Opting in to offers

Many catalogers have determined that while banner ads and traditional advertising can help drive users to their Websites for an initial visit, they don’t necessarily spur repeat business. So companies as disparate as auto supplies catalog J.C. Whitney, jewelry and home decor marketer Ross-Simons, and office supplies giant Boise Cascade Office Products Corp. are sending e-mail promotions and newsletters to Web consumers to encourage them to visit-and buy-again.

“Outbound e-mail marketing shows us that it’s not enough to build a good Website,” says Peter Howard, vice president of marketing for Cranston, RI-based Ross-Simons. “We still have to get our message to consumers.”

And that message can be quite cost-effective. An e-mail costs $0.03-$0.05 on average. But Howard estimates that he reaps at least $0.75 per e-mail recipient. “Our response rates range from 0.5% to 2%, with a $150 average order,” he says. “And we expect response and conversion to sales to increase as we increase e-mail targeting.” So far Ross-Simons has collected 70,000 e-mail addresses from online catalog requesters, online buyers, and bridal registry participants.

But not every e-mail program will provide such a profitable return on investment. Below, some tips to improve your chances:

* Make it easy for prospects to sign up for your e-mail list. Most consumers will sign up for an e-mail if given the option. Chicago-based J.C. Whitney received 12,000 subscriptions to its e-mail newsletter in its first 10 days of the campaign beginning in early March, and has since been signing up nearly 400 a day, says interactive marketing manager Rich Holbrach.

J.C. Whitney promotes its e-mail newsletter on its home page, making it simple for users to sign up. Indeed, simplicity is key. Many marketers try to get as much information as possible from consumers, but asking for a lot up front can deter prospects. The most important information you need from a subscriber is an e-mail address, so if possible, make that the only requirement for joining your list. You can also have your customer service reps ask callers for their e-mail addresses while on the phone.

* Provide e-mail recipients with an opt-out option. Every e-mail message you send, even to customers who opted in, should include an “unsubscribe” option that recipients can activate by sending a return message.

* Version your e-mail based on the technology of your subscribers. Virtual Vineyards, a Napa, CA-based online wine marketer, sends three versions of its e-mail newsletter-a text-only version, a text-based version with AOL links, and an HTML-based version with links to the Website’s product pages-to suit the browser requirements of the recipients. Analyzing online session logs can provide this sort of information.

And whenever possible, opt for HTML-based e-mails. Because they can include color, varied fonts, and pictures, HTML messages get higher response and conversion rates than non-HTML e-mails, says Cyndy Ainsworth, director of product marketing for Virtual Vineyards.

FreeShop.com, a Seattle-based firm that provides free and special offers from online marketers to more than 1.2 million online users, has had the same experience. It found that HTML e-mail is up to 30% more effective at enticing subscribers to click on the link bringing them to the company’s Web catalog.

* Add value to the message. If you offer editorial content, special discounts, and promotions, or if you target your message around special events, customers are more likely to read the messages regularly.

The $200 million Ross-Simons, for example, began its e-mail program in November with a free shipping offer. Since then, it has used holidays such as Valentine’s Day to offer selected jewelry items, offering a hyperlink on the e-mail to the specific product pages on its Website.

The $3 billion Boise Cascade Office Products Corp. launched its WaterCooler e-mail marketing program in mid-February. Subscribers can choose from four types of messages: product types; discounts and special offers; financial and corporate news; and tips and online seminars. Each message is no more than three lines of text and contains a hyperlink to the company’s Website. “The subject line pulls them in, the text offers the product, and the hyperlink directs them to the site,” says Ann Stoddard, Boise’s Internet marketing manager.

Virtual Vineyards also includes editorial in its e-mail newsletter, which it sends out every few weeks. Along with a brief description of up to 10 product offers, complete with links to the Website, each newsletter features an article, such as a review of the year’s best wines or tips on the proper use of wineglasses, from company founder Peter Granoff.

* When it’s large enough, segment and target your e-mail list. Virtual Vineyards can track which product links get the highest response through Digital Impact’s Merchant Mail software; it then uses the data to determine which products to offer that subscriber in the future. Once it compiles more information, Virtual Vineyards plans to version its e-mail newsletters by product interest, Ainsworth says.

Ross-Simons and Boise Cascade, both of which use MarketHome’s Direct Email service, ask subscribers to categorize the offerings they want to receive via e-mail. They then customize offerings based on these preferences, as opposed to sending a random mass e-mail to its entire list.

Additional tips to consider Make sure the e-mail message is coming from you and not a third-party service bureau.

Stage your electronic mailing to avoid crashing your system. Most catalogers should expect a 5% reply (not order) rate.

Repeat your URL multiple times, especially at the top and at the bottom of the message.

Keep content fresh, and limit the length of your e-mail. Three or four paragraphs should be enough for a newsletter; readers will tune out or ignore anything longer.