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Personalization tops privacy as key concern for e-mail marketers

When it comes to raising customer privacy concerns, e-mail marketers actually may have a little extra leeway these days. But marketers need to make the most of the limited space e-mail offers.

In marketing of any kind, the message is everything. In e-mail marketing, where marketers have a small amount space to work with and a minuscule window of reader interest to capitalize on, the goal is to produce the right message for each person receiving the e-mail.

You'd better catch the reader's attention -- and fast.

Jim Dickie, managing partner, Insight Technology Group in Boulder, Colo., recommends marketers start with their subject line. "It better be real crisp and real clear, and it shouldn't just say, 'An important announcement,'" Dickie said. "People just delete those.

"If it's 'The book you ordered from on Thursday,' hey, I remember that. I want to know the status with that book. It's just taking that little bit of extra time to personalize that."

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Cathleen Santosus, Internet and e-mail marketing analyst at research firm New Century Communications in Brooklyn, N.Y., said personalization isn't difficult to achieve, and there are tools available for companies of all sizes and budgets.

She called personalization "almost the cost of entry. At the very minimum, you must be able to personalize a first or last name in the address field, as well as in the body of the e-mail."

Tracking the customer's interests

Going beyond personalization, many companies are using e-mail to direct the recipients back to their Web site, where each click of the mouse generates valuable insight for a company about its potential customer's interests. The company then uses this information to tailor future offers accordingly.

Dickie identified this process as a more sophisticated version of what retailers have been doing for years in their physical stores with more low-tech methods. "Wal-Mart has spotters and they watch me go around and they see what I'm doing," Dickie said. "They actually track folks and see...what they look at, what they pick up, what they put in their cart and what they put back down."

The next step companies took to track their customers was to issue loyalty cards that would offer discounts in exchange for permission to keep tabs on the consumer's purchases. This was a slightly more personal method of gathering information, but it was still obvious enough to the cardholder that he was sharing information with the company.

The problem with tracking in e-mail marketing campaigns is that it's far less obvious to the consumer, and thus more likely to be upsetting to that customer when he discovers that his buying habits are being followed.

"You're kind of walking a fine line," said Dickie. "Clearly there have been a lot of studies done that the more you can do the personalization of e-mail messages and kind of track what people are doing the higher the response rates. But then, there's also the trend right now of people saying 'I want to protect my privacy when I'm on the Internet or getting e-mailed things. I don't necessarily want you tracking what I'm doing.'"

The Sept. 11 impact

After the Sept. 11 attacks, however, many analysts have reported a drop-off in consumer concerns about privacy.

"Citizens of (the United States) are more likely to put aside their privacy concerns in so many segments of their daily life now, whether it be travel or communications. They're distracted from these consumer-oriented issues of which privacy was a chief concern," said Andrew Braunberg, senior data warehousing analyst with Sterling, Va.-based research firm Current Analysis.

"Spam is almost more an issue than privacy," said Santosus. "Everyone's getting spam, and everyday consumers are associating it with leaving their address on message boards. Or, they're afraid to buy because they don't like to leave their e-mail address with commercial entities, fairly or not."

Santosus attributes the rise in spam partly to the anthrax scare in the wake of the attacks. "The DMA (Direct Marketing Association) encouraged its members to start pending their postal records with e-mail addresses and there are reports that spam has gone up considerably since 9/11, both from your typical bad spammer as well as companies who are (now) crossing that line. "Some are intentionally exploiting what they might consider permission to be a little more aggressive with their e-mailing, and some are...just trying to do their best to contact consumers and prospects," she said.

Lynda Partner, co-founder and CEO of GotMarketing, an ASP in Silicon Valley that provides self-serve e-marketing tools, said that her company has solved the privacy versus personalization issue by relying solely on opt-in lists.

"I think that you can't even talk about e-mail in marketing without also making sure that you're talking about permission," Partner said. "To me, the whole concept of using e-mail to send unsolicited e-mails is a self-defeating prophecy. I think that any self-respecting marketer realizes that spamming is not a way to develop a relationship...It's a waste of your reputation. It hurts your brand."


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