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Walking the Line Between E-Mail and Spam

By Keith Regan
Apr 17, 2001 2:35 PM PT

When does e-mail become spam, the universally hated, unsolicited bulk commercial e-mail that clogs in-boxes and frustrate Web surfers? Is it as simple as getting permission? More importantly, do the rewards of e-mail marketing outweigh the potential risk of alienating existing customers?

Walking the Line Between E-Mail and Spam

A number of factors are likely to impact how widespread e-mail marketing becomes in the next few years, including pending legislation. No matter what, however, spam isn't going away. Even the strongest anti-spam bill would only require that the e-mails be clearly marked and have opt-out information readily available.

The fact is that marketing by e-mail works. Without the cost of postage and paper, commercial e-mail is a very attractive option for getting a message to lots of consumers.

Jupiter Media Metrix estimates that companies will spend US$1.3 billion this year to send 43 billion commercial e-mail messages out to their customers and potential customers.

But there are dangers as well.

Howdy Friend

"It's a far more personal relationship than a banner ad," said Forrester Research analyst Rebecca Ulph. "(Thus), marketers must take great care to ensure relevancy and avoid being intrusive."

That degree of personalization means missteps, even subtle ones, can be costly. Misguided e-mails or those that take too long to read are likely to be ignored, along with future messages from the same company.

Over-extending the personal touch can have a backlash effect as well. Most customers want a merchant to know their likes and dislikes, but not much else about their lives.

"Consumers only have a certain amount of tolerance," said Jupiter analyst Michele Slack. Furthermore, with every good e-mail, "opt-out is literally a click away."

Can Refuse

Keeping away from the spam label also means constantly monitoring and upgrading e-mail efforts. E-mail recipients enjoy sizable discounts, but get annoyed with offers that do not provide real savings. Fortunately for marketers, the opportunity exists for constant refinement.

"If a discount (advertised in an e-mail) doesn't bring in the traffic right away, the offer can be changed for the next day," said Forrester's Ulph.

All Over the Map

Getting people to say yes to marketing e-mails -- and then getting them the messages that are most likely to make them buy -- is a thriving industry of its own.

On one end of the spectrum are tailored e-mail newsletters that deliver news, information or other content that people have specifically requested, together with advertising messages. Way over on the other side of the line is where you'll find unsolicited bulk e-mail full of annoying, hard-sell pitches.

Somewhere in between is the random e-mail from a Web merchant you bought from long ago, reminding you that an online buying opportunity still exists on its site.

More Please?

Marketing e-mails are getting increasingly sophisticated. Chicago, Illinois-based, for example, recently announced it would begin adding streaming audio to some of its e-mail campaigns, with video to follow.

Meanwhile, users find themselves facing a lot of choices in their in-boxes each day, with more to come. Jupiter recently predicted that by 2005, the average U.S. online consumer would get as many as 950 e-mail messages -- every day.

That presents another problem for marketers: How do you differentiate your message from everyone else's? It might be tempting to add bells and whistles to get e-mails noticed.

However, that's the wrong approach, according to Ulph. Marketers should keep the relationship with the customer first in their minds and not push the envelope when it comes to how invasive or distracting they attempt to be.

"Keep it simple," Ulph advises.

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