Writing Killer E-mails
By now, direct marketers should have no doubts that e-mail is a medium that works in getting marketing messages out to prospects and customers who have opted in to receiving them.
But just how effective is this tool at getting the desired response?
A recent study on the subject conducted by NFO Interactive for Flonetwork Inc., in Toronto, ON, found that 73 percent of online buyers prefer to learn about new products offered by online merchants through e-mail. Another reassuring finding for anyone who has invested in e-mail marketing is that 61 percent of online buyers report they have made an online purchase as a result of a permission-based e-mail.
Knowing that e-mails work and getting the most out of your e-mail campaigns are two different realities. To be successful, you need to get the e-mail opened, read and acted upon.
According to Michael Mayor, vice president of sales at NetCreations, in New York, NY, "What we're getting past is direct marketers who think what works in direct mail works in e-mail. It's not true."
Elizabeth Hornick, vice president of strategic client services, Bigfoot Interactive, agrees, adding that you can't take your direct mail control copy and offer structures, drop them into an e-mail and expect guaranteed success.
This medium works on its own terms, and here's what they are.
In general, says Hornick, you have to think long-term about the relationship you wish to have with online customers and not just about response to any single e-mail campaign before you can hit the digital highway.
E-mail marketing offers the possibility for a continuous dialogue with prospects and customers. Where direct mail encourages a specific action, e-mail allows for give and take between the parties; it may take more than one e-mail to get the sale or desired action.
To get the dialogue rolling, you first need to get your audience's attention. According to Hornick, the three main components of an e-mail that accomplish this are:
1. Subject lineshould be immediate and relevant with at least part of the offer listed.
2. From lineit's important for recipients to know who the e-mail is from, which is where your brand comes into play.
3. To linedepending on who is receiving the message, it's good to acknowledge customers with their names. You don't want to give the impression that the offer is a mass communication when you're talking to customers.
Mayor explains that while the to and from lines are the first crucial pieces of information that helps recipients decide if that e-mail is really for them, it's the subject line that finally gets the e-mail opened.
Unlike with direct mail, an e-mail subject line almost calls for you to put a portion of the offer in the subject line. Online audiences don't like to beat around the bush when it comes to deciphering e-mail messages, but that doesn't mean you can't tease them a little bit to pique their curiosity.
Hornick says that there's really no tried and true way of approaching offers in the subject line, but your best bet is to stick to the direct marketing principles of tailoring your message to the product, customer segments and campaign goals, and of testing until you find the right mix.
What has been established as not working in subject lines, says Mayor, are the tricks of spammers, like "Information You Requested" and "Re: ____." Consumers can spot those campaigns as advertising at ten paces and delete you.
Reggie Brady, vice president, strategy & partners for Flonetwork, notes that the most successful e-mail campaigns share the following traits in common:
* No more than 35 characters in the subject line, for quick comprehension
* No hype words in the subject line, like "Free," since spam filters will prevent transmission of your e-mail.
* First several lines of copy are compelling and complete, as some people view their e-mail with the opening lines of copy and subject line together.
Just as enticing prospects and customers to open the direct mail package is on the first step, so it is with motivating recipients to click open your e-mails.
When the mouse double clicks and the window rolls open, recipients need to be able to see in a glance what they're getting from you, explains Hornick. That's why the most important piece of real estate in the screen layout of an e-mail is the part above the fold, before recipients have to start scrolling.
You want to make sure the header features your company name or recognizable brand name, the salient points of the offer and reply options that allow recipients to click through to the Web destination immediately.
Mayor adds that when the e-mail is directed at new business acquisition, the header should also contain information on how to opt out of getting future messages.
Speaking of structures, you must give some thought to how the different parts of your message will flow. Because your entire message is contained in one document, you need to design breaks in the copy to highlight the key parts of your sales pitch and the call-to-action.
Hornick explains that using white space, design elements, like rules, and link placement correctly helps train e-mail viewers to quickly find the information they want and respond.
One exception to these general guidelines is when you want to send make a soft sell offer to current customers. For example, Hornick notes, a telecommunications service provider might identify customers making many international calls on a domestic-only calling plan. The provider can e-mail a soft sell pitch that's targeted just to this segment without the long work-up of a more introductory campaign.
How Much to Offer?
One of the general rules of direct marketing is to focus on only one basic offer at a time. For example, you can sell the directory in book or CD-ROM format, but watch out if you add two extra, unrelated book selections to the mix.
Because an e-mail conceivably can be as long as you want it to be, the temptation is to offer a whole laundry list of product options to ensure you hit every recipients' button. But you have to remember that the e-mail is simply the conduit that drives recipients to your Web site for the rest of the sale. Also, you would be missing the point on what makes e-mail such a great tool: the ability to tailor the message to individual customer segments.
With these factors in mind, an e-mail campaign can offer multiple products, says Mayor, but it's best to put a bigger selection on the Web site and focus the bulk of the e-mail on a few specific reasons why the customer wants to click through on the Web links.
Hornick advises marketers to track and measure their e-mail campaigns to see what messages are being opened, which links are clicked and what customers eventually buy to determine what elements of their e-mail campaigns are working best. This kind of feedback helps you ensure the messages you send are relevant and have both real and perceived value that keeps audiences interested in hearing from you again, whether they buy or not.
Keeping in Touch
E-mail newsletters are popular vehicles with direct marketing companies and retailers. Beyond keeping your company in regular contact with customers and prospects, they give you a tool in which you can combine both information-packed, entertaining content with special offers.
What's more, they work. The Flonetwork/NFO Interactive study found that seven in 10 online buyers click through to a company's Web site as the result of viewing a permission-based e-mail newsletter.
If you pay attention to quality, tailoring, and modulating feedback to ensure you're delivering what customers want and expect, says Hornick, e-mail newsletters are a great way to provide value to your customers and support the relationship.
Any regular form of customer contact, however, can get a little stale. Bigfoot Interactive has found that it's effective to throw in a freebie, contest or some kind of surprise every so often to keep customers' interested.
EH: Another way to keep customers happy to receive regular messages from you, says Hornick, is to allow them to change the frequency of contact, say from weekly to monthly, so they feel more in control and not overwhelmed.
You can prod people to respond to your e-mail campaign in a variety of ways. It just depends on what the audience is viewing.
According to statistics reported by Jim Hoffman, president and CEO of Bigfoot Interactive, most e-mail campaigns contain between four and 20 coded links on average. The average e-mail can contain a combination of hot links, graphics buttons, logo buttons and banners.
In addition, he says, most e-mail campaigns jump to four to 10 Web pages on average.
With technology making Hollywood-quality presentations possible, how snazzy does an e-mail need to be?
Hornick advises marketers to keep in mind that about 50 percent to 60 percent of online consumers have software that can handle html-enabled e-mails, and AOL customers are capable of using hot links.
Plus, there are e-mail software programs that will default to text-only messages when browsers identify a system that can't read html.
Mayor is finding that html e-mails are gaining acceptance with consumers, but that long download times irritate people and hurt response. In this case, it's best to ask customers upfront if they want to receive their e-mail messages from you in html or text-only versions.
He adds that while text may seem boring, it certainly helps weed out the truly interested who take action on your offer by clicking the link. The key is to test your options and see what your audience likes best.
Hornick points out another mitigating factor in the html vs text debate: You can craft a campaign that gets delivered in html for some customers and text for others, but you need to keep in mind that your creative has to make sense in both cases.
For example, she cites a major newspaper that ran a campaign to get new business with teaser copy that tied into the graphic of a dog; the text-only version featured modified copy, otherwise the message wouldn't have made any sense to those customers who couldn't see the html graphic.
It's important to note that both Hornick and Mayor have found that, with all things being equal, html-enabled e-mails field better results than text-only e-mails.
We're making the basic assumption with these points that all e-mail campaigns are directed to people who have opted in to receiving marketing messages in exchange for some personal information that allows the marketer to send the right content.
Just because you have this information, says Mayor, doesn't mean you should abuse it. He is totally against using personalization in a new business acquisition e-mail campaign, because you don't have a relationship with the prospect at that point. You can focus on the offer and shared interests, but should make no assumptions until the prospect initiates a more definite online relationship with your company.
But when you're communicating with a customer, you should prepared to address them as such and to remember what they've told you about their preferences and intereststhey expect and demand it, he says.
It's okay to marry online and offline data to better understand what offers would be of interest to your customers, Mayor adds, but prospects expect a level of privacy online that you shouldn't drop below.
And personalizing e-mail communications isn't just about the recipient's name, says Hornick. To provide the right level of customized content, you might envision a tic-tac-toe grid where the different boxes corresponding to information and offers can be filled or not, depending on customers' needs.
The key question with targeting and customization, she continues, is how deep do you go with the data; a combination of preference information, purchasing behavior and click-throughs can help you determine what customers want to see, but there's no magic formula.
Until you can build up enough analysis and offer history, your best bet is to test, analyze results and test again.