According to a survey of CEOs of several of the world’s top technology companies, virtually everyone in the developed world will be in “constant connection” with the Internet by 2010.[1 ]The Internet doesn’t change the fundamental rules of marketing, but it does give us the capability to get better results from the old rules.
Since e-mail remains king of the Internet as the most commonly used function, it is worth stepping back to think about how e-mail can help us give customers greater power in the development of relationships. It’s not just a matter of how much is too much or how much e-mail customers will accept. It’s important to know the strengths and weaknesses of e-mail, how some companies are using it badly for CRM, how best to use it for CMR, and what cautions to take.
Anyone under thirty may find it hard to believe we haven’t always had e-mail. Back in 1968 when the U.S. Defense Department developed ARPANET, the precursor to the Internet, programmers and researchers could use a program called SNDMSG which allowed them to leave messages for each other, but the program was designed to allow the exchange of messages only between users who shared the same machine. In 1971 a computer engineer named Ray Tomlinson started playing around with SNDMSG seeking a way to transfer files among linked computers at remote locations. He chose the @ symbol to distinguish between messages addressed to the mailbox in the local machine and messages that were headed out onto the network. “Adding the missing piece was a no-brainer,” according to Tomlinson, “just a minor addition to the protocol. I used the @ sign to indicate that the user was ‘at’ some other host rather than being local.” By 1973, a study found that 75 percent of all traffic on ARPANET was e-mail. Asked what inspired his invention, his response comes back as undramatic as the event itself, “Mostly because it seemed like a neat idea. There was no directive to go forth and invent e-mail.”
Now, thanks to Tomlinson’s use of the @ sign we can send or receive personal and business related messages and, with the advent of Multipurpose Internet Mail Extension (MIME) and other encoding schemes, we can add attachments: pictures, formatted documents, even music and computer programs. When you send an e-mail message, your computer routes it to a Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP) server. The server looks at the e-mail address (similar to the address on a snail mail envelope), then forwards it to the recipient’s mail server, storing it until the addressee retrieves it. With the convenience of simplicity and speed, it’s no wonder e-mail has become the most popular service on the Internet.
E-mail offers a number of strengths for CMR customer communications. First, of course, it is inexpensive. And it’s quick and easy to use—in seconds you can send messages across time zones—and, in many cases, e-mail is a good way to get a reply quickly. You never get a busy signal when you send an e-mail—well, almost never. There are times when your customer’s mailbox may be full, but that’s rather rare. You never end up playing telephone tag. The ability to contact large numbers of customers with a single act opens new opportunities for efficiency (while, at the same time, calling for cautions). Finally, e-mail can facilitate the dialog that is so vital to CMR as the customer and the firm become involved in discussion. In a Direct Marketing Association study of e-mail practices by direct marketers, almost two-thirds of respondent companies said e-mail was their most effective customer retention tool.
On the downside, the participants in an e-mail discussion can be neither seen nor heard; social cues such as body language and tone of voice are absent, making it easy for people to make injudicious remarks. The American Heritage Book of English Usage gives this warning: “It’s hard to remember what sort of audience you are addressing when all you can see is text on a screen. There is no one sitting around a table. You cannot see people’s clothes. You miss their facial expressions and cannot tell what tone of voice they are using.” And this caution: “Because certain forms of e-mail are characterized by a rapid give-and-take that resembles conversation, they need to be more informal in tone than conventional print writing. As an insurance policy against a potential disaster, it seems a good practice to consider whether you would utter your remarks in a face-to-face meeting, and if not, why not. You must always do your best to ascertain who your audience is and to anticipate how your remarks may be taken.”
The rapid, conversational tone of e-mail correspondence has bred a raft of acronyms writers use to save keystrokes. Whereas things like BBL (Be Back Later), BTW (By The Way), and IMO (In My Opinion) are fine for conversation between close friends, it’s best in business correspondence to steer clear of all except those that are already common in the English language, e.g., FYI. Just as unorthodox for business mail are the e-mail visual conventions known as “emoticons” or “smileys.” It’s best to save your happy :-) and sad :-( graphics for notes to friends.
For anyone over thirty this may not sound like very important advice, but as more and more teenagers socialize online, middle school and high school teachers are increasingly seeing the breezy form of Internet English move into students’ formal written schoolwork. As one fifteen-year-old says, “You are so used to abbreviating things, you just start doing it unconsciously on school work and reports and other things.” Almost 60 percent of the online population under age seventeen use instant messaging, according to Nielsen/ NetRatings.
What you see when you are composing a message is not necessarily what your customer will see when opening your e-mail. The software and hardware you use for composing, downloading, and sending may be completely different from what your customer uses. There are still a large number of e-mail subscribers whose terminals do not have the word wrap feature to handle text lines longer than eighty characters, so it is advisable to be on the safe side and keep to 65–75 characters per line. Also, using HTML or Rich Text Format to add fancy fonts or colors can be risky. There are lots of folks who can’t handle messages in these formats, and your message could come through as gibberish, or even cause a computer crash. The simpler you can keep your text message, the more assurance you will have that the reader will see it as you meant it to be seen.
As an example, Charles Schwab has 4.2 million active online accounts and nearly 1 million active e-mail products subscribers. Eighty-two percent of all of their trades are conducted online. Schwab learned that AOL subscribers, who represent 28 percent—nearly 300,000—of their total e-mail Alerts subscriber base, were receiving an inferior version of their e-mails. The messages were being received completely unformatted and lacked any interactivity with Schwab’s website. Realizing the significant impact that this poor customer experience could have on their AOL users’ satisfaction, the company created a new message template that dynamically adjusts AOL formatted code to replicate the appearance of a plain text formatted e-mail. Schwab’s AOL e-mail users now receive e-mail alerts with top bar navigation, Schwab branding, clearly formatted layout, evenly spaced fonts and financial data tables, and hotlinked ticker symbols, improving the overall readability and interactivity of the e-mail alerts.
It is much more difficult to keep a list of e-mail addresses clean than it is with a postal address list. With Internet service providers constantly offering deals to get consumers to switch to their service (and some going out of business), the industry faces significant churn. Of the more than 100 million e-mail users in the United States, at least 20 million of those users change their e-mail addresses each year. Even though the cost of sending electronic messages is significantly cheaper than print mail (one to twenty-five cents versus one or two dollars), it is easy to waste money. More importantly, you can fail to reach important customers.
Experts advise diligence in processing inbound e-mail, undelivered mail, and all customer contacts to capture changed addresses; and always make it easy for customers to update their personal profile. Of course, if you are truly involved in CMR, your customers will care enough to see to it that you have their latest information.
It is amazing to find that in this day and age, some companies have still not realized how important their e-mail communications are. If your company is able to deal professionally with e-mail, it will provide you with an all-important competitive edge.
Bob Brand of the Newtown Bee in Newtown, Connecticut, offers additional e-mail advice that is important to keep in mind:
Use a heading and salutation: “I may get a message that starts off something like: ‘Juno has been sending out messages...’ Is this directed to me personally? Is it from an e-list? Is it junk e-mail? I can’t tell. When people send personal mail, I always like to see ‘Hi, Bob’ on the first line.”
Keep messages to one page or less, and don’t overquote: “This happens when someone sends a long message (more than a full screen of text) that I have read before and tacks on just a short comment at the very end. When replying to a message, it’s a good idea to carve out the major thoughts and insert your comments within these selected gems. By leaving the original message totally intact, the reply insults the originator with the notion that they forgot the message he sent you.”
Use correct spellings: “The extra time it takes to run a message through a spell checker is trivial. If I personally don’t know the sender of the message, frankly, I devalue the quality of messages containing misspellings.”
Use a short signature block: “Some subscribers to e-mail lists have large egos. They show little restraint when it comes to self-promotion. As a general rule, five lines should be considered an upper limit [for your personal information].”
Less is more. “For those people who take the time to compose tightly crafted epistles, the quality shines through.”
Avoid overusing HTML: “Have you noticed the increasing amounts of HTML (hypertext markup language) showing up in e-mail? This e-mail has a mirror of the original message but also contains extra imbedded tags because it is intended to be read with a browser like Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator. The sender is usually a raw beginner to the Internet and is using the browser for sending e-mail. I find that netsters using Microsoft Outlook are often the worst culprits. This problem is easy to fix. For Outlook users, click Tools\ Options\Mail Format. Change the setting from HTML to Plain Text. Simple.”
By educating your employees as to what can and cannot be said in an e-mail, you can protect your company from awkward liability issues. A website called Emailreplies.com offers the following advice on how employers can ensure that they are implemented.
Why do you need e-mail etiquette? A company needs to implement etiquette rules for the following three reasons:
Professionalism: By using proper e-mail language, your company will convey a professional image.
Efficiency: E-mails that get to the point are much more effective than poorly worded e-mails.
Protection from liability: Employee awareness of e-mail risks will protect your company from costly lawsuits.
How do you enforce e-mail etiquette? The first step is to create a written e-mail policy. This e-mail policy should include all of the do’s and don’ts concerning the use of the company’s e-mail system and should be distributed to all employees. Secondly, employees must be trained to fully understand the importance of e-mail etiquette. Finally, implementation of the rules can be monitored by using e-mail management software and e-mail response tools.
The Emailreplies.com website also provides more details on the thirty-one tips that appear on the following page, as well as links to sample e-mail policy, e-mail management software, and response tools. It’s worth a look.
Businesses that profess to be CRM marketers are violating these rules every day. Customers get tired of deleting irrelevant offers for books and flowers that clog their e-mail even though, in some cases, they have given firms permission to send them messages.
This brings us to the ugly subject of spam, or what some call “UCE,” unsolicited commercial e-mail—any e-mail sent to a recipient who did not request it, and who has no prior relationship with the sender.
[1 ] “Maybe This Internet Thing Is Going to Stick Around for a While, After All,” Newsbytes via COMTEX, December 6, 2001, p. 1.
Todd Campbell, “The First E-Mail Message,” PreText Magazine, pretext.com, March 1998, pp. 1–5.
 “Harness E-Mail: How it Works,” learnthenet.com, January 7, 2002, pp. 1–2.
 “E-Mail Helped Companies Grow in 2001: DMA Study,” Direct Newsline, April 4, 2002, p. 4.
The American Heritage Book of English Usage, 1996, Chapter 9, p. 2.
Ibid., pp. 3, 4.
Jennifer B. Lee, “A Different Type of English,” The San Diego Union- Tribune, September 23, 2002, p. E3.
Charles Schwab: Improving Customer Satisfaction for AOL E-Mail Users,” Quris, Inc., February 2001, p. 2.
Mark Elpers, “Managing Migrating Subscribers: Keeping Your E-Mail Lists Clean,” The DMA Interactive, April 1, 2002, p. 1.
Bob Brand, “E-Mail Pet Peeves,” thebee.com, November 2001, pp. 1–6.