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How to avoid e-mail overexposure

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Karen J. Bannan

E-mail marketing is sometimes a lot like dating: It’s easy to scare someone off by giving them too much attention. In the online world, this scenario usually ends in an opt-out message.

But you can avoid this fate, said Joe LePla, principal of Seattle-based marketing and branding company Parker LePla. The key is to build up a relationship with the customer rather than focusing on closing the sale.

"What we recommend to clients is that they view the direct e-mail campaign as a relationship and needs-fulfillment campaign rather than ‘I’m talking to someone in a one-sided way.’ We’ll design a campaign so it starts with an intro e-mail about something [the customer] needs," he said. "Then we ask questions of the reader: Is this helpful? What do you want to hear more about? What would you have liked to have heard about instead?"

Unfortunately, there’s no set-in-stone rule about frequency, said David Daniels, research director with New York-based Jupiter Research. Instead, marketers should worry more about content, which will help dictate how often you should communicate with your customers.

"Marketers need to think in terms of relevancy, and not mail exclusively based on a set frequency—for example, once a week," Daniels said. "Use a continuity campaign that is tied to a lifecycle in order to make campaigns more relevant. This lifecycle can be driven by customer behavior, the product’s lifecycle or the sales cycle for the goods or service being sold."

That said, frequency can be important if you’ve got more than one internal unit using the same e-mail list, he said. In this case, having a mailing governor in place that limits how many messages a single customer can receive in one month isn’t just smart, it’s necessary.

"One of the challenges of moving to a more continuity-oriented campaign is that lifecycles or events may overlap, actually causing the customer to get more mail then they had before," Daniels said. "Guard against this by setting frequency and recency caps—rules that will govern how often customers will get e-mail from the sending corporation."

Not sure who gets the customer list first? Use product or campaign profitability as the primary means to determine which division wins out.

Finally, pay attention to what your customers are telling you. That will help you determine if you’ve crossed the line, LePla said. "The best way to judge is take a look at two things—am I getting flame mail back, and are my customers happy with my messages? When I want info and it’s info that I want, it’s not spam. I know that’s said a lot but it’s true."

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