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Monday, January 11, 2010

Email Common Sense That You're Ignoring

Brought to you by Chris Marriott

In conjunction with the calendar flipping over to 2010, email marketers and service providers anticipated a wholesale change in their businesses. This year, the major ISPs -- which account for 60 percent or more of all email addresses in the U.S. -- have sworn to employ engagement as a criterion in routing email. Marketers whose emails sit unopened and unclicked in recipients' mailboxes will find their emails banished to the junk mailbox or perhaps banned outright.

The big ISPs have made similar threats before, but by all accounts, they seem to mean it. However, as of this writing, the ISPs have failed to explain what they mean by engagement.

Of course, marketers cannot expect the ISPs to tell them how to circumvent their own email screening tactics. But the situation brings to mind a common saying among lawyers: Most law is just common sense. For instance, the law forbids stealing because allowing people just to take whatever they wanted from whomever they wanted would lead to societal chaos -- common sense, right? Thinking about the proposed ISP moves as common sense will help email marketers plan for a better future. Whatever the ISPs do, engaging customers serves marketers well.

It's common sense that emails that fail to engage help no one. Inboxes get clogged. Consumers fail to get informed. Most of all, marketers fail to achieve objectives. But what defines engagement?

For years, email marketers used response -- clicks and/or opens -- as the basis for engagement. Response might, in fact, constitute what ISPs consider engagement. After all, they cannot track conversions or other metrics. But why stop there? Marketers should regard the actions of the ISPs as a call to revamp their own perceptions of engagement.

After response, conversions come up most often in the discussion of engagement. Retailers track conversions as a matter of course; it's generally how they make their money. But even marketers who do not make sales directly from email or the site should think about conversions.

In this case, conversion means not only selling, but more broadly any transaction where the consumer exchanges information of some kind for something they value. For instance, when a business-to-business marketer requires contact information in exchange for a white paper, that's conversion. When an auto manufacturer encourages a consumer to configure a car, thus associating a model and options with a cookie, that's conversion. The auto marketer can recognize the same visitor on a later site visit and provide a more customized experience for him or her.

With the ability to link email to web analytics, marketers should also look at how their email marketing drives site behavior. How long do email visitors spend on the site? How often do they visit? What do they do there? Granted, these measures have at least as much to do with the quality of the site experience as with the email, but comparing visitors from email to other visitors should give insight into how the email piques curiosity about the site, another way of looking at engagement.

One glaring weakness in many definitions of engagement comes from a disinterest in changes over time. That is, marketers tend to measure engagement -- however they measure it -- at discrete points in time. As in, "as of this date, X percent of my customers were engaged." A more holistic approach to engagement would involve viewing members' behavior over time. At minimum, this view means counting actions over intervals of a month or more. More sophisticated approaches to measuring behavior over time will involve recency-frequency segmentation or the like -- understanding which audience members return and which do not.

Whatever rubric marketers use to measure engagement, they will no doubt emphasize the need to raise those measures, to make their emails more engaging. Readers of marketing columns such as mine should have learned by now that no silver bullets or magic tricks exist to drive engagement. The approaches that have worked over time will continue to work.

Marketers must listen to their audience, both passively, by observing click patterns, and actively, by employing surveys or preference centers. They must test copy, design, offers, segmentation, and cadence to understand which levers to pull in driving engagement. Most of all, marketers must not stop experimenting with new ideas to capture their audience's fleeting attention.

Whether or not ISPs actually make good on their promises to clamp down on senders who abuse the privilege of a spot in the inbox, marketers will serve themselves -- and their customers -- by concentrating on engagement now. It's just common sense.

Chris Marriott is vice president and global managing director for Acxiom Digital.

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