Successful e-mail marketing means going back to basics

Publication: Daily Herald
February 26, 2009
By Jim Kendall | Daily Herald Columnist

This should be the time for e-mail to come to the fore as a low-cost, slam dunk effective marketing tool – unless your e-mails go to the SPAM box. Or, says Jordan Ayan, unless you bombard recipients with so many messages they begin blogging or Tweeting about how you’re abusing them. Or, he continues, unless your graphics-heavy content meets the reality that nearly half of all e-mail recipients have their images turned off, turning your pretty pictures into a little red “x” in a tiny box. Talk to Ayan about effective e-mail marketing and sometime during the conversation the light will come on: E-mail marketing in many ways channels that Marketing 101 course you took in college. Planning, testing, strategy and best practices all matter. Ayan is founder and CEO of SubscriberMail, LLC, Lisle. He’s also a firm believer that “Building a list is the most critical component” of successful e-mail marketing. “The reality is that you can’t rent a good e-mail list,” he says. How to build a list? Retailers can simply “Put a bowl in front and give people a form to fill out,” Ayan says. Another idea: Encourage visitors to your Web site to sign up there for your e-newsletter. While you’re working on your list, set some goals. “Know what you want to accomplish over a period of time,” Ayan says, then “make the e-mail message relevant to customers. Put yourself in the mind of the recipients” and provide information they need. Most of your e-mail recipients, for example, “don’t care about your widget,” Ayan says. Instead of extolling the benefits of your new blue widget, “Share tips and tricks, information about the industry. If you do that, you periodically can talk to them about your product.” That assumes, of course, that recipients open your e-mail. The subject line “is a critical piece of your creative strategy,” Ayan says. He’d generally prefer to test approaches, but “How to Boil an Egg” typically is better than “Here’s this month’s Kitchen News.” In fact, your subject line can wipe out your otherwise best efforts. If you don’t watch the words and phrases – “No exclamation points! No ‘As seen on Oprah.’ Nothing (such as ALL CAPS) that looks like you’re shouting,” says Ayan – the SPAM filter is virtually certain to catch you. Ayan’s book, “The Practical Guide to Email Marketing,” contains more than 100 subject line words and phrases to avoid. You can buy the book at Amazon.com or download it free at www.subscribermail.com. Finally, treat your recipients like the gold you hope they’ll become. “A lot of retailers abused their lists during the holiday season with constant mailings,” Ayan says. As a result, “Their unsubscribes went way up.”

How significant? They apparently vary so much that Melinda Hyde, the firm’s senior marketing coordinator, declined to give even a range.

“Each of our 166 locations is independently owned and operated. The costs of membership vary vastly from state to state and from showroom to showroom because of the local services they provide in addition to [our] national services,” she says. “So it wouldn’t be fair to give a figure because it wouldn’t be accurate.”

In any case, just after a customer signs a contract with DirectBuy, there’s a sensitive period during which the individual may get cold feet and back out of the deal. Moreover, many state laws give them a short window to do so.

“When you join DirectBuy, you sign a contract. And as with any contract, there are rules and regulations attached to it, including the opportunity to cancel,” Hyde says. “Obviously, to us one of the most important things is member retention. And when we began to think about it, we decided member retention starts the day they sign up.”

So last July, with the help of e-mail service provider SubscriberMail, DirectBuy began sending new members messages just after sign-up.

As Hyde describes the process, “During the first week we want to make sure [e-mail recipients] understand the value of the membership and that we’re with them every step of the way, starting the very day they join. Within an hour of their information being entered into our system, they’re sent an e-mail.”

The message contains a welcome letter from DirectBuy’s president and links to Web pages created specifically for new members. “They can go in and learn basically anything they want to know,” Hyde says.

The open rate on these messages is nearly 71%. To put this figure in perspective, an e-mail “open” is recorded when the receiving machine calls for images from the sender. With most inbox providers blocking graphics by default these days, a marketer is lucky to see open rates of 20%.

DirectBuy’s open rates for its welcome e-mails mean most new members are asking their inbox providers to turn on the message’s graphics.

And among those who open the message, Hyde says more than 40% click on a link.

The second day after joining, customers get another e-mail describing the services available to them.

They also get a third message and occasionally a fourth during the first week. The unsubscribe rate from these communications is 0.15%.

“The final e-mail is sent on the seventh day because we don’t want to send members too much,” Hyde says. “It lets them know the retention program’s other benefits.” For example, it offers the opportunity to sign up for product announcements and specials.

“The great thing about selling at price,” Hyde continues, “is that sometimes vendors have just done inventory and they have all this merchandise that’s either overstocked or last year’s model. And they’re willing to offer it to their stores at an incredible price. This e-mail program allows me to get that message out to our members and give them better than [usual] DirectBuy pricing.”

The program’s payoff? A 1.5% increase in member retention during the first week.

And according to Hyde, “the most exciting part is that we’re not done. As with any program, we intend to improve it. So in my eyes, there’s even more potential.”

Jordan Ayan, SubscriberMail’s founder and CEO, believes DirectBuy’s e-mail welcome program is a prime example of using the channel to establish relationships.

He puts it this way: “E-mail marketing is an exceptional tool for building customer relationships. DirectBuy’s event-triggered e-mails let [recipients] know exactly what to expect from their new membership. This steady flow of relevant e-mail information at critical points in the customer life cycle improves the depth of the relationship DirectBuy forms with its customers, and as a consequence has boosted its customer retention rates.”

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