ask the experts

May 01, 1999 9:30 PM  By

Tim Choate is president/CEO of FreeShop.com, a Seattle-based online source of free offers and special deals from major marketers.

When customers join your opt-in mailing list, they give you, the merchant, the opportunity to communicate with them on a regular basis. In fact, opt-in e-mail is the most effective tool available for getting customers back to your site after their initial visit.

Given the importance of this communication, it’s critical to have the best technology to support your opt-in e-mail program. You’ll want your e-mail list server to have the following capabilities:

* the capacity to handle high volumes. Even if your list is small now, plan for the likelihood that it will grow beyond your expectations. Two years ago, when our Club FreeShop list had only 80,000 members, capacity was a minor issue for us. But now that our list has grown to more than 500,000 members, capacity is our number-one issue, especially since we send more than 1 million messages each week. If our e-mail architecture were unable to handle the volume, each mailing would choke under its own weight.

* solid removal logic. One of the greatest annoyances for e-mail subscribers is being unable to get off a list for a newsletter that they no longer wish to receive. Any e-mail system you choose should enable recipients to “unsubscribe” merely by forwarding a message.

* solid bounce logic. Your software should be able to determine the difference between a “soft bounce,” in which an e-mail message is returned to you because the subscriber’s e-mail server is down, and a “hard bounce,” in which the message is returned because the user is unknown to your e-mail server. In addition, the bounce logic should allow you to set a “bounce count”: When a subscriber’s e-mail address bounces more than your predetermined count number-say, three times-the system should automatically remove the name from your list. This will help keep your list clean and current, and avoid the headache of convincing Internet service providers (ISPs) that you are not spamming their servers. One way ISPs find spammers is by looking for senders that are receiving high numbers of bounce counts in a short time frame. The last thing you want to do is appear to be a spammer because your e-mail system doesn’t sufficiently handle bounces.

* the ability to send HTML as well as ASCII text messages. Unlike ASCII, HTML e-mail allows for creative formatting and is akin to sending a Web page into a subscriber’s mailbox. HTML e-mail is expected to become dominant over the next few years, so you’ll want to make sure you are ready.

* the ability to store consumer preferences. You may eventually want to target your e-mailings by customers’ merchandise preferences and buying histories.

* easy administration of mailings. The ability to queue up your mailings and have the computer automatically send them on a specific date can be extremely useful, especially when you have multiple mailings that you want to start during off-hours.

Opt-in e-mail programs can be tremendously valuable for driving return visits to your e-commerce site. Tackling the tough questions up front will help you save time, resources, and your most valuable asset: customers.

Walter Thames is vice president of marketing and communications for Revnet Systems, a provider of e-mail list management software and services based in Huntsville, AL.

Implementing a successful e-commerce operation on the Web involves more than making sure that your Website is designed well, that a shopping mechanism is in place, and that the site is heavily promoted on- and off-line. It also involves making sure that you regularly invite your site visitors, in whom you have invested so much money, to visit again. And that means direct e-mail marketing.

E-mail is the most widely used, most accessible Internet application. More than 4 trillion e-mail messages will be sent in the U.S. this year, and according to Pitney Bowes, e-mail is second only to the telephone in the number of messages sent and received daily. With 135 million e-mail users worldwide expected to be online by 2002, you can’t afford to ignore it.

Basic e-mail list servers can manage hundreds of thousands of e-mail addresses, deliver mail to your subscriber list, allow subscribers to join and unjoin your list online, and manage bounced or undeliverable e-mail for you.

If you’re selling online, however, you need even more in an e-mail program. For the most effective e-mail marketing applications-those that enable you to deliver individualized messages together with links to your site-your e-mail list server should feature:

* direct database connectivity. Advanced database-driven e-mail list servers integrate directly into standard relational databases such as Oracle and Microsoft’s SQL Server. Integration of your e-mail program and your customer database will enable you to address customers by name and refer to their last purchase so that you can create messages and offers of special interest to them.

* data filtering. By creating filters, or criteria based on the fields in your customer database, you can define the specific groups of people to whom you wish to send e-mail; for instance, you can select only those customers who’ve spent more than $50 on Acme brand widgets in the past three months.

* Webforms. These are key to permission-based, or opt-in, e-mail. When online buyers need to enter and update information for your e-mail list, the application in which they input the data is a Webform; the Webform in turn links automatically to your database.

* e-mail campaigning. This application allows you to schedule messages to be sent to subscribers at prescribed times, so that the e-mail can be delivered automatically.

* trackable URLs. The better e-mail list servers enable you to embed coded URLs within your outgoing messages. The e-mail recipients can then click on the URLs to automatically link to your site, and because the URLs are coded, you can tell who clicked on the link and when. You can then use this information for targeted follow-up messages.

Although you have multiple options in choosing an e-mail list server, deciding whether to implement a direct e-mail marketing program as part of your e-commerce effort is no longer an option; an e-mail program is a necessity.