Tame the E-mail Tangle
By Steve Meyer
Managing your customer e-mail information.
E-mail continues to grow in importance as a form of communication with nearly universal reach.
The concurrent explosion of spam e-mailing as a marketing technique recently resulted in sweeping legislation proposed to give consumers more control over how their personal information is used for contact purposes. To succeed as an e-mail marketer, then, you must carefully cultivate and harvest your valuable crop of e-mail addresses to ensure the best returns on your marketing efforts.
E-mail represents an extremely cost-effective form of marketing, so why not just cover the world with e-mail and let those interested in your message answer accordingly? Aside from the damage to your e-karma, you run a serious risk of alienating the very group of valuable people (your customers) you're trying to reach. Despite the mass-market nature of e-mail, the medium still can offer a "written letter" kind of intimacy if managed correctly. This type of relationship is what you should strive for. Delivering the right message to the right address at the right time has been proven to be a more effective sales incentive with e-mail than with any other channel—but it must be handled correctly.
E-mail Addresses are Like Potato Chips … You Can't Have Just One
One of the single largest problems in managing e-mail addresses is that there are just too many of them! In my household, we have at least four active e-mail accounts; some we share and some are personal.
I'm certain, because of the unsolicited incoming volumes, that each of these e-mail addresses is on someone's spam list, yet I still choose to use the various accounts for communication with companies I conduct business with. So how would someone on the other end of the magic LAN cable know the best way to reach me with a specific offer? I'll look at some of the ways this should be managed.
First, we all probably remember the phrase "Garbage In, Garbage Out." Whenever an online form solicits my e-mail address I first evaluate whether I truly want to receive e-mail from this company. Perhaps I'm only browsing anonymously for interest rates, etc. I may purposefully choose to give a bogus address if the site requires something in that field.
On the collecting end, several inexpensive options are available to test the validity of received e-mail information. The expensive route is to attempt to verify the address by overlaying the received data with one of the major information houses. While often a good approach, particularly when you're looking to obtain additional information about this customer (e.g., demographics), the cost of this type of append usually is not reasonable for your first line of prospecting.
A quick and dirty approach to validation is to test the existence of the domain name that has been supplied by the customer. Someone with basic programming skills can write simple scripts to loop through a list of domain names and determine if they're valid simply by pinging the domain (sending a special message to the host in hopes of receiving a reply). If a positive reply is received, you at least know the domain exists, though the exact e-mail address has not yet been validated.
Identifying the Right Address for the Objective
The next three steps follow the traditional marketing mantra of recency, frequency and monetary value to determine which e-mail address—out of multiple possibilities—might be the best for a particular customer.
Recency. How long ago was this e-mail address supplied? Since e-mail addresses can be short-lived, you may want to place emphasis on addresses that have been entered more recently. Simply keeping a field called "date acquired" in your e-mail address data table can greatly improve your ability to reach the best address.
Frequency. Has the customer used the same e-mail address in more than one communication with your company? If so, then this is a solid indicator of the most reliable address for him or her. Additionally, if you have the ability to track and link received e-mail communications from your customers to your marketing efforts, it will provide a powerful method for matching up a valid address to the customer.
Monetary: If you're a retailer, the more expensive a purchase, the more likely it is that the customer has provided an accurate e-mail address to ensure good communication regarding the status of his or her order. For a financial services institution that may collect e-mail information from a variety of sources, the best e-mail address may be the one linked with the most valuable account held in the customer's portfolio.
Another important consideration is the desired target audience for your message. An effective household profile would show which e-mail address to use to reach either my wife or me specifically, or which (and it would be different) should be used to reach us as a business-conducting entity. Excessive "householding" of the various e-mail addresses would reach the wrong conclusion, and send e-mail opportunities where they have little chance of meeting with success. Similar to a customer with multiple types of accounts, the customer with multiple e-mail addresses requires each address to be treated separately, and communications managed accordingly.
If you are marketing to customers with a particular account type, for example, you might choose to give more weight initially to the e-mail address associated with that specific account (perhaps in violation of the RFM rules described above).
Customers Have the Final Say
Finally, with recent legislation, care must be taken to manage e-mail-marketing preferences in accordance with customers' wishes. A customer may opt-in for a particular newsletter or specify conditions for why and how he or she should be contacted. A different e-mail address for that customer does not automatically fall under the same rule umbrella.
Tread carefully, however, in deliberately choosing to ignore the marketing preferences stated on other e-mail addresses linked to the same household. While perhaps not specifically against the letter of the law, a customer still may react negatively to this type of behavior.
E-mail marketing remains an inexact science. Where reliable addresses are linked with good customer information, the results can be dramatic. If not overused or abused, customers will view e-mail as a reliable and effective form of communication with your company.
Steve Meyer is director of Data Warehouse Implementation Services Practice for Quaero, specialists in knowledge-driven marketing services. A veteran of data mart and warehouse projects of all sizes across multiple industries including financial services, telecom, customer service and dot-coms, Meyer can be reached at email@example.com.