Thinking outside the inbox

14 Dec 2006

For any business large or small, keeping in touch with customers isn’t just a fact of life, it’s a necessity and there are few better mechanisms to do this than with email.

System Dynamics, an IT systems integration and consulting firm, regularly uses email to keep in touch with customers and contractors. “It’s a fantastic tool that can give you real benefits,” says Conor McWade (pictured), a director of the Dublin-based company.

It communicates with contractors on its books, letting them know when jobs become available, and also markets to its customers, with specific content in the email for different sectors such as financial services or government.

McWade notes that it’s important that customers opt in to receive these mails so they’re not being spammed.

He adds that the targeted nature of email makes it very effective. “When you stick something in an envelope, how can you tell if it’s been opened? It’s a quantum leap away from mailshots,” he says.

Although there are some cost savings to be had — no need to spend money on stamps, envelopes and printing as with a direct marketing mailshot — the real benefits of email marketing are more around getting to know customers better, industry experts say.

“There’s a wealth of information that you can draw back from email campaigns,” says Robert Melville, international business development manager with Cheetahmail.

“You can tell who received it, who opened it and who clicked on links in it, indicating their areas of interest or products or services. You’ve got a complete view from start to finish with a demonstrable return on investment on what you’re doing.”

Melville likens it to direct marketing but argues that it’s much more effective. “It’s all the things direct marketers wanted to see and it’s in real time.”

It’s a simple matter to run test emails to a random sample of customers to gauge responses to elements of the message, such as the subject line, the time of day it is sent and the design and presentation of the email itself.

Time is a factor in that with email campaigns, unlike direct mail, there’s no waiting around for the information to come back. Live data is available very soon after the messages have been sent.

“You could mail a section of the database at nine o’clock in the morning and by early afternoon you’d have a view of the different elements you were testing,” says Melville.

According to Denise Cox, newsletter specialist with the email marketing firm Newsweaver, a good email marketing campaign can be relevant, targeted and timely. However, she cautions against ‘batch and blast’ techniques of sending mailshots to everyone in a customer database.

“Having permission to email them is not enough,” she says. “It’s about keeping their interest and knowing how often you should send them email.”

Blarney Woollen Mills, for example, times some of its emails to coincide with public holidays in the US, where many of its customers are based.

Too frequent communications can be the kiss of death, as customers may feel they’re being spammed. Instead, Cox advises adjusting the frequency of email campaigns to suit the purchase cycle of what the company wants to offer.

“If your product or service is needed now, such as recruitment, travel or ticket selling, people are going to want to hear about it frequently because there’s a time limit to it,” she says.

“If it’s a longer-cycle product or service such as consultancy or a high ticket item, you want to be ‘front of mind’, conveying information that’s useful during the customer’s information gathering process.”

The beauty of email is that it allows for customer communication in both directions and a smart company will use feedback to determine the content and frequency of its emails.

Cox suggests forming a panel of subscribers to act as a sounding board. Some may respond to different subject lines or even the amount of information that’s presented in the message itself.

She believes that email marketing is more about retaining than acquiring customers as it’s an ideal way of gathering information about them in order to cross-sell or upsell new products and services.

“Your mailing list is about quality over quantity,” she explains. “Having 100 names on your list turning from prospects to customers is more valuable than a thousand where you don’t know what they want.”

Email marketing is now so sophisticated that it’s possible to segment the database so that certain emails are only sent to a certain subset of customers, or else people are given messages with slightly altered contents depending on what they have said they prefer to receive.

Businesses have the choice of either managing campaigns themselves or using a dedicated service provider where the email newsletter is set up on the web and managed from there.

The do-it-yourself approach can be fraught with problems. For example, by sending emails from a desktop PC, there could be a risk that a single user’s email address would be blocked by filtering software because it’s sending out a higher volume of email than usual.

In addition, external service providers have customer relationship management systems so that the data is easily gathered and presented to companies so they can gauge the success of a campaign.

What’s more, small companies in particular might not have the staff available to do this in-house. “If you do it yourself, you’ve got to throw a lot of resources at it to manage that,” says Melville.

WHERE ON THE WEB: Email marketing resources for business
Tips on good practice for email marketing as well as showing how not to get your message classed as spam
Helpful guide to using Microsoft software for creating and executing targeted email campaigns
Site of Irish-owned email newsletters services provider, with examples, customer testimonials and a free trial
Online marketing provider lists its services and provides contact information as well as a free demo option
Details of the Dublin company’s email marketing service, with pricing according to the size of the customer list

Case study: Email campaign a bestseller

The decision to close Kennys Bookshop in Galway was not easy to make but once the company was satisfied that it could serve customers just as effectively over the internet it was simply a case of putting the arrangements in place.

Kennys specialises in out-of-print and antiquarian books and actually beat to the punch in setting up a website back in 1994.

Now, to back its online efforts the company runs highly targeted email marketing campaigns, allowing it to reach customers across 45 different countries and improving its service in the process, says Paul Kenny, online marketing administrator of Kennys Bookshop.

Over the years the company had built up a huge database of customer e-mail addresses but hadn’t actively tapped into this.

“We decided we needed to really get to know them as we did in the bookshop,” Kenny relates. “Before it was purely guesswork. Now we’re really learning what our customers like.”

Using a managed email service from CheetahMail, Kennys undertakes a minimum of two online marketing campaigns per month to its email subscribers, driving sales of books and art.

One such campaign led directly to selling a Kenneth Webb painting for €10,000 and rare book sales of more than €5,000.

By using the tracking functions and behavioural profiling within Cheetahmail’s system, Kennys can target specific customer sets with book offers and information that it knows will appeal to their interests.

“Every time we send out a blanket email our database gets smarter,” adds Kenny, who says that the service effectively gives a small company an edge in a competitive global market.

“It’s reducing costs and time to market. You can be very adaptive with it, especially as a small to medium-sized enterprise, using business intelligence,” he concludes.

By Gordon Smith