By Paula O’Connell

There is no other medium that provides the immediate, direct and cost-effective possibilities for reaching customers that email does. Yet, there’s none other as vulnerable to misuse, poor targeting, being dismissed or simply lost in the ever-increasing commotion of a recipient’s inbox.

Powerful though it may be, email can clearly be a double-edged sword. If used well, it has proven abilities to build store traffic, loyalty, repeat business and can even encourage greater customer spending. If mishandled, however, an email campaign can be disastrous for the fragile customer relationship and may even impact on community attitudes to email marketing in general.

For the individual retailer – and for the broader business community – it is absolutely vital to make effective email communication a priority and to take a considered approach. One of the most common pitfalls, particularly for those new to email marketing, is the temptation to say too much within the one message. With too many ideas, or too wordy an approach, there is a very real risk of confusion.

Of course, this is hardly a new theory. In fact, it’s the reason short and sharp messages are favoured in other formats. With email, however, the need for clear and concise communication is more critical than ever. If a newsletter or special offer doesn’t make its point immediately, recipients are likely skip over it, or worse, hit the delete key.

Consider how many messages you have probably deleted today from your own inbox. Chances are, at least some of them had long or unclear subject lines. In the worst examples, legitimate customer messages are so badly represented by their subject lines they are simply mistaken for spam. Even with ISP filters and end user software, spam continues to dominate the average inbox. Australia’s anti-spam legislation is helping weed out the good from the bad (In fact, you’ll probably find that you won’t receive one piece of spam in your inbox that’s originated in Australia), but unfortunately there’s still plenty generated elsewhere around the world.

The biggest challenge is for legitimate communication to stand out from such garbage. You only have a ‘from’ address and a subject line to get your reader’s attention. These are the only tools you have to work with to get that all important ‘open’ so you simply can’t squander them. Messages with titles such as “Chance to WIN $500!” deserve to be deleted, instead of “Special offers from company x” or “Your gift from x company”. In terms of legitimate messages alone, there is a lot of email coming into the average inbox these days, all jostling for the recipient’s attention.

Companies are compelled to find clever ways to get their messages noticed, but very few are drawing on the most potent resource and the one that sets them apart from competitors – their own existing customer data. ‘Personalisation’ may seem like little more than a buzz word these days, but the idea behind it is sound. That is, to use customer information to tailor messages so that they are more meaningful to the individual.

The great tragedy is that, so far, many email campaigns do little more than insert the recipient’s name, before incorporating a standard message that may have very little relevance to individual customer. Rather than reinforcing the relationship, these messages completely fail to demonstrate any consideration for the individual’s preferences or requirements.

Worse, any benefits can be completely undone with bad data washing if the email uses an incorrect name, improper case on the name, includes the customer’s full name in a casual communication, or vice-versa. Email marketing campaigns need to be smarter about the content they use. Retailers, in particular, stand to benefit greatly in light of the intense competition to maintain customer loyalty. They need to start using more datapoints and harness what they know about customers in order to remain competitive. Remember, email is both cost-efficient and direct, so customising messages to suit individuals is more than possible. In fact, it’s imperative.

Of course, having a robust database from the beginning is the easiest way of tailoring emails, but companies can also ask for the information needed down the line if they don’t already have it, by way of member management pages and surveys. As always, it’s important to listening to customer feedback. Some may be passive, derived from click-through analytics, and open behaviours. Or, it may be active feedback such as preference information given through member management pages, registration pages and customer surveys. These are a key opportunity to show respect for the customer’s email-based relationship.

One of the guaranteed customer ‘turn-offs’ are emails that don’t take into account the information a customer has already volunteered. If they said they live in New South Wales, why send them offers available only in another state? It doesn’t make sense, but as every email user knows, this is exactly what happens in many poorly conducted email campaigns. And it probably happens many times, since another key mistake is to overuse email. It’s definitely possible to have of too much of good thing.

In a recent UK survey customers described spam as any email “that arrives too often, even from a company I do business with”. It is vital to show respect for the customer relationship by communicating to them when appropriate and relevant. There can also be some risk in the choice email construction.

Colour and graphics, along with animation, are useful tools to highlight the message and call to action within the body content. Graphics are also necessary to communicate company brands and promote consistency with other marketing collateral. However, some go overboard with graphics, making the email too image heavy (and taking longer to download or even slowing down their own image server), taking up too much space with fancy headers and using images for the sake of making a message look pretty.

Animation, in particular, can also be tricky. Flash looks great but not everyone has the ability to view it – especially in corporate environments where their ability to run Flash or even load graphics, in some Lotus Notes configurations for instance, is restricted.

Again, it’s really a case of knowing the recipients and further more asking them what they want. Let them tell you when they register if they prefer text or html. Then follow through on this information so that customers get what they ask for. A poorly constructed email campaign has the same risks posed by too-frequent, un-tailored and misdirected messages. It’s not just a matter of failing to generate interest.

These pitfalls can actually harm a company’s ability to communicate with the customer in future. If a customer unsubscribes it can be very difficult to reach them again without follow up with telesales or via post.

Let’s take a moment to consider exactly what’s at stake. Remember, email offers one-to-one, personalised communication that’s highly trackable and has instant, measurable results. It is absolutely critical that companies improve their efforts in order to harness these benefits – they’re just too valuable to waste. Before clicking ‘send’ on the next campaign consider, are you using your message as a powerful tool, or taking a haphazard swipe with a double-edged sword?

*Paula O’Connell is the managing director of returnity, an Australian email marketing specialist.