One of the most misunderstood tools in the Marketer’s Bag of Tricks is direct email. There’s good reason for it, of course. Everyone hates SPAM! I expect that even the most evil, notorious spammers of the world have SPAM filters on their personal email accounts.
The end result of this universal distaste of SPAM is a belief, held by many, that sending emails to prospects or customers “just isn’t a good thing to do”. Lot’s of potential issues—from alienating your customers and potential users, to having some wacko attack and bring down your website, just because he doesn’t like a message sent to his in-box. So should we just forget about direct email as a legitimate marketing tactic and spent all of our time and money focused on other aspects of the marketing mix-such as inbound marketing?
I suggest not.
NOT ALL DIRECT EMAIL IS CREATED EQUAL
Let’s step back and be rational here. First of all, not all direct email is the same. There are best – and worst – practices in email marketing. Let’s start with the “worst of” direct email campaigns:
Bob’s Computer Stuff, Inc., buys “20 million email addresses for $99” from a SPAM email message sent randomly to Bob. Bob’s then fires off an email to the entire list with an offer for its extremely niche-y computer accessory, the “Swiss Army Computer Widget”. This is bad–very bad. Bob will be punished in quite a few ways and probably deserves it.
Now let’s look at the “best of” direct email:
Distinct Software Corp. has been methodically building a list of customers and prospects obtained using a variety of online and offline marketing methods, not the least of which is prospect visits to the company’s website. The list has been carefully compiled and in each case the client is either doing business with Distinct or has expressly given permission to receive email. Distinct has decided it would like to launch its new IT software product with a special offer to targeted prospects. The company mines it’s database for prospects that meet the targeted customer profile for the new product. It supplements it’s own list by renting an opt-in email list from a broker that was compiled from subscribers to a publication that covers issues related to the new product. Distinct then puts together a classic direct response offer (discounted price, money-back guarantee, free gift, time-limited). The company crafts a short email message describing the special offer, careful to adhere to the rules of the CAN-SPAM Act and other applicable state or international laws. The company sends the email offer out to the target list it has compiled, as one component of the marketing mix for its new product launch. This is fundamentally good email marketing practice.
IS IT SPAM?
Do you really think that these two scenarios have anything in common? In actuality, the only thing they have in common is the delivery mechanism—email. Yet it’s very common for these two very different email marketing approaches to be lumped together in one basket. It’s all SPAM, many people will say.
I beg to differ. One is terrible marketing, the other is classic marketing. BAD, scatter shot marketing is almost always poorly received, and GOOD, targeted marketing will only offend the zealots out there who are offended by ALL forms of marketing. This is true regardless of the delivery mechanism. There are people who hate traditional direct snail mail, unsolicited phone calls, advertising on TV, folks handing out flyers at the shopping mall, even print ads that take up 2/3 of their favorite magazine. There’s nothing you can do about them. The only way to please these folks is to go out of business — so don’t expend any energy worrying about them. Don’t let the crazy few stop your business from being successful.
GREAT FOR “OBJECTIVE” MARKETING DECISIONS
There are many reasons NOT to do direct email. One of the most important is that it’s easy to do, so it is a very crowded medium (thus “SPAM). But there’s a lot of great reasons to try it as well.
One of the best “pro” arguments is its ability to add “objectivity” to the marketing process. Marketing, especially to a high tech audience, is both art and science. Marketing works best when you can tilt toward more science than art, but with new products and marketing offers it tends to be primarily art in the early stages. How are new product prices usually set, for example? Well, a few objective things are usually done, like a quick look at competitors price, but mostly somebody with decision-making power just picks a price out of the air that looks good to them. It may be a good price, it may not be, but there it is.
Using this pricing example, the beauty of direct marketing is that it’s relatively easy to OBJECTIVELY test until you come up with the “right” price. Divide the list up into modules, keep all other elements of the offer static, and use a different price point for each module. If you use statistically significant samples, YOU WILL converge on the price that yields the greatest profit. That’s a rare and valuable thing to a marketer in high tech, where things change so fast and are often so squishy, that it’s sometimes hard to tell which end is up. And you can do this with ANY elements of your offer (not just price), simply by keeping everything but your test element static and using the “module” approach to test different “sizes” of that element.
Of course you can do this with any direct form of marketing, but direct email adds the important attribute of being able to do your testing faster. You can test and revise, test and revise almost in real time, quickly converging on your optimal offer for the market. This is very powerful and the insight gained using direct email can then be used to optimize other marketing activities in the mix. It really helps you to switch from subjective guessing to objective decision-making in an expedited manner, which could well mean the difference between success and failure in a competitive market.
IT’S ONLY SPAM IF YOUR AUDIENCE ISN’T INTERESTED
If your offer is targeted at the appropriate people, it provides benefits for these targets and you deliver your message in a legal manner, you will have very few problems. An occasional nutcase will object–often strenuously–but that’s part of the cost of direct marketing as described above. The closer your offer and list come to a “one to one” message and the farther they are from from a mass market message, the fewer problems you will have.
IF DONE RIGHT, VERY FEW COMPLAINTS
I have conducted many direct marketing campaigns over the years including quite a few direct email campaigns. Earlier in my career and prior to starting my consulting practice, I used this technique in job searches, as well as to reach out to potential customers back when I worked as an employee.
Since I have started my consulting practice, I have used it with great success as well. I send email messages directly to CEOs of target companies. The messages are extremely “one to one”, tailored to the company and person I am sending it to and the target is always chosen to be a close fit with whatever I my “offer” has been at the time (A potential senior executive, a product that I knew the potential client could use, my consulting services – depending upon the purpose of my approach).
I have been using this technique almost since the beginning of commercial use of the Internet. Many people over the years have asked that I “take their name off of my list” –some with a measure of irritation. I always do—anyone that requests it never hears from me again. But on a percentage basis not many have made this request. A lot of non-responses, a lot of polite no thanks and many requests for discussions that have led to a successful outcome for both the addressee and myself. But literally only a handful of major complaints which serve as the “exception that proves the rule.”
THE BOTTOM LINE
My basic message is don’t let fear stop you from using Direct Email effectively as part of your marketing mix. Maybe it makes sense for your particular situation, maybe it doesn’t. But don’t let fear of persecution and alienation rule it out. If done properly it is often a profitable, efficient and very effective method of reaching your target audience. Just remember to live by the following rules:
DIRECT EMAIL RULES
- Only email to a targeted audience
- Craft an offer that is very appealing to your target list
- Do extensive testing to provide objective analysis of each element of your offer
- Always be honest, never deceitful
- Use an opt-in or in-house list only
- Always make it easy for addresses to opt out
- Never send additional messages to those that opt out
- Include your physical address and phone number in all messages as well as complying fully with CANSPAM and other applicable laws
- Don’t overdue it—send messages sparingly–only when you have something important to offer or communicate
- I find that no more than monthly messages works best in most cases–when in doubt defer to less frequent rather than more frequent
So that’s it! Email is a controversial and often emotional issue for many people. I look forward to hearing what you all have to say–post a comment with your own experience and thoughts on direct email marketing.
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