E-mail pitfalls

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Everyone, it seems, is doing e-mail marketing, but very few are getting it right. Companies are sending out ineffective, undeliverable or just plain bad marketing e-mails. Case in point: when Forrester Research in December evaluated 63 e-mail marketing programs for its latest report, something significant surfaced rather quickly. Only one scored a passing grade using the Forrester methodology.

"E-mail has matured a lot and people have gotten a lot smarter about how they are doing it, but the competition is stiff because everyone is doing it," said Shar VanBoskirk, senior analyst at Forrester Research. "And readers are more discerning. This means it's even more important now to get things right the first time."

While Forrester's report identified some of the basic mistakes that people are still making—placing content below the fold or making it too difficult to unsubscribe—those aren't the only things that can push your message out of the in-box. Here are some of the more common yet little known mistakes that people made in 2006.

Sending the right offer to the wrong database or vertical. This happens for several reasons, said Stephanie Miller, VP-strategic solutions at e-mail service provider Return Path. Either someone loads names into a database incorrectly or someone simply pulls the wrong list from the database. Either way, this is something that happens often enough that marketers should be double-checking their messages not once but twice before hitting send, she said.

"This is often just human error, so fixing it means you need to be really careful that your test platform is different than your sending platform and you're matching your message with the actual profiles," she said. "This is a mistake that usually only happens once to someone."

Leaving off the call to action. If you want a prospect or customer to respond to your message, they need a way to do so, but too often, said Return Path's Miller, marketers create a beautiful e-mail message but leave out this all- important component. "There really needs to be a button or a link," he explained. "People are borrowing designs from direct mail and catalogs, which don't have an online call-to-action component so people receiving the e-mail don't have an obvious way to get in touch."

A simple best practice, she said, is to create your message with the call to action visible in the Outlook preview pane. It can be an image-based button, but make sure you put a text-based version in, too.

This rule carries over to your home page, said Forrester's VanBoskirk. "You should always have a way for people to sign up for your messages right from the home page because research shows that's the No.1 place that people think they can go to find a signup," she said.

And don't forget about the offline component. Recipients should have multiple ways to get in touch, including a phone number, e-mail address and physical address.

Asking too many questions. While it's important to know who your prospects and customers are, asking too many questions when someone signs up for a newsletter or one-time communication can discourage them from completing the process, said Gil Ben-Dov, senior VP-marketing and sales at marketing automation software company Market2Lead.

"We completed a case study this year and found that people average 17 questions in front of their white papers. This resulted in a less than 10% response rate," he said. "We increased [response rates] by 40% by shortening the forms to six questions. We use an analogy of meeting someone out at a bar. Is the first thing you do before you shake hands to ask for a complete medical history? No."

Buying a list instead of building your own. Rented lists tend to be marketed and sold to over and over again, said Chip House, VP-marketing services at ExactTarget, so it's no surprise that sending e-mail to names from a purchased list may result in an increase in spam complaints. It's very likely that other purchasers may not worry as much about e-mail best practices, so your potential recipients may have already been inundated with messages. Your e-mail becomes yet another piece of spam coming into their in-boxes.

"If you buy a list, there's a good chance you're associating yourself with spammers and branding yourself a spammer by association," said House. "Because of this, it's really surprising to me that in 2007 people still think it's a good idea to buy a list to jumpstart their database."

Not checking in with customers periodically. Companies that have cyclical businesses—tax accountants or software developers, for example—may only need to contact customers once or twice a year. The problem with this, said Janine Popick, president-CEO at Vertical Response, is that people have a tendency to forget about you or that they signed up for your list if several months pass without communication.

"You need to be touching your database at least once a quarter if not monthly," she explained. "You probably have something to say to people at least once a month, and they will appreciate it especially if it's information they can use and not just marketing materials when it's time for you to sell them their next service or product."

Treating everyone the same. Your prospects don't have the same needs as your customers, and your older customers certainly aren't going to need or want the same support as your new customers, said Stefan Pollard, director of consulting services at EmailLabs. This is where list management comes in. One of the most significant things you can do is make sure everyone in your company is on the same page as far as customer communication, he said.

"I've seen a lead come into the funnel and the sales team starts sending messages back and forth. Maybe the lead isn't ready to buy, but the salespeople and marketing are both e-mailing at the same time, which poisons that lead," he said. "Someone needs to own that lead, and there needs to be a customercentric database so that lead is getting messages that apply to him or her."

Sending e-mails with attachments. Attachments are still one of the main reasons that messages get routed to the spam or bulk mail folder, said EmailLabs' Pollard. A quick fix, he said: Use a URL for white papers, images or coupons.

Trusting your affiliates unconditionally. E-mail and offers sent out on your behalf reflect on your company and brand. If you have even one over-zealous affiliate you can undo months or even years of good e-mail habits, House said. Be smart: Take a page from ISPs. Sign up for affiliate e-mail offerings so you can monitor what's going out and how often it's being sent. You should also unsubscribe to each to ensure the process is timely and complete.

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