Dialogue Redux

The thoughts expressed in today's column are from a valued colleague of mine, Jamie Schissler. Jamie is a director of e-mail strategy at I wanted to share his points about the two-way nature of e-mail, as I found them useful and thought-provoking. Jamie writes:

One of the most overused metaphors in marketing is the concept of e-mail as a dialogue. The metaphor is so pervasive that its original meaning is in danger of being lost. Let's get back to the roots of this metaphor and see how understanding the concept can make our programs better.

In e-mail terms, a dialogue with a consumer begins with the welcome strategy. The whole reason for developing a welcome strategy is to provide a mechanism with which to engage in a consumer-initiated conversation and to nurture the relationship. It's important to understand that this process is initiated by the consumer. Someone went to your Web site and was intrigued enough by your value proposition to give you an e-mail address and tell you who they are and where they live. Now, the ball is in your court.



Establishing an effective welcome strategy is easy if we think in terms of engaging in an actual face-to-face conversation--which is what a dialogue is all about, right? So let's look at the steps:

1.Introduction and Expectation: The consumer has seen your mass communications in print, banners, TV, and/or other channels. Now it's time for something more personal. An introduction is necessary, and timing is crucial. In a conventional conversation, you wouldn't let more than a few seconds pass before responding to someone who had introduced him or herself. The same holds true in e-mail. The key is immediacy. In the personalized welcome e-mail you send to the consumer immediately after successful registration, you'll want to thank her for her interest and restate the benefits she'll enjoy from this relationship, whatever that may be (content, rewards, convenience, savings, etc.). Additionally, here, and at every touch point, be sure not only to confirm and deliver on previously established expectations, but set new ones too. Few things are worse than a message that thanks the individual for her participation but leaves her guessing about what will happen next.

2.Asking & Listening: Imagine going to a cocktail party and seeing someone across the room. You might make some assumptions about who this person is based on his age and the clothes he wears. But despite Oscar Wilde's assertion that it's only shallow people who do not judge by appearance, you'll have to actually speak with him and ask some questions if you hope to understand anything about him beyond a few rudimentary assumptions. In the e-mail world, you can achieve this same result through surveys. Make some initial assumptions, if you want, but those assumptions should be tempered and adjusted by direct feedback. Begin asking questions and listening sooner rather than later, just as you would in a conversation with someone whom you'd like to know better. But you shouldn't feel you have to learn every single thing all at once. People don't like to feel as if they are being grilled, and if you push beyond ten or so questions, they'll walk away and leave you at the bar holding your cocktail, alone. Besides, if you appropriately establish expectations and deliver on them, you'll have plenty of opportunities to ask more questions down the line.

3. Observation: Actions speak louder than words. You've engaged the consumer via your welcome e-mail and gotten them to answer some questions. Now, what is their behavior like, and how do they interact with your brand? Do they read your newsletter? Do they download and redeem your coupons? Do they click through to check their balances? Through your e-mail reporting tools, find out who is reading what. Then respond accordingly, with targeted campaigns containing content that's based on both stated and observed behavior.

4. Community Building: So now you're targeting e-mails and offers based on preferences and behavior, and you have some folks who love what you are sending them and appreciate your brand. Leverage that goodwill and give them tools so they can tell their friends about your company and help build your network.

Unlike mass media, e-mail is a bi-directional form of communication. Whether or not you think of it as a literal dialogue isn't important, as long as you don't forget what it means to talk to your customers, listen, observe and respond appropriately.

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