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You might still reach opt-outs through e-enabled products

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Busy businesspeople are opting out of e-mail lists at a frightening clip. Overwhelmed by the volume of nonvital e-mail flooding their in-boxes, many customers have pruned their opt-in e-mail relationships to the bare minimum, presenting a challenge to e-mail marketers.

There is a bright side, however. E-enabled products?from ink jet printers to automotive diagnostic tools to chemical analysis systems to computer servers?are increasingly "phoning home" to get updates, add-ons and renewals. So if your customers won't let you market to them, their products may.

For example, if you're using an antivirus software product, you may have noticed that this tool automatically sends updates whenever new threats occur. When you obtained your antivirus software, you may not have realized it included a subscription to those updates. But what happens when your subscription expires? Your software may alert you that its subscription needs to be renewed. You can renew directly from the product's notification.

When your HP printer's ink runs low, the error message makes an offer: "Sign up for our automatic replenishment service?Ink Me."

Many computer systems now automatically register themselves every time they're moved, so that they're still eligible for entitled technical support. When the equipment is turned on in the new location, there's an opportunity for the entitlement registration process to recommend additional support coverage and/or add-ons.

Professional lawnmowers, irrigation systems, shipping containers, cargo ships, trucks, delivery vehicles and airplanes are all equipped with sensors that allow customers and suppliers to monitor their locations and their operating status in real time. Each time these devices check in for maintenance or diagnostics, there's an opportunity to alert the end-user that an upgrade is available.

Snap-on Inc.'s hand-held diagnostic tools are used to troubleshoot car and airplane engines all over the world. At Snap-on's Diagnostics division in San Jose, Calif., experienced mechanics arrive every afternoon to turn what they've learned on the job into new troubleshooting routines. Out in the field, customers' handheld devices can be updated each time they're docked?providing countless opportunities to offer upgrades or related tools.

What can you do to make sure you're not missing this opportunity to get your marketing message to the person who really needs to see it through the product he or she is using?

First, work closely with your product development team to help them e-enable your company's products and services. Chances are, remote diagnostics, updating and other "phone home" capabilities are already being designed into your firm's next-generation offerings. But direct marketers will need to define the appropriate offers and determine the contexts in which such offers will be welcomed.

Second, co-design new offerings with the end-users of your products and services. Invite a group of your most insightful and passionate customers to co-design their ideal scenarios with you. These experienced users know exactly where they have problems using your solutions to accomplish their tasks. If you give them the freedom to co-design the best ways to get their jobs done using your products and services, you'll uncover dozens of overlooked opportunities to interact with these customers at work.

Third, building instrumentation into your e-enabled products allows you to monitor the conversion rates for each offer in each context, and for each group of customers in similar roles. You want to monitor and improve both the quality of the customer's experience with your products as well as your share of their wallet.

So the next time your company develops a new product, make sure that it can phone home.

Patricia Seybold is CEO, Patricia Seybold Group, and the author of "Outside Innovation: How Customers Will Co-Design the Future of Your Business,"which will be published this week by HarperCollins Publishers. She can be reached at pseybold@psgroup.com.

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