What's In An Email?

“What’s in an email? That which we call an email by any other name would smell as sweet.”

Okay, that isn’t exactly how the line goes, but the direct email as a media vehicle has certainly become as ubiquitous as any quote of Shakespeare’s. Direct email has become THE media vehicle du jour.

I’ve had five clients in the last week ask about direct email as part of a media plan: Do you consider it? Can you include it? Will you handle it? How much does it cost? And the questions go on.

With about 90 million people in the US online and over 67 million of them adults 18+ [June ’99 ‘Internet At A Glance,’ Iconocast], the Internet has truly arrived as a mass marketing medium. Of all those people, their number one online activity is sending and receiving email.

This presents an incredible opportunity for reaching an audience through email. Imagine being able to send a piece of collateral directly to someone via technology that enables advertisers to pick your address out of a list of millions based on multiple cross-tabs of self-selected data.

I’ve seen, first-hand, click-through rates of 20 percent and conversion rates just as high. These kinds of results are hard to ignore and make direct email a very attractive proposition in this one-to-one marketing world we now live in. Clients, when they catch wind of this, are eager, even desperate, to try anything with email.

And there are a lot of direct email vendors showing up all over the landscape that are taking advantage of this condition.

But not all opportunities are created equal. And the client isn’t always clear about whom to really target.

So, how do you know what to do, and what’s out there to choose from?

First step needs to be, as with everything you do with or for your client, to establish objectives. That’s usually the easiest thing to do for a direct email piece, since you usually don’t go down this road unless you have a direct response objective.

Next, you need to find the most specific (or sublime) way of targeting your audience. If your strategic target is women 18 to 34 who are pregnant and have been online the last 30 days and love underwater basket weaving and are allergic to cats, just sending email to women 18-34 is not really that targeted. Work with your client to profile the target as best you can. Find other psychographic or demographic criteria that may “suggest” the target without actually being able to point them out.

Now, for your options.

The most common form of email marketing is text flags. Text flags are featured bits of copy, about five lines or so, that rest amidst the larger content of a newsletter or opt-in email.

The aforementioned Iconocast or ZDNet’s Jesse Burst’s Anchordesk are both opt-in email newsletters that use text flags as ad units. These text flags can also have a URL linking to the home page of the advertiser or a specific landing page for the product or service being offered.

Then there are HTML enabled emails and newsletters that essentially let you run banners like you would on any site. But instead of running your ad all over the site, you can get those banners in front of a far more targeted audience by placing them in HTML enabled emails and newsletters that are going to a specific audience that has asked for them. What you receive from ClickZ would be this kind of opportunity.

For either of the above, usually it entails piggy-backing on content produced by a third party that is wholly independent of a direct email concern. If I’m trying to reach women 18 to 34 who are pregnant and have been online the last 30 days and love underwater basket weaving and are allergic to cats, perhaps I can put a text flag and link on the “Underwater Basket Weavers’ Symposium” newsletter. These kinds of buys should be evaluated on a CPM basis. Is the CPM efficient? Based on estimates for performance, will these pay out?

Other opportunities that are emerging now are “beyond the text flag.” These are sometimes customized emails written by the advertiser and distributed to a list through a third party. Some of these are incentive programs like MyPoints.com, or sweepstakes programs like MatchLogic’s DeliverE.

These kinds of programs are basically structured on buying lists of email addresses. They are fairly well targeted because registrants are asked a wide variety of questions whose answers are used as targeting criteria. These kinds of opportunities should be judged on a cost per name. Just like with traditional direct mail, you buy the names. I’ve seen costs-per-name of as low as $0.125; some as high as $1.40.

Right now, direct email is the darling of internet marketing. Just like ‘push’ once was, just like the HTML banner was. Eventually, I suspect, most of it will be treated just like any junk mail you find at home. But if the targeting stays sharp, and the offers are relevant, this rose might stay smelling sweet.

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