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`Twas an Email-less Christmas

December 25, 2000 

Or was it?

If you're reading this column early in the morning on Christmas Day, take a break. After all, it'll still be here later. Why not open up your toys instead? Play with your kids, pets, or friends? Have a little eggnog? (I realize that not everyone celebrates Christmas, but it's still a good day to unwind and take a good, hearty break nonetheless.)

If you're one of those "can't relax" types (OK, I can relate), why not reflect on this past year in our industry and all that has changed? Think about your own business and/or job description and how it may have evolved. Think of all the cool things you did to drive that evolution.

A year ago we were talking about double-digit click-throughs for email. And the word "free" was a no-no in the subject line (whereas the year before that, it was all the rage).

A year ago the email marketing mantra was "short and sweet for top response." And HTML was the must-have for email promotions industry-wide.

A year ago U.S. dot-coms were chomping at the bit to go out the door with as many promotions as were technologically (and, at least sometimes, economically) feasible. The overriding goal was acquisitions. Get those new customers in the door so you could hopefully develop a fruitful and long-lasting "courtship."

Now, however, as I'm sure most of you are aware, there simply are NO hard-and-fast rules when it comes to promoting with email. Not that there ever really were any.

Gone are the days when double-digit click-throughs were commonplace. Most experienced email marketers — as well as industry research firms — concur that the norm these days is 5 to 10 percent (or even lower) for consumer offers. That includes prospecting and retention promotions. And, of course, B2B offers still pull lower on average as they do in the offline world.

The word "free" is seeing a resurgence as of late. As you'll recall, last year, word had it that corporate firewalls were filtering out any messages with "free" in the subject line. This, of course, was the word of the day at one point, yet it seems this tried-and-true staple of direct response isn't the campaign killer it used to be. Tests in the early days of email marketing showed significant lifts when it was applied. But then it was taken away.

Well, seemingly, it's back. And with a vengeance. Yes, the true spammers use it. But so do legitimate marketers who know its worth. Corporate firewalls? Perhaps it's an issue, but it doesn't seem to be a problem. According to others in the industry who are actively involved with outbound email, if indeed you have something free to offer, by all means put it in the subject line. At the very least, test it against a "free"-less subject.

Speaking of tests, be sure to test message length as well; winning email promotions are not always two or three paragraphs long anymore. We've seen new controls spring forth from nearly-two-page messages with multipart landing pages. Again, depending on the offer, longer may very well pull better these days. Especially for paid offers. Try it for yourself.

Also try testing out a plain-text message even if you've been promoting with HTML all along. Certain audiences out there do prefer receiving their emails in text only, especially nowadays when there are so many messages. HTML emails don't necessarily have the pull they once had. I know that's tough for most marketing types to understand (we tend to like the slick and glossy), but it's true. Testing the two formats continually may yield some surprising results.

And although acquiring new customers through the email channel is still going fairly strong for some businesses, apparently the focus of the day is on the wonderful house lists that we've been developing over the last year or two. Although I am seeded on plenty of prospecting lists, most of the holiday promotions I've received this season have been from retailers that I already do business with. Interesting stuff.

So how can we best communicate with our customers and clients to build loyalty and maximize future response? It's all a matter of constant testing and strong database management along with a solid strategy that has all the bases covered. We'll delve further into this topic in a future article.

Speaking of the future and all that has changed since last Christmas, I believe today's question might be, "What does this industry hold for us next year?"

Think about THAT while sipping your hot buttered rum. Then relax, and enjoy the day.

Happy holidays, everyone!

Kim MacPherson, ClickZ Today

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