By Bruce McCracken, Business Writer
This is the third part of a multi-part series on permission-based targeted e-mail. In part two, we reviewed some fundamental strategic principles that can increase sales and enhance rapport with your customers. In part one, we discussed the problem of spam and the rise of permission-based e-mail marketing as valuable sales tool. This week, we take an in-depth look at e-mail formatting, in particular the pros and cons of HTML versus text-based formats.
HTML: Potential and Pitfalls
DoubleClick reported in November 2002 in its DoubleClick Q3 E-mail Trend Report that click through rates improved in the third quarter of 2002 over the second quarter of 2002 as illustrated in the figures below.
The report also submitted that HTML made up 43.6 percent of the campaigns, with text comprising 17.3 percent and the remainder being in AOL or multi-part format. HTML produced a higher click-through rate over text, 11.3 percent versus six percent.
While the visual display and more modern interface of HTML can produce greater results, it can present problems. Having an e-mail system with the intelligence to ascertain what format the reader should receive is very important and multi-part messaging is a wise strategy. By sending in multi-part (both HTML and text formats), the e-mail application of the user can determine which format can be read.
David Ferris, president, research analyst of Ferris Research of San Francisco explains the wisdom of sending in multi-part. "Sending multi-part is good thing instead of straight text or HTML, so that people do get something. You have to count on that. In fact, you have to write for the lowest common denominator."
It is also important to not become overly enamored with HTML so as to over do the message. Over doing graphics can cause the file size to balloon, which increases the time it takes for the message to load. Scott Knoll, vice president and general manager of DoubleClick's Marketer Solutions division adds, "The more customization, the better. HTML is much more effective. Never have an attachment and keep it streamlined to not exceed to 20K." Another idea is to ask the reader what format is preferred.
According to Al DiGuido, CEO of e-mail communications provider Bigfoot Interactive of New York, "As marketers learn more about their customers' preferences and needs, they will see overall e-mail response rates increase. The expectation of a consumer in providing preferences to an organization is that that marketer will communicate in a much more purposeful and useful way. Companies who fail to listen and learn from their customers will find that generic communication -- like all others in the "one message fits all" category -- will produce lackluster results."
Silverpop conducted a study in November 2002, "The Broken Link: What Do Recipients Really See?" The research involved analysis of 1,327 e-mails from 450 companies across nine of the most popular e-mail clients to check for proper display. Results showed that 626 of the e-mails were in HTML format. The results were shocking, as 42 percent had major errors such as a missing graphic or raw code. The figures below detail the results.
Bill Nussey, CEO for Silverpop, an e-mail solutions provider headquartered in Atlanta notes that the major offenders are in older versions of AOL and Lotus Notes. "Lotus Notes and old versions of AOL are out there with tens of millions of people. We may have the latest versions but many people do not upgrade as quickly as we do. The operating system or age of the computer is not a factor, the version of the applications are. Many marketers have not considered how to design for AOL and Lotus Notes; others know it doesn't work but they don't know how to fix the messages. Text works better in general but does not get the response of HTML. Sometimes one may use text because they are afraid of the HTML not displaying properly. People don't realize that the intrinsic cost of having messages blow up and damaging the brand exceeds any measure of ROI."
Ferris adds, "There is a big community that has programs with an older version of HTML. They should test for the distributions looking right. Also check for different browsers and platforms."
These results tend to make one wonder if many of the senders even give any thought to seeing how their messages display. It is perplexing and almost comical to realize that many of clients cited in the study can be easily obtained. Hotmail and Yahoo are both free Web-based services. Eudora can be downloaded at a myriad of sites and AOL free trial CDs are ubiquitous.
Ferris submits that testing is pivotal for several reasons. "Testing is one of the things you learn from experience. It is natural to send out many distributions in rich text using HTML. In fact, there are variations between renditions, between different browsers and versions of browsers. The rendition is not as standardized as it needs to be."
Nussey puts it squarely to the marketers. "The majority of people sending e-mail marketing messages are somewhat technically unsophisticated. E-mail marketing is new enough that most people aren't aware of the range of issues. People may be using simple tools and approaches and not realize that there is room for improvement."
Progress for Profits
The increased sophistication of consumers dictates a higher level of awareness and response on behalf of the senders. Beyond being a marketing tool with a short-term solicitation, the new medium provides a potential communicative tool that can span the entire spectrum of the customer experience and life cycle as illustrated below in the chart from Bigfoot Interactive, an e-mail communications provider headquartered in New York.
"Today's consumer receives brand messaging in a multitude of media forms. To accelerate customer value, it becomes incredibly important that the astute marketer provide a consistent brand message at each customer intersection," adds DiGuido. "The inbox arms the marketer with insight into the evolving relationship between brand and consumer. Never before has there been a greater opportunity -- and conversely tremendous risk -- in either brand building or destruction. Through every phase, the e-mail communication program must be dialogue-oriented in order to build a strong brand experience through superlative service, convenience and respect."
Kevin Scott senior analyst for AMR Research of Boston suggests "E-mail marketing has emerged as a feasible, viable, and necessary component of an enterprise's marketing mix for both B2B and B2C organizations. The tendency for e-mail management systems to interact with customers during very different stages of their lifecycle makes this a key gateway to understanding the market and helps a company become more demand-driven. The entrance to demand-driven enterprises will look very much like their e-mail systems: a revolving door of customer information and interactions."
Bruce McCracken is a business writer with specialization in outsourcing. His coverage areas are primarily in IT, eCommerce, CRM, HR, and supply chain/distribution with focus on small to mid-sized companies. He may be e-mailed at email@example.com.