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Rules for E-Mail During Holidays

December 11, 2000

Online shopping is expected to increase nearly 300 percent this holiday season. And e-mails — matching eager marketers with time-pressed consumers looking to avoid the crowds — will play a larger-than-ever role in the online holiday buying spree.

As companies travel full steam through this early stage of e-mail marketing, there are several considerations that retailers and shoppers must appreciate -- particularly as they enter the holiday 2000 online arena. Most important for marketers is understanding the dynamics of the consumer experience of receiving an e-mail and deciding whether to respond or delete it.

Hopefully, you have taken advantage of e-mail’s speed to zoom in on what the holiday shopper wants. With traditional direct marketing, you often have to plan in the summer to see what kinds of offers to create for the holidays. With e-mail, you can set up a test mailing only weeks preceding the holidays and know the results immediately. With the holiday shopping season often driven by fads, tired offers can kill a promotion faster than a Grinch can kill a good time.

Consumers benefit by finding messages progressively more tailored to their needs, sometimes even reminding them of a related item that had not occurred to them.

Spam is likely to increase during the holidays. But there are steps to take against it.

Use only permission-based lists. Always include an opt-out for people to remove themselves from future unwanted mailings. And make it clear where your message is coming from.

Chances are that somewhere along the line, they shared one or more of their e-mail addresses and were placed on a list. If that information is being used without permission, steps must be taken to retract it.

Make the offer easy to react to quickly. Saving time and avoiding crowds is a big reason to shop online during the holidays; use e-mail to help consumers save time and avoid confusion online. The worst thing retailers can do is offer specific promotions in e-mails and supply only their home page URLs, leaving customers lost on your Web sites.

Consumers don’t like being dropped into a virtual department store surrounded by a million items. A click should take them directly to the original product offer.

Both consumers and retailers should take advantage of the two-way communication properties of e-mail. Retailers can find out what consumers want, what they like and dislike, and use that to improve the effectiveness of future mailings. This is the root of precision e-mail marketing, the opposite of spam: creating an ongoing dialogue that leads to e-mails that are personally relevant and a pleasure to receive.

Retailers and customers alike need to learn from last year’s clogged sites and frustration during the holidays.

The Web site has to be ready to handle the volume. Within 48 hours, 80 percent of all e-mail responses will come in. Retailers need to anticipate the inbound load, and if they can’t handle it, spread out the distribution.

Christmas falls on a Monday this year, which will require earlier than usual delivery. Remind consumers of this, and make sure they understand the return policy when a gift is ordered online.

A funny thing happens when you send e-mail: it comes back. Organizations must be prepared to handle a huge number of responses. If you send 100,000 holiday messages and get a 10 percent response rate, those are 10,000 people waiting to hear back from you. Automate as much as possible, while retaining a personalized feel. Be ready to deliver when the response demands a human touch. Treat this response like a "golden visit" from a customer to your store.

Give consumers contact options at the Web site -- the more, the better. Some prefer to e-mail questions back, while others are more comfortable calling a toll-free number.

Having begun an e-mail dialogue in which the consumer is sharing information about his interests, you should try, when possible, to offer the option of going to a physical store.

Responding to an online offer does not necessarily mean they will buy online. The e-mail can provide information on the closest store and even driving directions. To some people, there is still no substitute for being able to touch and feel the gift.

John Rizzi, President/CEO, e-Dialog

  • John Rizzi is president/CEO of e-Dialog, Lexington, MA, an e-mail marketing firm. Reach him at


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