Stop the Zzz-mails

Overcautious online advertisers are putting potential customers to sleep

There's an e-mail ad from Amazon.com Inc. (AMZN ) in my box. I haven't opened it, but I know what it says. By heart. "Dear Amazon.com customer. As someone who's purchased books in the past, you might be interested to learn blah blah blah zzz zzz."

I'm bored just thinking about it. And it's not only Amazon. There's a lot of caution going on in e-mail marketing these days. Advertisers, hoping not to offend customers who agree to receive their messages, have retreated to safe online communications: Repetitive scripts. Snoozer subject lines. Uninspiring offers.

THEIR SLIP IS SHOWING.

  Even marketers with offline moxie get shy in e-mail. On TV, Victoria's Secret has a provocative ad showing a scantily clad beauty doing a chair dance. The concurrent online campaign: "Shop now and save on Body by Victoria." My Sunday coupons have more sex appeal.

Marketers should be worried about my boredom, because I'm far from alone. Last year, 54% of consumers surveyed by Forrester Research Inc. said e-mail was a great way to find out about new products and services. In 2001, that number dropped to 43%. Last year, 21% said they deleted most e-mail ads without reading them. This year, it's up to 36%, and sales resulting from e-mail have fallen by half.

A lot of eyeballs are glazing over, says Forrester analyst Shar VanBoskirk. "There is room for more creativity," she adds. But most marketers don't get it. More than 70% of those using e-mail rely primarily on plain text.

GETTING PERSONAL.

  A few brave ones are trying to rise above the polite whisper. Take Reflect.com, an online beauty store. Instead of plain-vanilla e-mail, Reflect customers who abandon items in a virtual shopping cart get a note pushing that product, or even a picture of it with the shopper's name on the label. Reflect has always used e-mail ads. But the personalized e-mail pitches doubled the company's conversion rate of shoppers to buyers, says Hannelore Schmidt, Reflect's customer relations manager.

Other companies have seen similar responses to e-mail creativity. Restaurant-guide company Zagat Survey tripled its e-mail ad response rate by letting customers buy its books via a simple link in the e-mail. Drexel Heritage sent out a message with high-quality photography of its furniture and reaped a click-through rate of 21%--far better than the industry average of 5%. Other tactics might include interactive games or surveys, says Don Peppers, founding partner of customer relationship consultancy Peppers & Rogers Group. "You want to encourage a response, an interaction," he says. "Most companies are not scratching the surface of what's possible."

Advertisers should be careful to avoid overloading customers' computers and Net connections. The Direct Marketing Assn., the trade group for catalog companies, wandered into that minefield. The group sent out an e-mail promotion featuring music and full-motion video. Some recipients complained that the message set off security warnings and then crashed before delivering all of its information. That sort of experience keeps other potentially lively e-mail on the drawing boards.

A FINE LINE.

  Fairytale Brownies, a gourmet food seller, did an e-mail promotion linked to the hit movie Shrek. While the food company considered animation in the campaign, it settled for a still photo of the main character out of fear that it might annoy customers with older equipment, says President Eileen Spitalny. "We worry over the e-mails quite a bit. These are our best customers." You need to be careful, she says.

But not paralyzed. E-mail marketing is close to stalling in a state of dullness. You may have a great offer, a great message, a great product, but you won't get a nibble if your ad campaign is a snooze. Consumers will read intriguing e-mail. Marketers, though, shouldn't expect much from a safe, boring message. Don't be afraid to get our attention. It's better than a lullaby.

By Ellen Neuborne

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