If you are among the many marketers turning to email as a communications channel this year, you'll have to work hard to get consumers' attention, writes Matthew Eccles, chief strategy officer at Rapp Collins Europe.
Two surveys landed on my desk recently. One revealed that one in five UK marketing managers have budgeted for the use of emails in their plans for 2006, but the other showed that email open rates across Europe and the Middle East declined sharply at the latter part of 2005.
I do hope all of those UK marketers intending to venture into email in 2006 pause and take a long, hard look at what they intend to do and what they hope to achieve by doing it before they rush in.
Digital channels present too good an opportunity to suffer from a me-too communications rush. It has never been more important to put the customer perspective first.
Failure to do that will mean consumers will simply tune out and hit the delete or unsubscribe button, as that second survey shows they are increasingly doing.
There is no doubt that digital must now be considered as part of the overall marketing mix. To provide just one persuasive statistic, 16m people in the UK shopped online in 2004, with that figure predicted to rise to 24m this coming year.
But, rather than maximising their spend, marketers who lurch into spam production will be sinking their investment into the generation of nothing more than brand-damaging irritation among customers.
So what should you take into account before launching into cyberspace?
As a starting point, email communications must be based on permission, and a technical "click here if you want more of this" simply won't do.
The onus is on marketers to create engaging and relevant content, delivered at the right time. It means providing easy access. It necessitates securing consumers' wholehearted, emotional participation in any dialogue through this channel.
Emotional permission is much harder to secure than technical agreement. Especially as people look at their emails in a hurry.
Your message has to create an instant impression. If recipients have to scroll or wade through text for you to make your point, you will probably lose them. In addition, both subject line and content must be tested as certain words will be picked up by spam filters and your email will be simply blocked.
It also means reining in the use of technology that consumers haven't caught up with. If only a small percentage of your recipients have the technological capability of downloading images, sending an email that relies upon recipients being able to do so will and dilute impact and risk your communication being incomprehensible.
Also, keep the total file size small. Whoever you are, what you have to say is probably not worth the wait.
Emotional engagement also means the provision of content that recipients want to read. Not what you want to tell them.
The most exciting thing about the digital medium is the potential it offers for testing multiple versions of your marketing message.
It is also the only channel that can provide almost immediate feedback on customer use. When you send a letter, you are, to all intents and purposes, issuing a mailer into the ether. You must trust that it ends up on the doormat of the intended recipient, but from there you have no way of really knowing if it has been opened and then read.
With email, you know who opened it, whether they checked throughout and how their journey developed.
Using such information, it becomes possible to both refine content and understand the behaviour of those who do respond, those who don't and those who come close.
No one is expecting the growth of email use to slow off. It is anticipated that in the US, the total number of emails sent will have doubled over a three-year period to reach the 2.7 trillion mark in 2006.
Growth rates in the UK are similarly alarming. Those marketers about to embark upon a digital strategy must work had to ensure that theirs don't end up in the trash.
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