Good data, judgment key to e-mail success

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B-to-b marketers who have implemented an explicit privacy policy and respectable e-mail practices now have something else to worry about—whether recipients will pay any attention to those marketing messages that were so responsibly sent.

The key to making sure prospects open, read and even anticipate your e-mail—and eventually buy your product or service—is to go one step further and send them what they want, when they want it.

The danger in sending prospects messages that aren’t important to them is that they won’t be opened, said John Rizzi, president-CEO of e-Dialog, a Lexington, Mass.-based e-mail marketing company. "You don’t just damage your brand, you train the recipient to not open your e-mail. You want to guarantee the recipient opens your mail."

So how do you make sure that happens? "We have a funny policy here," Rizzi said. "We ask them. We ask what channel they want to hear from us in, and how frequently."

Sounds simple enough. The problem is that most marketers—even if they ask their customers those questions—don’t use the answers they receive. "Too many marketers can’t control themselves," Rizzi said. "They see the list, see how cheap it is to use, and can’t resist sending another offer."

It’s great to have offers and great to have ideas; we need go-getters in this business. But if you want to get the business, you have to not only listen to your customers but also respond to what you hear.

The way you do that is with a database.

Never a flat file

An e-mail list should never be a flat file. It needs to be a database, with enough fields to handle the various preferences of your client base. "Some will say to contact them yearly, some monthly, some daily or weekly," Rizzi said. "Others only want to be contacted when something happens."

Also, some prefer to be contacted via e-mail, but others respond best to snail mail, still others to a phone call. Your database must be able to store and recall all of this information, or it’s useless to ask customers to provide it.

Then comes the really hard part. It’s something no hardware or software can handle; only the "wetware" between your ears can do this: You have to look critically at each message you might send to your prospects, then place a priority on it. Is this offer really something different, something all your customers need be alerted to right now? What about those who only want to hear from you yearly or monthly? What about those who prefer the telephone?

Once you set priorities on your messages, Rizzi said, you know whom to send the messages to and how to send them. "That’s where people fall down," he said. "It’s not hard to ask. It’s hard to deliver."

So it turns out there are many steps in successful e-mail marketing. It starts with your imagination, moves on to hardware and software, then to the Internet and back into database software.

But it ends right where it began, with you, Rizzi said. Only after you train your database, which may have thousands of accounts, to be as vigilant and observant as a salesperson who has just a few dozen, will your e-mail be anticipated. And only then will the technology fulfill its promise.

Dana Blankenhorn is a free-lance journalist who specializes in Internet issues. He is publisher of

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