How to Email Just the Right People

A big reason that of Chicago boasts high click-through rates for its email lists is that its list is harder to get on and easier to get off than other lists.

ChooseYourMail subscribers specify how long they’ll take messages and how often they’ll take them. The preferences are then confirmed. Every message the company sends has an unsubscribe link.

This counterintuitive strategy can also work for the lists your company develops, said Jeremy Bachmann of Countrywide Credit Industries Inc., in what I found the most fascinating talk at last week’s ClickZ B2B Email Strategies Conference in New York.

Bachmann is not a vendor – much of Countrywide’s business is in home mortgages. And he’ll never be confused with Zig Ziglar as a speaker. But his message resonated nonetheless.

Many businesses think that, because it’s free to send email, more email is better than less email. Bachmann disagrees, and he’s been putting that into practice since his first Countrywide newsletter, Trends Online, launched in early 1999.

Trends Online was based on a paper newsletter Countrywide had sent to real estate agents, who, it turns out, have more impact on who you buy your home loan from than anyone else. The list has 17,000 members, but it’s all qualified. Bachmann offers sign-ups at real-estate-industry trade shows, and agents “just eat it up.”

The thing gets fan mail. It’s anticipated. Agents who have made the list feel they’ve accomplished something. It also doesn’t hurt, he said, that Countrywide takes care in the selection of content for the letter.

Bachmann also had an interesting take on the text vs. HTML discussion. “We took a lesson from Charles Schwab in not letting the user decide whether to sign themselves up for text or HTML,” he said. Instead, Countrywide just pings new subscribers, and if their email program supports web pages, that is what they get.

HTML, he said, “blows away our text version in both responses and conversions. There’s no comparison, and the difference isn’t slight.”

Even with consumers, Bachmann doesn’t buy lists. “People focus on the per-mail cost, but they don’t measure flow-through rate,” which is what happens to email leads that are sent to salespeople for follow-up. “You don’t want your leads to get a bad reputation in the sales force.” Bachmann learned this lesson the hard way, from experience. “I did lots of lists before I got the message.”

Because Bachmann is strict about his criteria for adding to his lists, he can get away with things others might find “spammic.” “We extrapolated the email addresses of our business partners to see how they’d react,” he said. “They didn’t mind. They were happy we were facilitating information.”

To grow its consumer list, in fact, Countrywide simply enlisted the help of Trends Online subscribers. “Once we provided incentives to agents to get email addresses, the lists grew rapidly. We have 2.7 million customers and that list is growing fast. The mail adds value to a transaction you’re already doing with them.

“Learn from trade magazines” and qualify your list, he concluded. “Only segment based on characteristics that drive customer behavior.” (Since people of all income levels buy homes, Countrywide doesn’t segment lists based on income level, for instance.) “Decide what is most relevant to the transaction and only capture that.”

A little discipline can go a long way.

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