The Winter Flu

When I was a kid I loved filling out the blow-in cards that came in the electronics magazines I was reading. I would dutifully check the boxes to receive information about electronics as a career, repairing TVs and radios from home, and other self-learning brochures. Pretty soon my parents' mailbox was filled with all sorts of direct mail pamphlets, and this continued through high school and long after I was in college.

That idea still exists today. Transplanted to email and the Internet, "Home Based Businesses" and "Online Education" courses are still one of the biggest email categories (from a volume standpoint). Of course, the idea of opting-out was unknown back when I was a kid: No one had come up with the idea to fill in the boxes on the cards for you and expect you to erase the ones you didn't want. Some companies still feel that a pure opt-in (rather than opt-out) is the best way to do business if you are in it for the long haul.

"Coupons and Free Samples" is one such company. They have a strict opt-in policy that forces you to consciously choose each offer that you sign up for, rather than unconsciously neglect to opt-out of offers you never wanted in the first place. In fact, they are so obsessed about being "one of the good guys" as Craig Rubinstein (one of the Coupons and Free Samples partners) put it, that they were concerned to read last week that I had received so much email from them within one week of opting-in (and in this case really opting-in) to receive their partners' offers.

Personally, I didn't think the number was that high - considering the number of offers I had opted-in to - but this wasn't good enough for them. They chalked up the excess email to a single partner with whom they no longer work. They may be right, because when I went back in and reseeded myself on their lists last week (again opting-in to receive ALL their partners' offers) I only received 20 offers over a four-day period, a significant reduction.

But good practices and reputable clients don't mean a thing if the emails are not effective. One of my main discoveries has been how clearly effective email marketing can be, at least from the standpoint of driving traffic to a marketer's web site.

In order to determine the effectiveness of a particular email campaign, we use tools like those provided by Hitwise, an Australian-based company with offices and operations in the U.S. as well. Hitwise aggregates web site traffic data provided by ISPs in order to rank individual sites by number of visits. By mapping Hitwise's click-stream rankings and market share data to our own Competitive Email Tracking System (CETS) data, we can often determine the percentage of site traffic that was driven by a particular email on any given day. We also get strong evidence of the relative importance of email in overall marketing campaigns, as you will see in the following example.

We decided to look at an ongoing Claritin Allergy Medicine sweepstakes campaign (an offer for a year's supply of Claritin). A well-designed HTML email promoted the sweepstakes on such email lists as PostMaster Direct,Endril, and Vendare Group and started showing up in our inbox on October 10th. Hitwise traffic numbers registered a dramatic spike in web site traffic to the Claritin site on that same day, with Claritin's ranking moving from 16,418 place on October 9th to 6,600 place on October 10th (i.e., Claritin went from Hitwise's 16,418th most visited web site to the 6,600th). On October 26th, their Hitwise ranking peaked at 1,439th place, and they had increased their market share ranking in their category (Pharmaceutical and Health Care Products) from 40th place to second (Market Share is defined in this case as the percentage of all Hitwise traffic in the Pharma and Health Care category going to Claritin). On October 26th Claritin's market share thus defined was 9.06%, meaning that more than 9% of all the Pharmaceutical Brand web site traffic was going to Claritin.

Although I'm sure that site traffic was generated by many marketing efforts in addition to the email we tracked, examining the click-stream data on the day that the Claritin site traffic peaked is illuminating. On October 26th, the day the campaigned peaked as far as Hitwise's ranking and market share data is concerned, the offer went out on a number of email lists, including I-Deal Direct's "HealthnMore" list. That day, HealthnMore was responsible for 51% of the Hitwise site traffic to the Claritin site. No-one else in the top 10 referrers to the site that day yielded more than 5% of the referrals.

MSN doesn't show up on the radar until 11th place with 0.76% of referrals, and Google and Yahoo! are not even in the top 20. It is clear that the email campaign through HealthnMore was the primary factor in increasing Claritin site visits that day.

So here are the caveats: I, of course, have no way of knowing what Claritin's media strategy was or is, or what the success has been as far as sign-ups and ROI. All of the data I sight has been pulled from third-party sources such as our CETS product and Hitwise. Claritin's own figures might differ dramatically. And there are a lot of questions I don't have answers for, including the reason why the I-deal Direct "HealthnMore" list seemed to pull so dramatically on Oct. 26th. Also October 26th was a Sunday. Did this have an impact on the final data, especially the jump in market share? These questions require further analysis: The kind of analysis we hope to provide you with in future installments of the Email Insider.

I'll be off for two weeks for the holidays, but I'll see you back here next year with even more inside information.

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