E-mail marketing: It’s deceptively simple

If one looks at the growth curve in e-mail marketing over the past 12 to 18 months, it resembles a hockey stick: a gentle upward slope to the right, followed by a sharp turn skywards. The adoption rate of e-mail marketing by organizations is approaching Mach speed, and understandably so. For marketers trying to acquire and retain customers, the appeal of e-mail marketing is obvious: it's cost effective, it generates good response rates, it's measurable and adaptable and it can be targeted.

If one looks at the growth curve in e-mail marketing over the past 12 to 18 months, it resembles a hockey stick: a gentle upward slope to the right, followed by a sharp turn skywards. The adoption rate of e-mail marketing by organizations is approaching Mach speed, and understandably so. For marketers trying to acquire and retain customers, the appeal of e-mail marketing is obvious: it’s cost effective, it generates good response rates, it’s measurable and adaptable and it can be targeted.

From the consumer’s perspective, the appeal of e-mail as a communication medium is equally evident. E-mail is today’s ‘killer app’: it’s easy to use, it’s pervasive, it’s interactive and people can view it on their own time.

By extension, executing an e-mail campaign should be simple, right? Well, no, not quite. As is often the case with well-executed marketing initiatives, a lot of hard work goes into making an e-mail campaign look simple.

Don’t sacrifice your customers

It has been said that ‘life is not a dress rehearsal.’ The same can be said of e-mail marketing. Marketers will likely not get a second chance to communicate with a customer online if the initial e-mail communication does not go well. E-mail marketing hinges on a single precarious variable – consumer permission. As in-boxes become more and more crowded, consumers are becoming increasingly discriminating about who they give permission to, and very unforgiving of poorly executed campaigns.

Strategic planning in the early campaign stages can help marketers protect their customer base to a certain extent. Detailed planning will help avoid many of the most common macro-level pitfalls of e-mail marketing, such as integration with overall marketing objectives and consideration of the consumer’s online and offline brand experience.

However, when it comes to operational, deployment and data integration details involved in e-mail marketing, few corporate marketers have the necessary experience, desire or time required for effective execution. Consequently, many are turning to outside sources for help.

Out of the pan, into the fire

Following one of the basic principles of economics, rapid growth in demand for a particular service has always been accompanied by a corresponding increase in supply of service providers. However, as is evident from the recent dot-com meltdown, many providers never had the necessary experience, core business principles or financial stability to be in business in the first place.

The same comparison can be made with the rise of e-mail marketing, whether these services are offered by traditional or interactive agencies, direct response companies or dedicated online direct marketing providers.

Marketers need to recognize that providers who offer e-mail marketing services are not necessarily experts at e-mail marketing. In fact, many providers have simply jumped on the bandwagon, trying to capitalize on the latest market opportunity. Their ability to provide the appropriate level of strategic planning required for success is limited, as is their capability to take care of all of the necessary details required for a flawless e-mail marketing experience.

For marketers, partnering with an inexperienced vendor for e-mail marketing services is a little like playing Russian roulette – you may be lucky, but the odds are heavily stacked against you.

Knowing what you don’t know

Corporate marketers who recognize that they need outside assistance have taken the first important step in approaching e-mail marketing intelligently. The second key step is knowing what criteria to look for in a vendor. Just as an informed consumer is more likely to get the product or service he or she wants, a corporate marketer is less likely to experience ‘buyer’s remorse’ if they carefully evaluate potential e-mail marketing providers.

The following are some key questions that marketers should ask of potential e-mail marketing service providers. These can act as an initial guide for evaluating vendors’ capabilities and their ability to effortlessly plan, execute and manage a successful e-mail marketing initiative:

* General

How long has the vendor been in business? How long have they been doing e-mail marketing specifically?

Are they full-service e-mail marketing providers (that is, planning, list management/brokering, creative, deployment and reporting)?

What kind of e-mail marketing services do they provide specifically (that is, acquisition or promotional campaigns versus newsletters)?

Do they have any complementary experience in other online direct marketing services?

Who are some of their key clients (in both B2B and B2C)? Do they have supporting case studies?

What is their account management process?

* Strategic planning

Does the vendor have a documented strategic planning process?

How long does it take, and who should attend?

What is the outcome of the planning process? As a marketer, what can I expect?

* Program development

What process does the vendor use for developing creative copy and layouts? Is there a communication brief?

How are all the operational details (that is, Web and data integration, customer updates, privacy validation and editorial schedules) taken care of? Is there a checklist?

Does the vendor have experience in structuring campaigns for segmentation purposes?

* Deployment

What is the vendor’s testing or proofing process?

How many e-mail clients (that is, Outlook, AOL, Lotus Notes) are tested?

What is the scalability of the e-mail infrastructure?

* Customer response

How has the vendor dealt with customer responses in the past?

Can the vendor clearly outline the options available?

* Reporting and analytics

What are the key metrics being tracked and how will these support my objectives as a marketer?

Is this data available online? What is the time delay?

What are the vendor’s analytical capabilities? Can they provide the expertise to optimize campaigns?

Laying the foundation for success

Professional athletes have a knack for making their particular sport look effortless. In reality, we know that a lot of blood, sweat and tears have gone into the training that has enabled them to reach this level of achievement.

E-mail marketing is no different. Experience and training count heavily in ensuring that e-mail marketing campaigns appear effortless and are executed flawlessly. While athletes may get the opportunity to improve themselves over time, e-mail marketers may never get a second chance if their first attempt fails.

Like any endeavor that offers great rewards, e-mail marketing is not as easy as it looks.

Evan Wood is a principal with online direct marketing firm Digital Cement Inc., based in the company’s Toronto office. He can be reached at 1-800-354-0264 or at ewood@digitalcement.com.