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Next stop: HTML e-mail

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There’s a reason you may have noticed more HTML e-mails in your in mailbox.
Marketers like HTML e-mail marketing campaigns because they look good and they get a solid response rate. Though the industry still lacks quantitative research about the relative effectiveness of HTML versus plain text, anecdotal evidence suggests that HTML e-mail campaigns get two to three times higher response rates than plain text, according to a recent eMarketer Inc. report.

But marketers also like HTML campaigns because they provide extensive information about the recipient’s reaction to e-mail messages.

Stephanie Adler, director of new-business marketing for eRoom Technologies Inc., Cambridge, Mass., sells collaboration software to clients such as Ford Motor Co., Cisco Systems Inc. and Accenture. She sends out about 400,000 marketing e-mails a month through eDialog Inc., a Lexington, Mass.-based service bureau.

With HTML e-mail messages, Adler can tell when the e-mail is opened, read or forwarded. eRoom messages also contain hyperlinks, which provide more information. The links look simple to the recipient, but the code behind them is complex, she said, identifying the message, the campaign and recipient, as well as the location on the eRoom server the prospect is visiting.

When a link is clicked, this information goes into a customer relationship management database, Adler said. A salesperson then can call the recipient, knowing the action the prospect took with the e-mail message. A recipient who has answered qualifying questions might get a phone call, whereas someone who clicked to get a white paper may simply receive an e-mail response, she said.

Following the trail

The simplest way to detect if the recipient’s
e-mail client will read HTML or text is to use a technology called Multi-Part MIME, said Ralph Wilson, a syndicated columnist and Web marketing consultant. Both text and HTML are sent, he explained. "If their e-mail program is sophisticated enough to read the message, they’ll see HTML." Otherwise, they’ll see text.

Multi-Part MIME works fine for simple messages without graphics. But larger messages need more complex detection techniques, said Deryl Rasquinha, VP-products for GotMarketing Inc., an e-mail software and services company in Campbell, Calif.

"HTML isn’t the same for all browsers," he explained. So GotMarketing tests the templates it gives its customers for writing e-mails against all common client software. A company’s outgoing e-mails also include code to detect the capabilities of each recipient’s e-mail program.

"The customer may choose not to receive HTML because they’re forwarding to a pager or Palm," he said. Detecting the recipient’s e-mail program with each message is the best way to be sure.

Tracking begins with detection

Detection of client software begins the tracking process, said Dan Kastner, CEO of Popstick Corp., a Boston-based e-mail marketing company that created an e-mail campaign for Microsoft Corp.’s Windows XP.

Popstick uses detection technology to support its Popgram rich-media e-mail system, which can deliver flash messages and software within b-to-b e-mails and generate complete reports on recipients’ actions after e-mails are opened.

"[Marketers] embed a tiny pixel, a unique image created for that specific client," Kastner said. "They assign a unique URL to the image, and that will be logged," Kastner said. The recipient’s reaction proves the message was read and identifies the program that read it.

This is especially important in b-to-b campaigns, he said, because most corporate e-mail systems are behind firewalls. These servers may reject long messages and may not respond with information about client machines.

Managing relationships

Speed, cost and extensive tracking databases all make e-mail irresistible to Jackie Buttrill, a marketing manager for the Lynch Group in Toronto. Lynch, which sells industrial tools and software, has been using e-mail marketing campaigns for a year. Buttrill’s current task is to persuade 20,000 customers and prospects to switch from paper to electronic communications—for instance, reading the company’s
e-mail newsletter rather than its traditional paper newsletter.

"We know how many e-mails have been opened, how many [customers] clicked through. We can see if people are actually reading and what we provided for them," she said.

To support this, Lynch is also moving from a simple ACT! contact database to a homegrown CRM system supporting all its divisions.

When a recipient of the marketing e-mail requests additional information, one staff member becomes responsible for all responses to that prospect. This human intervention enables the company to foster relationships.

That’s a success secret more vital than technology, said Geoffrey Ramsey, CEO of research firm eMarketer Inc., New York.

"At the end of the day, you really have to nurture personal relationships," he said. "It’s people talking to people. People buy based on trust. But if you have the relationship, then e-mail is a nice little adjunct."

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