station has recently turned the traditional sweepstakes on its ear. Call it an integrated/e-messaging/permission-based/viral strategy. Here’s how it works:

The station is offering listeners the chance to win prizes like cash, CDs and concert tickets. Just register with an email address through the station’s website. To increase the odds, listeners are encouraged to submit the email addresses of friends, as well. If one wins, they all win. And they can choose (or decline) to receive a regular newsletter with music news about in-store appearances, concert updates, and other artist information.

Has the program been successful? Station management reports they tripled their number of opt-in email addresses in just 24 hours. Just as importantly, they avoided some common mistakes in the practice of viral and permission-based marketing.

They added rules and tools to limit the number of email addresses a respondent could contribute, thereby discouraging amateur spammers.

And unlike ill-conceived e-messaging programs, they didn’t try to turn their customers into distributors. Everyone whose email address was contributed by a friend received a brief email notifying them of the friend’s action and inviting them to opt-in or opt-out.

So where once there was only one-way communication between a station and its listeners, there is now an entirely new channel for creating dialogue and community. What are companies going to do with this new channel? Succeed, and build a solid-gold customer relationship. Or fail, and risk losing a customer for life.

If you’re only exploring e-messaging’s potential as a marketing tool, you’re missing a huge opportunity. The discussion should really be about increasing the lifetime value of each customer. Messaging technology today enables companies to create powerful “moments of truth” where a customer can experience a product, service or brand. Imagine the loyalty you’ll engender if each point of those customer contacts was a positive experience.

Contacting the Service Department is one of those make or break moments of truth for many consumers, like those of America Online for instance.

AOL, with more than 15 million customers, is using email to initiate tens of thousands of surveys a day, following up to measure customer satisfaction after those customers have contacted customer service.

As soon as customers fill out and submit a web-based point-and-click survey, Customer Service can monitor specific customer transactions and make immediate process changes and improvements. It sends a clear message that this company cares about what its customers have to say.

E-surveys also provide a powerful and efficient way of collecting customer feedback. In fact, AOL discovered that good old-fashioned courtesy is valued as least as much as the technical advice that was previously assumed to be the top buyer value. As an added benefit, management has refined the way it monitors and measures the performance of its customer service reps.

Brand managers and brand stewards like the advertising department, sales, customer service, even finance should be contributing to increasing the lifetime value of each customer. If you’ve convinced customers to provide you with their email addresses, you owe it to those customers to make it worth their while.

They will come to listen. They will stay to engage. In other words, the right offer of a content-rich newsletter, interesting sweepstakes or offbeat opportunity can entice a customer to opt-in. But to keep the relationship going, every part of the company that delivers a “moment of truth” needs to promote a dialogue. Examples:

  • Online bill presentment – Should you be cross-selling, discounting, or surveying as well invoicing?

  • Loyalty programs – Does the treatment of your best customers include the characteristics of personalization and timeliness?
  • Transaction history – Are your A/P and A/R departments contributing to the dialogue in a constructive way, or are you delegating that task to the collection agency?
  • Service delivery – Would your customer expect or value hearing from your company every day? Every hour?

Once you start looking across the enterprise, you’ll see email’s not the end game. Building the list and outbound messaging, while fundamentally important, are only the beginning. It takes much more to convert your prospects from casual opt-ins to long-term customers. Every moment of truth, each customer touch point, offer an opportunity to deliver better service and gain greater understanding.

From that vantage point, email begins to look more like the cost of entry for engaging in a rewarding, long-term customer relationship.

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