Creating an E-Mail Contact Strategy: Follow the Customer’s Lead

As the director of consulting services for a company that makes e-mail marketing software, it probably doesn’t surprise you that I’m constantly asked questions about e-mail marketing best practices. One of the most common questions I’ve been asked is, “What’s the best e-mail contact strategy?”

No matter if the questioner is a mom-and-pop Yahoo store or a large e-commerce enterprise, the answer remains the same: “What do you have to say that your readers want to hear?” The strategy that worked last year may no longer be as effective as it once was.

That being said, every strategy has to start somewhere. In this article, we’ll take a look at four common tactics used in developing a contact strategy. Then, we’ll discuss a very important part of your contact strategy — frequency — pinpointing several ways for e-retailers to determine the optimal sending schedule for your customers. Finally, we’ll spend a few moments on the topic of “special communications,” and we’ll explore how to get the most out of special campaigns without jeopardizing your ongoing relationship with recipients.

Developing Your Contact Strategy

When you’re reaching out to your customers via e-mail, there are many variables you’ll want to consider: How long have they been a customer? How long has it been since they’ve made a purchase? What’s the next logical step in the product sequence? Does a particular promotion work within the boundaries of the larger business calendar?

The following four tactics serve as a solid starting point for developing and implementing your contact strategy:

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  1. Onboarding. If you’re dropping new e-mail subscribers smack dab into the middle of your existing e-mail marketing stream, you’re missing a great opportunity. Adding a series of onboarding e-mails that follow your initial “welcome” e-mail is a way to provide your new shoppers with valuable information about your brand and their potential shopping experience.

    Reinforcing your brand positioning by providing an informational e-mail (a recipe or a tip for exercise, for example) or reiterating a strong area of your customer service offerings (such as free shipping or 24/7 customer support) allows you to ease recipients into your e-mail atmosphere without leaving them gasping for breath.

  2. Launching a win-back campaign. It may be tempting to ignore the portion of your e-mail lists that receives your promotion and either chooses not to open it or opens it and does nothing — after all, they haven’t unsubscribed or complained that you’re sending spam. However, allowing this dead weight to stay on your list has a big chance of rendering your e-mail metrics meaningless.

    So, how do you go about reactivating customers who are no longer responding to your e-mails? Different e-retailers do this in varying ways. Some offer special discounts good for any product on the site. Others provide an additional incentive — like free shipping or a special gift with purchase — to recipients they’re trying to woo. Most e-retailers mention that the promotion is of a “come back” nature, highlighting to the recipient that the company is aware that he hasn’t recently made a purchase. If you’re not a retailer, think about what kind of incentives you can use to bring once-interested readers back to life. Look at the original reason they signed up to your program.

  3. Evolving with the product life cycle. If the nature of your product justifies it, the product life cycle offers a built-in opportunity for communication with customers. Think about all of the potential touch points — the welcome e-mail, an e-mail identifying tech support options, additional modules or add-ons that are available, an e-mail describing extended warranty information or even an e-mail with a special upgrade offer. Product life cycle tactics are often some of the most successful, because they’re viewed by recipients as highly credible, personalized and relevant.
  4. Sticking to the editorial calendar. Many businesses develop a six-month or 12-month editorial calendar that pinpoints promotions and corresponding educational information that they’ll be offering in their newsletters throughout the year. Keep this editorial calendar in mind as you’re developing additional sales-oriented campaigns to send to recipients. Watch your e-mail metrics to ensure that your sending frequency isn’t creeping up to unacceptable levels, and that your brand and product messaging is complimentary from issue to issue.

Determining Contact Frequency

Much like Goldilocks and her porridge, marketing managers are looking for an e-mailing frequency that’s not too hot or too cold, but instead is just right. We’ve found that the most successful e-mail marketers are those who go out of their way to allow their recipients to determine the e-mail frequency that works best for them. Here are a few ideas on how you can let your customers voice their frequency preferences:

  • Meaningful choice at sign up. From the time that the users inputs their e-mail addresses, give them the opportunity to let you know what they’re interested in. Allow recipients to tell you from the start if they’re interested in receiving new product updates, or if coupons and special promotions are really what they’re after. List each mail’s average frequency so that recipients know what they’re getting into.
  • Create preference centers. Most professional e-mail programs allow users to login to their preference centers at any time. Preference centers simply allow recipients to change their minds about the frequency and/or types of communication they receive from your company. Remind subscribers in each message that they can use the preference center at any time.
  • Ask during the unsubscribe process. The unsubscribe process is literally your last chance to listen to your customers. Instead of assuming that recipients wish to receive no further e-mail communication from your business, instead offer them the choice to opt-out of receiving particular types of e-mails. Just as on the sign-up page, you’ll want to indicate how often specific types of e-mails are sent, so that the recipient’s expectation matches the reality of the distribution schedule.

Handling Special Contact Requests

Your marketing team has a great idea — how about a special series of seven “What’s for dinner?” e-mails that gives a recipe using ingredients that are available for purchase on your site? Special contacts like this are fantastic opportunities for additional communication with your audience, but don’t make the mistake of assuming that it’s OK to send to your existing list — you’ll need to get permission to add recipients to this additional message stream.

When recipients opt-in to receive a special communication, you’re not only receiving another valuable piece of information that will help you with future segmentation efforts, but also decreasing your chances of creating a case of “contact fatigue” among recipients, where they start contemplating leaving your list because they’re getting more than they bargained for.

How do you get recipients to opt-in to a special communication campaign? In many of the same ways you got them to sign up for your initial list. Advertise the special campaign in your regular e-mail communications and on your Web site. Add a “sign up for ‘What’s for dinner?'” checkbox on your regular newsletter sign-up page. Don’t forget to pass along the info to your partners, who may be able to advertise for you on their own e-mails and Web sites.

Listening to Subscribers

No matter which tactics you choose to employ, one thing holds true: finding the perfect contact strategy will involve listening to your subscribers and a lot of trial and retrial — not trial and error, as data from poorly performing campaigns is still extremely valuable.

You’ll be well on your way to e-mail marketing success if you try different strategic approaches, follow your customers’ lead when it comes to frequency and mind your manners when you’re sending special communications.

Stefan Pollard is director of e-mail best practices for Lyris, a marketing technology firm that provides hosted and installed software solutions for marketers at medium-size businesses.

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