Brand-killing E-mail Mistakes
By Bill Nussey
Most marketing and communications professionals have realized the power of permission e-mail to complement multichannel communications in increasing revenues, reducing costs and leveraging existing investments in content and customer data.
What you might not realize, though, are the ways your e-mail communications could affect your brand. You may be destroying your brand integrity without knowing it.
Whether you work for a direct marketing company or a marketing agency—and whether you are a manager, director, principal or chief marketing officer— if your company engages in e-mail-based communications as part of an overall communications strategy, then you likely will find the following nine issues relevant to your business. They are all manageable if you are aware of their influence and address them.
1. All HTML is not alike.
Many marketers mistakenly think that if a recipient's e-mail browser is HTML-ready, the HTML message will always display properly.
Not true. There are hundreds of different combinations of e-mail software packages, Internet service provider (ISP) mail systems and browsers that can dramatically affect how an HTML e-mail message appears in a recipient's inbox. The basic HTML message that customers see can appear broken, including improperly displayed graphics and raw HTML code in place of content.
You'll never know that your message "broke," but you will see much lower response rates and even higher opt-out rates as a result.
There is no silver bullet here, but for starters, avoid the use of common HTML elements that will fail in some environments, such as style sheets, Java script, background images and DIV tags.
Also, seek out a solution provider that understands this issue, has quality assurance testing labs and whose technology automatically "tunes" HTML to optimize in all of those environments. Of course, your customers know best what they like, so you will want to offer them choice when it comes to HTML versus plain text.
2. AOL customers who want a richer experience.
Some AOL customers on older versions of the Internet Service Provider's (ISP) software can view rich text messages, but not HTML. (Rich text, not to be confused with rich media, is a protocol that allows for enhanced text formatting compared to plain text.) Solutions that technologically determine whether the customer's e-mail recipient environment can render text versus HTML will deliver by default plain text e-mail messages to AOL users with the older software.
If you are using a solution provider that employs this approach, you are losing a tremendous opportunity to enhance your brand value with that target audience through more effective rich text messaging.
3. When is a test not a test?
Many marketers test their e-mail campaigns and programs, but do so by sending each message to themselves or a few others in the office. Testing is crucial, but using this approach can be a recipe for disaster.
Make sure you include a phase during which you test overall appearance, reception quality and functionality of all aspects of each e-mail message. Your process should include sending tests to a broad list of domains that can be accessed inside and outside of your company's firewall and on varying bandwidth connections. This may take more time up-front, but will help you avoid broad-based errors that negatively affect customer relationships.
This also applies to rich media campaigns. Recipients will respond to rich media. But when some marketers attempt this path they see response rates that are either OK or subpar. What they may not realize is that the beautifully branded, attention-getting messages were never received by their customers.
The culprits to situations like this one include bandwidth issues, corporate firewalls and a variety of e-mail recipient environments that will not render rich media. Instead of a communications program that properly reflects the company and engages customers, the exact opposite occurs.
4. "From"/"reply to" addresses can make a difference.
Believe it or not, many companies send e-mail messages, as part of one-time campaigns or ongoing programs, that involve problems associated with the "from" and "reply to" e-mail addresses.
The from/reply to addresses should be relevant to the recipient and, of course, should be valid. This seems obvious, but not everyone adheres to this standard, since some companies use fake addresses or aliases that have not been formally set up. Inevitably, some people will respond to both, so make sure these addresses are working. Also, assign at least two people—a primary and a backup—to the e-mail address, ensuring that someone always is monitoring replies.
5. Bad lists equal hot water.
If you are looking to build your permission-based database through external lists, you need to be extremely wary of the lists you use for prospecting. Not only are consumer and business users more sensitive to unsolicited e-mail, the media increasingly is focused on spam and definitely will zero in on companies that—knowingly or unknowingly—disregard opt-in best practices. So, choosing the wrong types of lists can get your company and its image in hot water.
Do not bother with lists that offer cheap promises—costing pennies per thousand and containing millions of addresses. These typically are called spam lists, which include databases of names harvested without the recipients' consent. It takes time and money to develop good third-party opt-in lists. Be willing to pay reputable list brokers, managers, owners and networks a little higher price for higher quality lists. Use only lists where the list manager or broker can prove opt-in.
6. Blacklisting—the hidden scourge.
Even with your best intentions, bad lists and poor e-mail communications practices can get you blacklisted through ISPs or services like Spamcop.net.
E-mail users have a few options to combat what they perceive as spam. They can use filters to catch the most blatant abusers. They can complain directly to their ISPs, which may facilitate their issues through in-house abuse departments. Or, they can employ anti-spam services that "blacklist" your e-mail messages from getting to desired recipients. These spam watchers don't bother to tell you when you've been blacklisted. In fact, many companies and even e-mail service firms have no idea when their outbound messages are being denied.
Make sure your opt-in lists consist solely of subscribers who have given you permission to send them specifically the type of message that you will be sending them.
7. Is viral marketing providing you just desserts?
You likely have heard again and again that, as far as Internet advertising and communications are concerned, there is no such thing as a free lunch. But when your e-mail communication content is so compelling the recipient forwards it to his or her friends, you get your just desserts as that person promotes your business—brand and all—to others with like interests. This can be an incredibly powerful tool, especially if through all of the forwarding, the message's look and feel remains intact and viral tracking is available.
Beware, however, if you intend for your recipients to forward HTML or rich media through the "forward" button in standard e-mail software like Outlook. You are taking a chance that the message could break, showing improperly displayed graphics or even raw HTML code in place of content. Instead, have a link built into the message that will take recipients to a page where they can enter the e-mail addresses of people they'd like to forward the message to. Then have your system generate a fresh message for those addresses.
8. Your customers think you're a spammer, and you don't know it.
Your company or agency may have multiple independent departments or divisions (as well as multiple employees within those groups) that touch customers, partners and investors via e-mail communications. Without communication between these departments, you might end up with inconsistent messaging and branding, and no control over message frequency to each individual.
Your customers may be receiving many more e-mails from your company than you think, hence their impression of you as a spammer—or at least inconsiderate of their requests or needs. Since building an in-house list is expensive and time consuming, the same consideration applies to assuming that since they are already customers, they are willing to receive e-mail.
9. Can you continue to meet customer expectations?
You have been using e-mail with some success, but now your customers are becoming more sophisticated and demanding. To continue using e-mail as part of your communications strategy, you need to acknowledge those needs and enhance your efforts accordingly.
Unfortunately, as the frequency and complexity of your e-mail communications increase, processes and policies often break down. "Borrowed" resources can get burned out or pulled due to higher priorities. More employees with less related experience begin developing and sending campaigns or programs. Therefore, you run the distinct risk of losing the respect and trust of your customer base.
On the other hand, budgeting appropriately and managing effectively to meet—and even exceed—those expectations can result in greater loyalty, possible advocacy and a measurable return on the investment.
Bill Nussey is CEO of Silverpop, an e-mail marketing solutions provider. He can be reached at (404) 262-4300, or visit www.silverpop.com.