When to Take the Low Road

Lately I’ve been traveling through two very different e-mail marketing worlds. On one hand, I attend those respected e-mail conferences for high-level marketers at large companies and agencies. The focus in this world is case studies, brand-building, and deliverability. Respected brands show off their campaigns, awards are given for the best and most elegant creative, and maintaining a high level of integrity and best practices is strived for.

On the other, I also attend down-and-dirty conferences where newbies (most of whom live in the home-based business sector) and a different kind of seasoned professional meet to discuss one thing: how to make money from e-mail. Correction: how to make a lot of money from e-mail. All discussions are based on one criterion: will this technique make me more money or less if I implement it?

And while these two worlds will probably never collide, each could learn a lot from each other. At least those who attend the respected conferences could learn a lot from the folks who sell payday loans, herbal remedies, and get-rich-quick schemes, because these guys know how to take e-mail and turn it into cash.

E-mail apparently needs a little salesmanship. Just look at the lackluster effort most retailers delivered and the poor results they got this holiday season. Retailers suffered some of the worst traffic numbers since the beginning of online shopping, but e-mail could play a significant role in reversing that trend. Yet few did it right and opportunities were lost.

For one thing, people weren’t holiday-shopping this year. They were bargain-hunting. The two biggest traffic days for retailer’s Web sites for 2008 were Black Friday (November 28) and December 26, when bargain-basement pricing was the norm.

Over the last few years, the Black Friday spike would carry into December, where there would be a gradual traffic decrease until December 25, then a post-holiday spike would raise site traffic rates to mid-December traffic levels. Not this year. Traffic after November 28 dropped off and stayed there.

The first mistake e-mail marketers made was assuming that the term “Cyber Monday” meant anything to the bargain-hunting crowds. The whole concept of Cyber Monday should probably be retired after this year. In pre-high-speed Internet days, there would be a spike in online sales on the Monday following Thanksgiving, as people returned to work where they had high-speed Internet access. With high-speed Internet now ubiquitous at home, the Monday lift just isn’t there anymore and probably never will be again.

Competitive intelligence collected and analyzed by my firm shows that e-mail marketers wasted valuable subject line real estate promoting Cyber Monday sales, which fell flat. This is especially unfortunate because the use of the term in e-mail marketing promotions was up over 200 percent from last year. Response was much better to e-mail campaigns that promoted good old-fashioned sales with no mention of Cyber Monday. Neiman Marcus, for instance, generated traffic on Monday to match its Black Friday traffic simply by promoting a one-day sale. It was one of the few success stories on Cyber Monday.

Retailers panicked for the first 10 days of December, increasing their e-mail drops by 40 percent over last year but then dropped backed to 2007 levels for the rest of the month. The big winners? Anything promoting a percentage-off sale. Anything with a percent sign helped boost traffic a bit, but e-mail that backed away from such tactics were rewarded with no traffic to speak of.

As home-based business mailers can tell you, you must ask for the buy. Those who didn’t lost big. Even master discount marketer Kmart learned the hard way. Its “Big holiday clearance plus $1 shipping per item” e-mail subject line drove only half of its Black Friday traffic. But those December 26 “70% off” e-mail messages were like manna from heaven to a public desperate for a good sale.

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