'E-Nurturing' Customers

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Effective e-mail marketing strategy is increasingly about reaching recipients with the right content at the right time. To achieve this deceptively simple goal, marketers are turning to life cycle marketing, or e-nurturing, to anticipate the prospect's or customer's needs depending on where they are in the sales cycle. At the same time, many are adding online preference centers, or improving those already in place, thereby enabling customers to specify exactly what information they want to receive and when they want to receive it.

E-nurturing, or triggered, campaigns are a series of messages over time, triggered by events—such as a purchase, a renewal or an account change—or a customer's or prospect's actions.

In the past, said Jeanniey Mullen, executive director-senior partner, worldwide e-mail marketing at interactive agency OgilvyOne, marketers that were looking to promote a white paper, for instance, might e-mail their list and encourage recipients to visit their Web site to download the white paper. When recipients did so, they'd see a thank-you page on the Web site. With e-nurturing, however, prospects would receive an e-mail delivering the white paper and then receive additional e-mails with appropriate content based on their stage in the sales cycle or the various actions they take.

"We're seeing these e-nurturing tactics used to help reduce the sales cycle overall and also increase the marketer's ability to validate how qualified the lead is," Mullen said.

Scott Olrich, CMO at e-mail service provider Responsys, said marketers are too focused on individual campaigns. "A huge issue for b-to-b marketers today is that they're thinking, 'Hey, we're getting all these leads, but we don't want to send them over to sales because they're not qualified, they're not ready to buy yet.' The way most marketers have been handling that is to send an ad hoc campaign and try to keep [the leads] warm that way," he said. "That's not the right approach."

Instead, marketers should build an automated lead nurturing program that focuses on moving people through the buying process, he said.

One-off e-mail messages have about a 2% response rate, if that, said Adam Sarner, principal analyst at Gartner Research, while event-driven e-mail marketing messages have about five times that.

"Using event-triggered marketing seems to be a lot more effective in conversion rates than using the old model of just spamming the world, even with permission-based marketing, and seeing what happens," Sarner said.

Event-triggered e-mail has higher response rates because it is more likely to be relevant to recipients and stand out in a cluttered in-box. "The noise level continues to rise and people are turning off useless, throwaway, nontargeted, nonsegmented e-mail," Sarner said.

Another way to combat e-mail saturation and increase the likelihood that e-mail marketing is relevant is to enable customers to indicate their preferences in an online user profile or preference center.

For instance, Sarner said, users could choose how often they want to be e-mailed and select the exact e-mail products they'd like to receive. They could also indicate which product and service categories are of interest to them and then easily change those preferences as their business needs change.

Give people a choice

"Give people the choice or some control in what's being sent to them," he said. "Very few people complain when they get things they asked for. People tend to complain [about] or ignore things that have no relevance to them or that they didn't ask for."

Online preference centers don't require complex technology, but few marketers are using them, Sarner said. "It's a no-brainer that not a lot of marketers do," he said.

When e-mail communications are relevant, Olrich said, the frequency with which marketers contact their customers or prospects is no longer an issue.

"How much e-mail is too much? The answer is there is no defined answer, as long as the messages are relevant," he said. "We have customers that send e-mail to their customers every single day. The customers actually think it's totally relevant. The answer is: If it's not relevant, don't send it."

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