The Joy of Responsible Email Marketing

What would you do if you had a database of thousands of email addresses you’d collected over time and no explicit permission to contact the people behind the addresses?

If you’re a spammer, you’d simply send out your message and hope for the best. But if you’re a responsible company, one that understands how consumers value their online privacy, you’d be a bit more circumspect. Yes, the individuals had handed over their email addresses voluntarily, but they hadn’t done so with the expectation that your business would begin sending out commercial mailings. Mass mailings could get you attention, but they could also make a lot of people angry.

That was the dilemma that Thomas Cook faced. The international travel and financial services company had asked customers to supply email addresses when they booked online, but at the time, no plan existed for how those addresses would be used. Little did Thomas Cook know that it would use those addresses to grow the database to more than 15 times its original size in less than a year.

So picture this: Here we have a company that has 16,000 email addresses and little information about the people behind them. Plus, since Thomas Cook is based in the United Kingdom, it needs to be careful to comply with the Data Protection Act 1998, which provides legal guidelines for the use of personal information.

Thomas Cook joined forces with e2 Communications, an application service provider of adaptive email marketing and customer-relationship management solutions, to tackle this problem. Using e2’s hosted application service and permission-based email services, it developed a multistep campaign.

The first mailing was carefully designed to be as acceptable and attractive as possible, and it included:

  • The easily recognized logo (Thomas Cook is a household name in Europe) at the top

  • An up-front statement regarding the mailing’s origins (“I hope you don’t mind us contacting you, as we know you’ve visited our site…”)
  • An attractive offer (sign up for relevant updates, and you’ll be entered in the Win Your Dream Holiday contest)
  • A promise not to contact the recipient again unless the recipient responded

Sent out in December of 1999, the response rates were enviable for the first mailing. Of the 16,000 addresses, about 18 percent of the recipients clicked through to the web site. (2,000 addresses bounced, 4,000 individuals clicked to unsubscribe, and 7,000 did nothing.) Compare this to direct mail campaigns for Thomas Cook, which generate a 1.7 percent response rate, and the numbers look good indeed.

Thomas Cook didn’t stop there. Once the business had a smallish database of opt-in customers, it set about building customer loyalty and providing relevant services by profiling consumers according to interests. Shortly afterward, a second mailing was sent out that contained links to various areas on the Thomas Cook web site. Want a weekend jaunt to Paris? A month-long stay in Australia? Thomas Cook gleaned information on traveling habits based on click-throughs and filed that information away, knowing that future mailings could be targeted to the customers based on their profiles.

So far so good. Now that Thomas Cook had some experience in effective email marketing, the company was ready to grow its database. In April 2000, it came up with a promotion offering “Free Weekend Breaks” to new customers who opted in to receive future email messages in the form of what the company calls the Thomas Cook Update. During registration, consumers selected areas of interest, further tailoring their profiles.

Plus, while filling out the registration form, visitors could email up to nine friends notifying them of the Free Weekend Break offer. And here’s where the numbers get really impressive. The Free Weekend Break was originally intended to run for four weeks, and the goal was 100,000 new contacts. Thomas Cook met its goal within less than half that time, and by the end of the month, the site had more than 250,000 new opt-in subscribers.

To sum it up, in less than a year, this company went from 16,000 potential email addresses, with no explicit permission to contact the individuals, to 250,000 opt-in customers. The lesson is clear. Responsible email marketing gets results.

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