The ever-present danger of ‘reply all’

The number of people with access to e-mail means it could be a potential goldmine for marketers as long as it is not mistaken for a mass-marketing tool. By Martin Croft

E-mail is an incredibly powerful communications tool for marketers – if they get it right. Get it wrong, of course, and the messages will be dumped as spam, while marketers’ budgets will end up in the bin. Too many marketers seem to be getting it wrong.

Lauren O’Rooke Walker, account director with WDMP Communications, puts it bluntly/ “With over 40.3 million e-mails sent to UK citizens a day, it is the most over-used form of communication. Don’t bombard customers with e-mails – if they haven’t responded to the 96th e-mail you’ve sent them that week, reduce the frequency to one every two weeks, or maybe one a month. Quality over quantity is the point here.”

Matthew Potter, head of client development at CheetahMail UK says: “E-mail marketing is still seen by many as a one-way communication and is not being used as the agile, responsive, relationship-building tool it can be. While the mass e-mail broadcast approach may work at a basic level, many marketers are missing out on key opportunities to use e-mail for building interactive online customer relationships.”

The first step to getting e-mail marketing right is to recognise that different consumer groups will use e-mail in different ways – and some will not use it at all. The second step, arguably, is to go beyond simple segmentation and really work on personalisation, so that communications are tailored to the individuals who receive them, based on information they have willingly given you combined with information that you have been able to gather from other, non-intrusive sources. 

Indeed, as Matt Simons, client services director at Acxiom Digital, says: “It’s all about individualisation, not personalisation. Personalisation means getting their name and title right: individualisation means sending individual messages to people. Personalisation is simple, but individualisation is complicated. It involves having the right content to send to people, which is always a challenge. And it involves having enough data, and quality data at that.”

Marketers must bear in mind that e-mail is covered by the Data Protection Act and by the Electronic Privacy Regulations. E-mails may only be sent to individual subscribers if they have given the marketer prior permission. Good marketing practice means that the consumer must always feel that they are in control – so, for example, there must be a clearly indicated and easy-to-use mechanism for them to unsubscribe from your e-mailings.

Getting customers’ trust
Simons argues that collecting quality data on existing and target customers is not so difficult, if companies approach it in the right way. “It’s all about creating trust in what you’re going to do with the data. A lot of marketers are concerned about using cookies, for instance: but there is nothing wrong with using them, if you are open about the fact that you do use them, how you will use them, what the information you plan to collect will be used for – and the benefit it offers to the consumer.”

As Simon Ringshall, a planner with integrated agency Archibald Ingall Stretton, says: “E-mail penetration is supremely high. So is the number of people who are now regularly online. Where audiences aggregate, marketers follow. But the rules online aren’t quite the same as offline. Online is a customer-owned space. Their prerogative, their rules – which means there’s no space for mass-market, generic messaging. If permission is the lock on the door, then relevance is the key. Make content relevant and customers will invite you in. Fail to do this, and you’re not only wasting your efforts on averted eyes and partial attention, but you’re most likely irritating people who are busy doing things that actually interest them.”

Ed Weatherall, managing director of e-mail marketing specialists Concep London, says personalisation is hugely important in increasing response rates – and that does not just mean making sure the recipient is addressed by name. Weatherall adds: “The first thing someone looks at when they get an e-mail is the subject line and then who the mail is from. I have seen some improvements on open rates when an e-mail contains someone’s name in the subject line: but the biggest difference is when people personalise the sender. By this I mean making sure the e-mail comes from a name people recognise. It may be the account managers name or the name of the department – whatever the recipient will have the most affiliation with.”

He also stresses that the level of personalisation depends on what sort of relationship you have with the target: “If people have never heard from you before, using over-personalisation can scare them rather than instil trust – their initial reaction will be ‘where did you get my details?'”

But everyone agrees that personalisation is about far more than just getting someone’s name right (difficult though that seems to be for many users of direct marketing). In e-mail, it should also be about personalising content and making it as relevant as possible to the recipient.

Paul Cox, director of commercial services at e-mail marketing agency Mike Colling, says that without relevance “you will get read once. If you get a second open, it will be to unsubscribe.” Relevance, Cox argues, “is determined by two things: when you talk to them and what you say”.

And, he further argues, with e-mail, small can be beautiful: “Advertisers also mistake size of base with efficacy. They go for mass sign-up through vague descriptions and sometimes misuse of service messaging. Consumers like e-mail – if it is good and they know what they are joining. Make e-mail part of your offering, not something you do on the sly. We have e-mails where consumers chase delivery if it is delayed.”

Joy Whitehead, communications director at media buying agency Zed, observes: “E-mail can be a very lazy marketing tool. I am continually seeing it used to keep in contact with customers, but without actually saying anything to them. It is a shame that the creative capabilities of e-mail are often ignored as it can be a powerful tool for engaging with consumers.”

Effective data collection
But one of the biggest issues in e-mail marketing today (and indeed in marketing full-stop) is the collection of data on consumers and their activities. Marketers seem to have forgotten how to do it – or are so scared of falling foul of various privacy laws or anti-marketing consumer groups that they shy away from it altogether.

Yet, as Ian Thornhill, a director at data strategy and analytical consultancy Huw Davis Partnership, says/ “A surprising number of brands undertaking e-mail campaigns appear to be ignoring the wealth of knowledge that is already available through their transactional systems and other customer data.” And while e-mail may be cheap, all too often, Thornhill points out, companies fail to check their own data which “often results in messages being sent to customers or prospects which are inappropriate from a timing or content perspective”.

Thornhill concludes: “It is critical to ensure that your on- and offline activities work in unison, as too often I receive an e-mail and direct mail pack on the same day from the same company containing different content, which is both confusing and irritating from the customer’s perspective. That’s why it’s essential for brands to generate a contact strategy that crosses all channels and is driven by relevant customer insight.”

Simon McMaster, head of digital at Tequila, agrees that “data is critical to providing relevance and creating a relationship. This needs to be more than simple contact/demographic data. It should also include psychographic information, contact and campaign history, and any purchase details. This rich view of a customer can then be matched to content of relevance to provide insightful communications and messaging.”

But, he warns, all too often, companies put information into different silos: “For example, if a brand holds fulfilment data separate from a marketing database, then the brand and campaign could suffer: perhaps if a customer has not received their goods on time, but a marketing message relating to the usage of the product is sent. The data model needs to ensure that all information is collected and consolidated into a single customer-centric view. A brand needs to have a single view on a customer to create a successful e-mail campaign. This is done by collecting information from all touchpoints and then matching it to the customer directly to provide one-to-one communications. This will enable an e-mail marketing campaign to provide the recipient with relevance and interest, ensuring that the brand is reaching the target best suited for the particular campaign.”

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