E-mail secrets & lies: The call to action

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Your e-mail message's call to action is often what gets people to click through or, even better, take a step toward making a purchase. Still, the wrong call to action or design can sink a campaign. Jordan Cohen, senior director of marketing and public relations for Unica's Pivotal Veracity, and Nicholas Einstein, director of strategic and analytic services with Datran Media, reveal one little-known secret and one widely believed lie about using a call to action in your e-mail marketing campaign.

SECRET: Basic is often better.
You might think you have to jump through hoops to create the catchiest, flashiest call to action; but in reality, the opposite may be true. In the b-to-b world especially, glitzy offers that use words such as “free” or overuse punctuation marks can scare people off, Einstein said. “Since spam often employs tantalizing subject lines, recipients can sometimes fear startling subject lines,” he said.

In addition, embedding the call to action within graphics or—even worse—creating an image-based call to action may mean your message gets lost in the ether. Pretty isn't always better, Einstein said: “Being overly creative or experimental without adequately testing poses significant risk and deliverability challenges.”

If you do decide to use images in your messaging, don't forget some of the basic tenets of e-mail marketing: “alt” tagging those images and making sure the text-based call to action is at the top of the fold in plain, clickable text.

LIE: Calls to action should have looming expiration dates.
Logically, it makes sense: Give recipients calls to action with an expiration date—such as “Free shipping for the next 24 hours”—and they will be less likely to let that offer sit in their inboxes for too long. However, while this strategy may have worked a few years ago, it might be obsolete in today's marketing environment, Cohen said.

Today it takes longer than you think for recipients to see your messages. There are so many other things for them to read, and most people have many e-mail addresses, that it takes a while for them to get to everything on their plates. “It's a lie that marketers tell themselves, that they click ‘send' and within a few hours the recipient is going to see their message,” he said. “But we have new data that says the time from when marketers send and when recipients see e-mails is actually growing. An offer might be expired before the recipient opens it.”

According to the company's “November 2009 Email Engagement Index Q1-Q3 2009” between January 2009 and August 2009 the average elapsed time between when messages were sent and when they were seen by recipients grew from 23.2 hours to 25.9 hours.

While that doesn't mean marketers should abandon timely messages, they may want to tease them ahead of time with a preview campaign so people can be looking out for them. “Tell them ‘Look in your inbox on a specific day and time to get our special offer,' ” Cohen said. “You need to be very careful with your timed messaging.”

Audiences respond best to simple, straightforward calls to action, Einstein added. “They are easy to understand,” he said. “Not surprisingly, they generate higher responses.”

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