The value of email in marketing

More and more companies are recognising the value of email in the marketing mix and are using it to develop customer...

More and more companies are recognising the value of email in the marketing mix and are using it to develop customer relationships

Businesses use email because it develops the relationship between company and customer. Used appropriately, email allows businesses to gather - as well as provide - information and create mutual benefits.

Using email for marketing purposes utilises what is known as "push" technology. This means pushing the information to the customers' desktop through email, rather than relying on "pull" technology whereby the customer draws out company information through a search engine.

Email, like all relationships, is a two part affair. Inbound email - asking questions, ordering products, making complaints - is the first and, perhaps, most important aspect. If a customer emails your company and your company cannot or does not respond promptly, you can irreparably damage that relationship. However, even very simple email packages, such as personal clients like Eudora, Outlook Express and Netscape Messenger, enable your company to be instantly and continuously contactable.

Personal clients are very easy to set up and provide an inexpensive means of sending and receiving information from customers. However, they are unsuitable for mass mailings because they rely on there being someone available to log on and receive and send messages. Personal clients are unable to grow with demand and this lack of scalability means they are inappropriate for long term business use.

The next stage up from personal clients are team clients. Team clients allow multiple people to have access to an "In-box". Built on database technology, team clients can deal with a large influx of mail. They are easily scalable and incorporate some of the security features necessary for use in a business environment. Most team clients allow users to utilise remote mail. The biggest asset of team clients, however, is that because messages are shared, replies that are generated can be reused to answer multiple occurrences of the same query, thus saving your company time which could be better utilised on other tasks.

If you know you are going to receive a large amount of email requesting similar information, you may need to consider the use of auto-responders. Auto-responders are built into many email clients and allow users to automatically respond to incoming mail with a pre-written message. Microsoft Outlook Express has this feature, known as an "Out of Office Assistant". The idea here is that you write whatever message you wish to be sent and it is automatically sent.

Consequently, customers receive an instant response without staff having to be immediately assigned to answering the query. However, sending a message stating that someone will call the customer only works if that call takes place promptly. Otherwise, auto-responders can cause the company to be accused of paying lip service to the concept of customer service.

A more useful tool is a "smart auto-responder". These search the message, using Artificial Intelligence, and look for common requests. So, for example, if the message is a simple: "I would like to buy XXX", it will reply with purchase instructions. However, smart auto-responders use complex rules and will still only handle simply understood messages. If a customer makes a request using words not specified, it will not respond to the message. In addition, customers tend to make several points within an email. They may say: "I visited your sales department and would like to complain about the support information I received". In which case, the auto-responder would not be able to discern whether customer care, support or sales was required.

Email can also be used to send out messages to customers or to generate conversations with them. One way of getting to know customers better is through list servers. These are electronic list management systems that make it possible for users to manage Internet mailing lists. They work by subscribing and unsubscribing people to the list. Subscribers then email messages to the list and they are automatically forwarded to every subscriber.

There are several types of mailing list. The first is the announce type. All this type of list does is make announcements to the list from the list owner. This is the sort of list that is often used to inform subscribers of forthcoming events.

A more common type is the discussion list, and this can form a vital part of your marketing strategy. Let's say you wanted to find out why people liked French food in order to plan the launch of a new restaurant. You could set up a discussion list about French food and invite people with a fondness for the subject to discuss its gastronomic delights. You could then use the information you receive to plan and market your products. Discussion lists are sometimes open. This means that subscribers can make contributions that are automatically forwarded to the list or moderated - the list owner scrutinises the content of messages before it is passed to all the subscribers.

Its vital not to abuse discussion lists because although people may have allowed you to keep their details as part of their subscription, in return they expect some benefit. While that may not come directly from you (they may be satisfied with the challenging debate they receive on the list), they may react negatively if you suddenly switch the subject of the mailing list to just selling your product.

If you want to send out a message to a large number of customers, or potential customers, you will need to use a bulk mailer. Some are very simple and merely send the same message to hundreds or thousands of recipients. Others are more sophisticated and can personalise the email according to its intended recipient. However, bear in mind that about 60 per cent of people delete such mailers without even reading them. However, because it's such a cheap way to send messages, it may be worthwhile for the one in ten potential customers that actually read it.

To maximise the effects of the email, it is vital to give message value to your customers. Try to use bulk mailers that will enable you to tailor your offer to meet the needs of the customer. Which means that if they buy a printer from you, give them a special offer on paper and print cartridges. Your customer is much more likely to react positively to this than to a special offer on a printer when he has only just bought one.

Another type of mailer is a sequence mailer. These are valuable because customers generally won't absorb a great deal of information at one time. An example of their use can be found from most customers who download trial copies of software and who are sent sequential emails over the course of the trial period that give installation, support and then purchase information/offers in order to foster a good relationship with them. These cut down the need for installation and customer support and, hopefully, encourage the customer to purchase the full version of the software.

If you are considering using email to seriously market your products to your customers, you will need to consider what is called email management and processing (EMP) tools such as Microsoft SQL Server. This allows you to personalise your mailings and integrates fully with a high-end database. By fully integrating with your database, EMP tools focus on developing a productive relationship with the customer and allow you to run reports on how successful your marketing campaign has been.

One of the most successful methods you can use to get customers to really appreciate your emails is to get them to "opt in", either by subscribing to a mailing list or to a regular newsletter. Customers invite you to contact them and so invite you to start a relationship with them. In return, you reward them with information and special offers, something which is of use to them. One great example of "opt in" mailing can be found at eFuse.com which is organised by Netobjects, the web publishing software company. eFuse.com sends out regular emails with links to its site which enable users to improve their web design skills, download free fonts and graphics, and (above all) affiliate themselves more and more closely with Netobjects' products. The result is that customers get a funny email, on a regular basis, that is useful to them. They can ask questions, get support and learn about new products. In the customers' eyes, they are getting something for nothing and in the eyes of the provider, they are getting carefully targeted marketing information without the expense of postal or printing costs.

If you are going to use this method though, you should remember to include an unsubscribe instruction at the end of the email. This serves two purposes. The first is that customers have to at least scan the message before they get to the 'unsubscribe' portion and hopefully your message will be interesting enough that they will reconsider. The other is that it saves the damage to the customer relationship that will occur if you keep mailing them unwanted messages that they have to pay for to download.

So far, the emphasis has been on the positive side of email. But let's remember it has a downside too. Although it will can save time for employees, it can also take up time when used inappropriately by staff. Businesses can also be accused of the eighth deadly sin: spam! Spam is the term used to describe email that is blatantly and purely used to sell. If you send spam to your customers, you are likely to be flamed back. If enough people do this, you are in serious trouble because your email system will overload. You will also lose a great many customers. There is a fine line between good marketing and spam. However, there are several questions you can ask yourself to determine which is which. If your customer didn't ask for it and it has no clearly discernable value (other than as sales information), then it is likely to be considered spam. Always-check-your-email-messages do not fall into this category. Although some people do manage to make money with the make-a-million-with-no-effort emails, they are usually not those companies that succeed long term and they certainly do not win any favours with the majority of their distribution list.

Conclusion

Email provides businesses with an inexpensive way to communicate with existing and potential customers. Used well, email can foster good relationships and save time and money. Used badly, email can alienate customers and destroy good relationships. It is vital to use the right software for your business needs and to anticipate growth when doing so. Email can cut your support costs and create a flow of visitors to your website. To increase your business, take the time to consider the value of this very cost effective method of communication.

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