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Ahead of the curve

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New year, new marketing program-or so the saying goes. In fact, there are plenty of steps you can take to keep your e-mail marketing efforts fresh and effective. Our experts weigh in with some ideas to help you stay ahead of the curve in 2006.

1) Think one-to-one.

E-mail marketing has its roots in the batch-and-blast paradigm. Marketers have historically created one message, which was sent to prospects, customers-anyone who opted in.

Today, this simply isn't good enough, said Richard Merrick, managing director at Harte-Hanks Postfuture, an e-mail service provider. "Preference-driven marketing is the center of what's happening today. People should be targeted as a segment. You should let them tell you what it is that they want to receive," he said.

Merrick suggested letting subscribers build their own newsletters, allowing them to pick the exact topics that interest them as well as the day and time they would like to receive it.

"There's a transactional shift going on right now that makes it easier for subscribers to say, `This is what works for me,' " Merrick said. "This is especially important in the b-to-b world, where you really want to be centered around subscribers' needs."

2) Link e-mail with analytics.

Business-to-consumer retailers often send targeted e-mails to customers who abandon shopping carts or browse a certain area of their Web sites. The idea is to recapture lost opportunities or generate new ones using coupons or special offers. B-to-b marketers would be smart to emulate this tactic, said Scott Olrich, CMO of Responsys.

"Analytics should be used to trigger outbound e-mail," he said. "If you come to my site and you've downloaded a white paper in the past, I should send you a message when you return again offering links to other white papers. Of course, there should be business rules in place that say before we send, we have to have permission and that we're not going to send every time if you visit the site three times in as many days."

2) Consider e-mail authentication and certified mail.

There's no cure for spam, which means your e-mails may still get waylaid in a spam folder or even worse, deleted before they even make it to the in-box. E-mail authentication, which verifies that an e-mail is coming from the person or entity in the "From" line, and certified mail, which gives e-mail messages priority delivery, can help your messages get delivered.

Still, less than half of the general business population uses authentication solutions Sender ID or DomainKeys Identified Mail (DKIM), according to a Skylist report. Meanwhile, no one is using certified mail, because the first program-from Goodmail-will launch this quarter with a decidedly consumer focus.

But these types of technologies have the potential to change deliverability rates, said Shar VanBoskirk, a Forrester Research consulting analyst, but not without careful planning on the marketer's part.

"The issue of spam is that an e-mail can be from an authentic provider, but if it's not relevant, it's still considered spam," she said. "This year, though, marketers will accept that they have to use both authentication options."

Another potentially important technology for 2006, according to Al DiGuido, president-CEO of Epsilon Interactive, is reputation-based corporate anti-spam appliances such as CipherTrust, Symantec and Postini. (See Ask the Expert, page 20.)

"Rather than subjecting all e-mail to the same level of content filtering regardless of its source, these solutions look at an IP address' past sending behavior to determine how much filtering, if any at all, e-mail emanating from it should be subjected to before entering a corporation's network," he said. "Marketers that have implemented the necessary best practices ... will be considered `verified legitimate senders' reducing the amount of filtering their e-mail is subjected to and improving b-to-b in-box delivery rates."

4) Use audio and video to command interest.

People like Internet-based video, according to a December 2005 eMarketer report called "Online Video Advertising: Promises and Challenges." Internet video advertising spending, according to the research firm's latest figures, will nearly triple from 2005 to 2007, jumping to $640 million from $225 million. Still, video presents a problem for many e-mail marketers because downloadable files and images are typically disabled.

That doesn't mean you should forget about using rich media files, said Dave Baker, VP-e-mail and analytics for Agency.com, an interactive agency. Baker suggested while there are still plenty of restrictions with audio and video, you can still create a compelling e-mail campaign by using links to a customized landing page.

5) Think about how your target receives his or her e-mail.

More than 4.3 million people have BlackBerry subscriptions. Meanwhile, 71% of Americans own at least one cell phone, according to Forrester Research, and a growing number of them are e-mail- and Internet-enabled. The probability is high that a percentage of people opting in to your marketing are using their mobile devices to access your messaging.

You can boost chances that they'll open your message by optimizing your communications for mobile devices. Marketers can also create a version of their message designed specifically for this market, said Stephanie Miller, VP-strategic services at Return Path. "Optimizing for [mobile devices] is not just changing copy into text. It's taking out the header and footer and formatting. It's taking out images. It's taking out the wrap," she said.

6) Don't forget about inbound communication.

It's been said before, but few marketers have the in-house integration needed to merge their customer service, sales and marketing teams so that everyone is on the same page when it comes to customer and prospect communication. "Marketers [should] look to refine, address and deliver more relevant content based on inbound customer inquiries and business rules to further improve the customer relationship and messaging consistency across channels," DiGuido said. M

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