Opt-In E-Mail As A Service

Opt-in email advertising is without question the most underused form of Internet advertising. Click-through rates are higher, targetability is excellent, and it is completely voluntary.

A recent survey by The Strategis Group indicates that about four out of five U.S. Internet users are not on any kind of automated commercial email list. Advertisers are clearly missing an opportunity.

Useful Service

In my most recent Ad Metrics column, I pointed out research showing that 89 percent of all users who click on ads do so for reasons of product interest. If you can find customers who are strongly interested in your products, then you’re halfway there. If you can get them to consciously, voluntarily sign up to receive automated emails, then you’re home free.

The key is to sincerely put yourself in the shoes of the customer.

As I wrote in my last column, three-fourths of Internet users do not have a positive attitude toward Internet advertising in general. Internet users are a disproportionately well-educated, savvy crowd. They see through pitches easily. But, if you’re serving their interests, then your email will be a welcome visitor in the customer’s mailbox.

I’m living proof. Every Wednesday, I receive an email from Northwest Airlines promoting its CyberSavers — low-cost, last-minute fares designed to fill empty seats. I am actually grateful that Northwest gives me the opportunity to visit friends and relatives on the cheap; I regard it as a useful service.

Subtlety is the order of the day.

A customer on a health site wants information about how to stay healthy, not sales pitches. To draw this customer in, you need to find out what makes him or her tick and provide relevant information. By providing genuinely useful information, you can build a relationship with the customer. And, having won the customer’s trust, you can then throw in the occasional reference to that new remedy or vitamin.

So how do you capture these motivated customers? Offering emails during the site registration is the most effective and efficient way. Putting a link on your site is another way. Some companies offer their email lists as part of their purchase confirmation emails.

There are pitfalls. Every marketing technique has its drawbacks and opt-in email is no different. First, mailboxes are overloaded.

The average Internet user receives 35 emails per week, according to The Strategis Group’s Advertising on the Internet: 1999. Seven percent of users claim to receive 200 or more. Your email will break through the clutter only if it is welcome and succinct.

Customer service is another issue. E-mail users are in the habit of hitting “reply” and making quick responses. What if they do? Do you have the customer service staff and server capacity to handle it, or will you create disappointment? Or will you risk alienation and forfeit feedback by making your emails “send-only?”

Finally, you have to avoid the appearance of Spamming. Yes, they signed up for it, but do they remember signing up for it? A gentle reminder in each email is in order — as is a comforting link that will enable the customer to opt out of your emails.

Will opt-in email work for your product? There are three tests you can apply to find out.

  • First, is your product subject to fluctuations in price? Strategis’ research indicates that I’m not the only one getting opt-in travel emails. In fact, of all the commercial categories in the survey, travel was tops. Why?

    Because air travel prices fluctuate dramatically, based on availability of seats. The survey also asked customers about opt-in email for books, but got different results. Books may be an ideal product for e-commerce, but their prices are more static and availability is not as much of a problem.

  • Time is the second test. Many products are seriously dependent on new releases and seasonality. Software enthusiasts, for example, want to know when new software becomes available. Skiers may be interested in fall tune-ups and February trips to the Rockies.
  • The product’s dependence on information is the third factor. The more information-intensive a subject is — like real estate, for example — the more likely a customer is to sign up for regular information updates.

So what do you do?

Start with the attitude that opt-in email is a genuine service that the customer will appreciate. Make sure it’s targeted to interested parties and completely voluntary. Make your emails succinct and gently remind the customer that the email is something that was requested.

Then, if your product is subject to variations in price, timing issues, and providing good information, you may have a winner on your hands.

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