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The Green Sheet Online Edition

October 13, 2008 • Issue 08:10:01

When the pen is mightier than e-mail

By Biff Matthews
CardWare International

In two decades, business e-mail has evolved from novelty to mission-critical tool to near-pariah. The increased use of text messaging - which combined with spam is now estimated at 40 billion units per day worldwide out of 97 billion total e-mails sent - has eroded the status e-mail once held as the favored tool for communications to both consumer and business.

As a new business development tool, e-mail has sunk in stature for several reasons: high message volumes, the hazards of pfishing, inappropriate content and management's attempt to limit wasted work hours. The cheapness, speed and ease that were e-mail's building blocks are today its most potent detractors.

One answer is white listing, a process that enables e-mail from specified e-mail addresses or domains to bypass blocking programs.

I'd suggest, however, that a better answer for companies that want to use e-mail for new customer development is permission marketing, a term coined by Seth Godin in his book Permission Marketing: Turning Strangers into Friends and Friends into Customers.

The ocean blue

Permission marketing is the triumph of value over volume. Frequent flyer and hotel loyalty programs are good examples of permission marketing. You express interest and, as part of the process, agree to accept future communications. A bond is established that sets the sender - and the receiver - apart from the general din. That's workable and can be part of a broad campaign.

However, I believe what's called for today is "blue ocean" thinking. The "Blue Ocean Strategy, a concept introduced by authors W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne in the book of the same name, advocates you go where your competitors are not. For example, your competition may be furiously e-mailing. Smarter competitors are doing permission marketing. Almost no one now, however, is doing the proven (and resurgent) basics.

Postcards and letters are neither new nor sexy. They are terribly low-tech. But used properly, they can be powerful for the simple reason that the in-box value equation has morphed. A cleanly targeted, persuasive letter has more perceived value than obvious mass e-mail.

Postcards and letters are not low cost, and they don't look low cost. What they are is personal, and tangible. To do them well, writers have to understand and intelligently address targeted recipients and their interests.

Do this, and you can make a powerful impact. Letters will distinguish you and your product. Think fewer, better targets, and qualify them individually: Seek only legitimate decision-makers.

Think big

When target numbers are large, certain techniques can lower your unit costs substantially. By using a print house in New York for New England mailings, one in Atlanta for the South and one in Chicago for the Midwest, you can enjoy bulk rates, achieve delivery quicker and have mailings received in better condition. Include individual signing, and the impact is both personal and professional.

Small ISOs or merchant level salespeople (MLSs) can create templates and mail individually, or on a schedule, so follow-up calls can be made on a timetable.

Invitations to call for a free analysis or other incentives are highly effective in this environment. The key is to make your point quickly, and ask for an action - or at minimum, pave the way for your phone follow-up. Then seek e-mail permission to fax or e-mail future correspondence offering products, services or information of interest to the merchant.

Personal experience

Each month, we at CardWare send out a business digest consisting of a single page and minimal text. It always addresses a subject of widespread interest. It is never blatantly promotional. The source of the information is always clearly indicated. The digest has enjoyed high readability among our select distribution list because, we believe, it respects the readers' time and intelligence.

We fax, rather than e-mail these digests. The brevity and regularity of this consistently formatted material is accepted rather than discarded by office gatekeepers. It is transmitted early in the morning, when rates are low, before employees arrive at their desks. This timing also boosts receptiveness.

A regular, single-page newsletter accomplishes the same thing. Whether tailored to discuss a particular industry or business, this can be a powerful tool for promoting a range of ideas, services and products - without doing so blatantly.

For ISOs and MLSs who want the credibility of a newsletter but don't have the time or inclination to write one, services can do this for you, customizing newsletters appropriately to your target lists. You can also partner with someone who has industry relevance, such as a webinar producer. (One offer could be a webinar on retail POS systems.) The resulting logins become your permission for future communications.

Fax trumps e-mail

Remember, e-mail is of little value as a marketing tool unless you are a trusted sender. Fax is preferable to e-mail, but widespread abuses of faxing have legislated it away. To earn "trusted partner" status with fax recipients, persuade them to fax or e-mail you first. This action creates the loose business relationship needed for your fax to be considered legitimate. Today, with everyone awash in electronic junk, standard mail has come full circle. Hard copy snail mail has far greater impact. Use this medium first. Then get permission to communicate using other means.

Three rules

Following are three guidelines for using correspondence to achieve top-notch marketing results.

  1. When using snail mail, it is a good investment to arrange for legible, handwritten addresses. An envelope's appearance is your prospect's first impression. A potential customer will not assign value to correspondence sloppily addressed, and the decision to open or discard that piece of mail may turn on that alone.

  2. It's better to do nothing than to do something poorly. A business associate in Cincinnati bought a new Mercedes. The thank you note sent by the dealership to the new car owner was addressed (by machine) to the person's last name, then part of the company name (Dear Smith ABC Co.)

    The recipient considered the letter annoying and hopelessly tacky - and said so. She also expressed concern that the service on her new car would be performed by a company that apparently didn't care enough about detail to address a customer intelligently or check its work before mailing it. (Ouch.)

  3. Be rigorous about quality control. Shortly, I will have a discussion with our local vocational school about its e-mails, particularly one that I received 20 times in three days. Annoyance aside, I believed the content would be of interest to our general manager. Unfortunately, something in the e-mail's format disallowed forwarding - or printing.

    The problem with quality control is not unusual. But it is inexcusable, given the school's emphasis on computer science - and marketing. As with many communications that are done without careful preparation or attention to detail, this one likely cost the school responses it wanted, as well as goodwill.

So, I hope next time you think of dashing off an e-mail to your client base or prospect list, you will consider whether you might attain better results by communicating with targeted individuals the old-fashioned, snail mail way. end of article

Biff Matthews is President of Thirteen Inc., the parent company of CardWare International, based in Heath, Ohio. He is one of 12 founding members of the Electronic Transactions Association, serving on its board, advisory board and committees. Call him at 740-522-2150, or e-mail him at biff@13-inc.com.

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