Use E-Mail to Optimize Your Brand

E-mail impacts brand, you say? But email is a direct response medium that has nothing to do with branding, right? Actually, email is the most personal form of communication outside of good old-fashioned face-to-face communication, which is very often cost-prohibitive when you’re doing mass marketing and communication.

So how is email related to brand? Having spent many years working with different media, I have witnessed the power of email and its ability to impact all the key attributes critical to building one’s brand, including brand awareness, preference, satisfaction, loyalty, and purchase intent.

In this highly competitive marketplace, it is critically important to understand your customers’ needs and how your unique selling proposition satisfies those needs versus competing offerings. Once you’ve determined that, it’s critical you clearly and consistently live up to your brand promise.

The Increasing Value of E-Mail

A case in point: my early online shopping experiences. When I got my first email confirmation from a particular retailer, confirming receipt and processing of my online order, I was relieved, satisfied, and extremely impressed with the overall process, since it was not in common practice at the time. The brand message I received was the retailer cares about its customers’ most worrisome question, “Has my product been shipped and where is it?” I also thought at the time this retailer had set the bar for online shopping.

Then it went a step further: The retailer confirmed shipment of the order and offered email updates on the status of the shipment. I thought, “Wow, this is great customer service. I don’t even have to call an 800 line to check on my shipment!” The brand message was getting hotter — the company wanted me kept posted every step of the way.

The bar was raised yet again: I received a shipment confirmation with a list of recommendations on other products to purchase based on my purchase profile and the purchase patterns of other shoppers with similar buying habits. “Hmm… my own personal shopper offering me a list of statistically relevant items — not bad,” I thought. “This brand cares enough to use all the information it knows about me to make suggestions. No one else does that!”

And it hasn’t ended there. The services and alerts continue to expand and, best of all, I open them all and often act upon them, primarily because the company exceeded my brand expectations.

Needless to say, I have a love/love relationship with this online retailer, which remains the first destination for me every holiday. Did these frequent, helpful, and relevant email messages have an impact on my satisfaction, loyalty, and purchase intent? Absolutely, and I can say for certain those experiences have positively impacted my view of that retailer’s brand. They’ve also driven me to actively recommend the brand to many people over the years.

E-Mail and the Brand Experience

Being in the email communications business and meeting hundreds of marketers across all major industries each year, I’m increasingly exposed to stories like the above that demonstrate the increasing value of email on brand, brand preference, and purchase intent. On its way to revolutionizing business processes and driving significant revenue for marketers, email has also greatly affected the overall brand experience.

For example, one of our financial services clients offers email alerts for activities corresponding to their customers’ credit cards. E-mails are automatically triggered and delivered to customers when their bills are ready online, when payments are received (or not received), and when spending limits are approached, among other criteria. The result: a 25 percent reduction in telephone call volume, along with the corresponding savings in processing those calls. In addition, shortened call queues and hold times lead to higher overall customer satisfaction. Not bad for pennies a message.

No other medium provides brand managers with as much real-time direct feedback as do properly executed email dialogues. The quality of the relationship between your brand and your customer can be maintained on a contact by contact basis.

Using the Power of E-Mail

So how can you use the power of email to improve your brand? When done right, email is guaranteed to generate positive results. But when executed incorrectly, you can damage your brand as much as you can help it (e.g., sending emails that promote snow tires to customers in Florida). So, to avoid the unwanted recipient reactions such as, “What’s this nonsense in my inbox?” and generate the desired, “Wow — these guys are good!” comments, follow these helpful tips on your road to brand optimization through email:

  • Audit touch points. Review every customer touch point and build a matrix detailing your ability to not only capture opt-in email addresses but also communicate to customers the value/benefit of opting in. Furthermore, don’t be afraid to get feedback directly from customers to assess their own communication needs and wants.

  • Think service. E-mail is not just for marketing or promotional messaging. Some of the most effective email communications are service-oriented, such as shipping and billing notifications. Think outside the box. Are there services in which email can play a role? If so, be among the first to offer them — they will serve your brand well in this increasingly digital marketplace.
  • Automate and be on time. Don’t be late; timing is everything. Customers cherish the immediacy email provides them. Faster messaging often drives instant response. If you can automate key messaging and tie it directly to a customer’s profile, you have created the ultimate win-win. Automated programs that can be triggered based on a customers profile or action will enable your email communications program to be more effective and cost efficient.
  • Personalize and be relevant. In this dog-eat-dog world, the brand that does the best job of building relationships wins. You need to know your customers the way the local deli knows your sandwich preferences. Spend time building your customer profile and crafting personalized, relevant communications based on those profiles. Your customers will better appreciate your messaging — and your brand — if you deliver content that’s personally valuable to them. But beware of overpersonalizing and appearing too “slick” in building the dialogue, as it’s sure to turn off your customers.
  • Spread the word: viral. If you have an exciting product or service with a strong brand, your customers will be more likely to share it with people just like them. To make it easy for them, incorporate a viral component that can help you build awareness for brand and grow your customer file cost efficiently. Make sure to provide a benefit for passing along a recommendation.
  • Build internal support. There’s nothing like a few powerful case studies to build consensus across your organization. Document your successes and share them with others who may have an opportunity to build their own relevant email program around the customer. When the number of email addresses reaches a critical mass, accounting for at least 40 percent of the overall customer file, management will pay even greater attention to email communication efforts and its potential impact on brand. In a multibrand company, make sure you have a cohesive strategy for communicating with your customers. Avoid marketing overlap and message saturation, which will only serve to reduce the respect for your brand.
  • Distribute subscription access. Through the audit process, you may gain valuable knowledge about key touch points that can further improve your customer data. Make sure critical customer interface personnel, such as call center representatives, can edit a profile or add comments. This information can be critical in maintaining accurate and up-to-the-minute profile and preference information, and thus impact overall customer satisfaction.
  • Integrate systems. Ensure all touch points and systems converge in a data warehouse or an email warehouse, where you can leverage all the company’s customer intelligence. Though CRM has been thought of as the holy grail, software alone won’t solve all your issues. To launch programs that actually work, you’ll need to leverage your systems in coordination with all of your off- and online communication media, including email. In addition, the timing of those integrated programs is critical in maximizing performance and building your brand.
  • Study competitors and best practices. Look at the competition and at best practices in other industries. A horizontal and vertical approach to identify best practices is helpful in generating new concepts and ideas. You never know, a newsletter or collection technique from a local business may spark your next great idea. Brand preference efforts will only continue to work their magic if you remain competitive compared to other players in the marketplace.
  • Measure and report. To build strong internal consensus, you must measure and report. Use research techniques to document and track success so funding for future initiatives can be established. Understand what data you need to calculate performance metrics on brand building, such as unit sales, market share changes, and increased product recommendations. Some full-service providers use research techniques that allow you to measure changes in brand attributes tied directly to email initiatives. In an economy with an emphasis on results, you can’t afford to leave off this valuable step.

Need some additional ideas about how email can play a role in your efforts to build your company’s brand? Check out Interbrand’s annual list of top brands in BusinessWeek. Opt in to receive email communications from each company — you may be surprised, alarmed, or shocked by the degrees of sophistication. In any case, remember this medium is still relatively new and the potential is enormous.

Finally, don’t forget the small guys who often teach the big brands a thing or two about the importance of innovation, risk taking, and speed to market. Pay careful attention to email address capture and messaging from local companies, such as your favorite restaurant and auto dealership. Very often, the small guys provide valuable lessons that can be critical to building competitive advantage and success.

Until next time…

Al D.

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