Maximizing the potential of e-newsletters

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E-mail newsletters are a powerful solution to a challenge that continually vexes marketers: how to maintain meaningful communication with current and prospective customers. It’s no small wonder, then, that 66% of marketers surveyed recently by plan to increase their use of e-mail newsletters.

Many marketers are focusing their e-mail efforts on customer retention, most often with newsletters that offer information about a particular industry or topic.

"The information is about current events that is read specifically for the content," said Shar Van Boskirk, a Forrester Research analyst.

And therein lies the subtle power of e-mail newsletters, according to advocates who are using the medium more. When recipients are given pertinent information that helps them do their jobs better, they look favorably on the brand behind the newsletter.

The most important goal isn’t to sell more, said Paula Skartland, director of marketing communications at Primus Knowledge Solutions Inc., a knowledge management software company. It’s to keep the brand "top of mind," she said. She calls it "air cover" for the sales force.

Break through the clutter

Not only are e-mail newsletters highly measurable and cost effective, they have a better chance of breaking through the clutter.

"Online newsletters work particularly well because of the editorial," said Baker Egerton, director of demand generation at Unisys, an information technology solutions and services company. "There’s a lot of competition to getting the marketing message through. Linking it with a real content vehicle is the best way to break through."

E-mail newsletters work well for connecting with current customers and potential customers who have already expressed interest, marketers said.

For instance, Primus uses the 20,000 active names in its database, compiled from trade shows, Web seminars, online registrations and telemarketing. Rather than invest to generate new leads, the company began to market to existing prospects.

"We had this large group of contacts we made that were really important," Skartland said.

The company’s e-mail newsletters go out once every six weeks, and consist of news, articles and editorials by thought leaders. Primus’ average sale is $300,000, and its selling cycle is typically six months. The company discovered that the e-mail newsletters had influenced 75% of its sales. "We know what deals were closed where e-mail marketing was part of the communication process," Skartland said.

Unisys takes a slightly different tack to market its high-ticket items. Its servers can cost $500,000 to $1 million. Rather than create its own e-mail newsletter, Unisys ran promotions in online publisher TechTarget’s niche technology newsletters. Of 56,000 professionals with an interest in transactional databases, 400 clicked through to Unisys’ Web site. Among them, the conversion rate was 20%.

"That tells us it was a pretty relevant list," Egerton said.

Another promotion converted 30% of the 200 individuals who clicked through. "We don’t need huge numbers of contacts and huge numbers of leads—just good quality ones," Egerton said.

Tips to maximize e-newsletters

Marketers agree that using e-newsletters is a "learn-as-you-go" process. But here are some specific tips to maximize efforts:

• Respect privacy. Getting permission to send e-mail is good advice for all marketers. It’s particularly important for Internet Security Systems, which sells security software to more than 300 distributors.

"Integrity goes hand in hand with security," said Tim McCormick, VP-marketing. For this reason, ISS does not append e-mail addresses to offline customer data. "We’d consider it spam," he said.

• Segment and customize. Make content compelling by customizing information and segmenting the database to target specific readers. Analyze in-house data or ask readers their preferences directly.

Primus, for example, sends one monthly newsletter that includes different sections depending on the recipient. "One section is for [existing] customers only," Skartland said.

• Have a publishing strategy. The best publications—offline and online—know how to build a community and establish fiercely loyal readers. Make sure content is relevant and establishes your brand over time. Gain feedback from customers regarding optimal frequency.

It’s also crucial to consider your subject line, your teaser copy, the identity of the sender’s address and the best days and times to send the e-mail, according to Kathleen Goodwin, CEO of, an e-mail marketing vendor.

"Thinking like a publisher means evaluating every part of your e-newsletter for its ability to engage," she said.

• Analyze and adjust. One of the most important keys to success is the ability to analyze recipients’ behavior and use that information to craft the best offers and the most relevant content.

"You have to measure how many people click through to your site, how much time they spend, whether they e-mail you back," Skartland said.

She said the ability to do that analysis quickly sets e-mail apart from other media. "You can see right away what works."

Unisys’ Egerton added that "knowledge offers," such as white papers, articles and analyst reports, work best for the company.

Based on customer feedback, ISS increased the number of newsletters and adjusted the information it provides, McCormick said. "We’re communicating more information about the company, promotions, new products and services, and opportunities," he said.

IMakeNews’ Goodwin sums it up as "a new day for online customer retention. The reality is catching up to the promise of mass individualization and its power to glue customers to brands."

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