Rule for the Day: No Surprises!

After the responses I got from my last article, which concentrated on the effects of September 11 on business in the United States, I think I can safely assume that I hit on a collective nerve. I was amazed at the amount of positive feedback I received.

But since my company prepared that report, things have changed even more, especially for the direct marketing industry. The anthrax situation has changed how direct marketers work through the physical mail and now through email. Increasingly, direct marketers are turning to email as a way to reach their customers without exposing them to risk or causing them undue concern.

In the direct mail business, marketers have had to change their tactics in a number of ways. In the past, “stealth” direct mail techniques pulled the best. Leaving off the return address, using handwritten fonts, and using “stealthy” messages on the outside to “trick” recipients into opening the package were all standard and accepted techniques. Now they’re invitations to corporate disaster.

But such techniques are still being used in email marketing. Still, permission-based marketing doesn’t have to rely on such techniques… and permission marketing seems to be working well. In fact, Forrester recently reported that some permission marketing programs have tremendous success rates. Travel lists, for example, have only a five percent cancellation rate. DoubleClick reports that 82 percent of online consumers have made a purchase in the last year as a result of receiving permission-based email.

Making that first contact, though, now holds greater risk, especially when that first contact is unsolicited. Back in August, Cyber Dialogue found that 77 percent of U.S. consumers felt that their privacy was being invaded when they received unsolicited email from a company that they didn’t know. Almost half (44 percent) reported feeling their privacy was infringed upon when they received unsolicited messages from companies they did know, 48 percent reporting that such email damaged their perception of the company they received it from.

Even though we scrupulous marketers have concentrated on sending only permission-based email, many out there still haven’t gotten on the bandwagon. The same Cyber Dialogue study found that 88 percent of users received unsolicited email after registering at sites. Even worse, over half (54 percent) reported that they received messages from companies they had asked not to send them email. Not good.

Remember… this study was done back in August, before the events of September 11 and before anthrax made direct mail a hazardous business. And, though nobody has done a study linking September 11 with direct mail practices, it’s possible to look at post-attack attitudes and draw some conclusions about what direct marketers should do online.

Bottom line: “Tricks” are going to backfire now more than ever. Those same consumers that are leery of direct-mail techniques are also the same consumers that are starting to get pretty ticked off about email techniques that don’t respect their privacy. Combine those feelings with the radical anxiety and distrust that terrorism has generated, and you’ve got a recipe for direct mail disaster if you’re not careful.

So, what should direct marketers do online today? The number-one rule should be no surprises. Consumers now are seeking comfort, stability, and predictability. Using clever techniques to get your email opened has a greater chance than ever of heightening the anxiety of your consumers… and a subsequent risk of alienating them even further.

The Forrester report that I mentioned above points out that relevance is the key to permission marketing and that stricture is truer now than ever. With a sinking economy and a nervous public on heightened alert, building value for the long term by providing your customers with close (and valuable) relationships (and information) will prove to be the strategy that works best. In a time in which it seems that people can’t trust anyone, being a reliable, trustworthy company is vital. Think trust, not tricks.

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