Have Yourself a Merry Little Email

Bah humbug! Companies and consumers alike can hardly be blamed for feeling that way this year. A confluence of unfortunate events has led to one of the most unpleasant holiday seasons in recent memory. What’s a hapless marketer to do?

If ever there was a time to stay in touch with customers, this is surely it. While it may seem counterintuitive to market in a down economy, wise players will realize the long-term advantages. History teaches that all economic downturns are cyclical. At the risk of sounding corny, the sun will eventually shine again. By keeping their customers close, marketers will be ideally positioned to reap the rewards when times get better.

What, precisely, should marketers do? Clearly the present mood of the consumer base does not lend itself to shiny, happy advertising. Indeed, marketers deploy such campaigns at their peril. Current events are undoubtedly a factor in any marketing decision made today.

Not surprisingly, consumer psychology has shifted rapidly. A trip to the mailbox is now a cause for trepidation rather than excitement. Until anthrax is no longer a top story on the evening news, consumers are not likely to embrace direct mail. Marketers must be mindful of that reality.

No one is suggesting traditional direct mail vehicles such as the friendly and familiar paper catalog are going to disappear. Though undoubtedly using online marketing is cheaper and often more effective, it cannot at present replace all other forms of customer communication. No matter how glitzy the email campaign or enticing the blinking banner ad, generations of consumers have become accustomed to seeing their mailboxes teem with holiday catalogs.

Even the biggest and best marketers do not have email addresses for all their customers. That situation will surely change over time, but businesses can’t just sit around and wait for that happy day. In the meantime, there are plenty of ways email can bring some joy to our lives this holiday.

As we learned in the September 11 aftermath, email can be everyone’s friend. Respectable marketers went out of their way to use email to its best advantage. By sending out timely and useful information, customers were, and continue to be, kept up to date. Most of these e-messages are not about selling; many such messages came from airlines with updates for fliers about new security regulations, intended to make travel easier. Those companies will undoubtedly enjoy drastically increased goodwill as a result of those efforts.

Let’s recap. Companies need to maintain good customer relations. Times are tough, so every marketing dollar must be spent wisely. Consumers are sullen and prone to eschew traditional direct mail. Hmmm. Let’s put our thinking caps on… How about a holiday e-card?

It’s not too late. As we all know, holiday greetings continue to stream in throughout the month of December (and then there’s the new year, opening more opportunities next month). An email greeting is the perfect way to remind customers their favorite merchants are still thinking about them — even if there’s no actual sale as a result.

While there will always be those who say a paper card is de rigueur, we must be cognizant of the times. A study sponsored by two greeting card companies (ahem) found that recent events would have little impact on the number of paper cards sent this season. Whoa, big shocker there. Foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little marketers. (By the way, those same greeting card companies are hedging their bets by charging to send e-greetings from their sites.)

Staying in touch with your customers via email is always a good idea. The holidays happen to provide the perfect opportunity for such communication. Especially during troubled times, a sincere and well-meaning message cannot go wrong. Although the desire to sell is often irresistible, that impulse can be channeled into an email that expresses concern and friendliness.

It shouldn’t be just a once-a-year event. Remember, this is about establishing and maintaining that all-important relationship with the consumer. If a customer only hears from you every 12 months, don’t be surprised if you hear from them just as infrequently.

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