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May 22, 2002

Time-Life's Email Marketer Reveals What Works (and What Doesn't)

SUMMARY: As Marketing Manager e-Commerce, Patricia Hader's been handling Time-Life's campaigns from the very beginning when they launched email marketing in late 2000. Now, in her first-ever, in-depth press interview, Hader frankly discusses: How Time-Life gathers opt-in email addresses, Reaching out to offline buyers; append & postcards, Dealing with deliverability problems, Details of campaigns and creative tests, Tips on coordinating with customer service. Note: This article includes creative samples of six different Time-Life email marketing campaigns, such as an append letter and pop-ups that work to gather opt-ins.
When we launched MarketingSherpa a couple of weeks ago, Patricia Hader was one of the very first readers to step forward and offer us her input and suggestions.

As Marketing Manager e-Commerce, Hader's been handling Time-Life's campaigns from the very beginning when they launched email marketing in late 2000. When we got her note, naturally our very next step was to whip back a reply, "Thanks, can we interview you?"

Hader graciously spent almost two hours with us, frankly discussing many aspects of Time-Life's email campaigns. Plus she shared six different creative samples (see link below) so you can get the full flavor of their campaigns, and maybe even steal some ideas.

-> How Time-Life gathers opt-in email addresses

Instead of just one single opt-in offer, the Time-Life Web site ( has offers to join the list "all over, just in case they don't see it the first time."

Although some of the join-our-list boxes are pre-checked (such as when you register to purchase for the first time), Hader hastens to say that, "It's not sneaky. It's not like we're trying to trap them into signing up. It's very visible." It is never required, always optional.

She first tested a sweeps pop-up to gather emails in Christmas 2001 (link to sample below). Again, joining the email list was not a prerequisite for entering the sweeps. As you might expect, the sweeps gathered a lot of names; however, contrary to Hader's expectations, those names ended up being very solid sales performers. "I'm very surprised, I figured people would enter their names just to be entered in the sweeps." But, they were pretty good buyers."

In the offline world, sweeps entrants are often the worst lists when it comes time to get people to buy things. Hader is not sure why her online sweeps entrants turned into such a profitable list, except that they were already shopping on her site, rather than on a 3rd party site, when they got the sweeps offer. She adds, "Maybe it was because they were our newest names for that period of time… otherwise I cannot explain why."

-> Reaching out to offline buyers - append & postcards

Like most marketers with big offline customer lists, Hader was very hopeful that email append (the process of running your postal list against a third party opt-in email file to garner customer's email addresses) would be a great source of names.

She tested append last year (see link to sample append note below) by asking IMatcher to run the program until they got 500 "good" names that did not bounce or opt-out when the confirmation note went out. (Hader notes that if she tries append again, next time she will probably require the note be opt-in versus opt-out.)

Unfortunately, email pitches sent to this list of confirmed prior offline buyers bombed. Hader says, "It wasn't successful. Perhaps they're not necessarily interested in hearing from Time-Life at this point. Another reason could have been we waited too long, I think two months, to email those names." Although, she adds that when she previously tested append with Naviant and emailed names "right away" results were also "disappointing."

Hader also tested sending a postcard to offline buyers in the regular mail offering them a 25% discount if they would come to buy on the site. This too, was not successful. "I'm not sure if they haven't got access to the Internet. It's hard to conclude why it didn't work." Undaunted, she is trying again with a second postcard test this month.

Last but not least, Time-Life operators are about to begin asking inbound phone orders if they would like to get email alerts, and the Company's printed catalogs now ask for email opt-ins on their order forms. Hader promises to share her notes on how this works later in the year.

-> Deliverability problems

Time-Life's biggest deliverability challenge is getting people to type in their email address correctly when they opt-in. "We have a lot of bounced email." AOL users are among the worst, entering addresses such as "a0l", "ao1", and "a2l".

Unfortunately this is not as easy to clean up as you might think. Hader explains, "It's a very sensitive privacy issue. What if somebody did it on purpose? You cannot clean up people's typing. It may not be the law, but it's a best practice."

To solve the problem, she is considering changing the opt-in form so people have to type their email twice. Although this means fewer people will opt-in, the current failure rate to new names is high enough that Hader believes she will net out more usable names in the long run.

Hader also worries about spam filters hurting her deliverability because many Time-Life email subject lines or messages include the word "Free" which is increasingly filtered for.

"I wonder how many people don’t get our emails because of filters at work."

-> Campaigns and creative tests

Hader's developed a standard biweekly campaign format: The Time-Life email alert system; that she keeps going throughout the year to the house list. (Creative samples at link below.)

Every two weeks the list gets an HTML message featuring an offer such as a time-dated discount or dollars off coupon. To take advantage of the offer, the recipient must go to the Web site and then copy and paste (or retype) their offer code in the order form. In week two, the list gets a text-only message briefly reminding them that their coupon is about to expire.

Creative tests have shown that no matter how outstanding the product offered, particular products (or even a selection of products) never get as high a response rate as an open coupon with a discount for whatever the shopper chooses at the site. Hader has, for the most part, ceased featuring particular products in her creative. "The closest we're coming now is offering deals for specific categories such as 20% off country music."

Someday she would like to personalize offers based on customer preferences, but it is just not an economic choice for her now with fewer than half a million names. She may start segmenting by older versus newer names soon just to test reactivation ideas to names who have not bought in a while.

Offer tests reveal that percent discounts "get xx% off" consistently win over dollar discounts "get $xx off." (Note: we have heard this from other marketers too, but it is probably not a rule for everyone.)

Hader continues to run dollars off offers, as well as test unusual offers such as a 24 hour sale and a free CD ROM for Mother's Day, because she worries that the same old, same old discount offer can not continue to perform well to the same list week after week.

She says, "Our open rates have been consistently between 40-50%, but now they're starting to decrease 5-10%. Our email vendor advised us that people are probably wearing out from the subject lines. So, you have to constantly test offers."

Sometimes Hader sends a text-only reminder email a week after the initial HTML campaign. This campaign generally gets a fairly good response rate, proving that you do not always need rich media bells and whistles to get your list to respond. "The simple things really work the best sometimes. You don't want to get too fancy."

Hader explains, "It goes back to 'just give me the coupon and I'll do what I want with it.' Also our creative shows more urgency if it's text. It's more official and formal if it's just text. Text email is more serious. HTML is advertising."

She has also tested the Cyberdrawer program to see if that would help response rates (coupon recipients can click on a link to save their coupon to a virtual drawer with coupons they've chosen to save from other mailers, then they are emailed reminders when coupons are about the expire).

This did not work nearly as well as Time-Life's own text email follow-up, probably because the whole Cyberdrawer idea is not ubiquitous among consumers (yet anyway).

-> Coordinating with customer service

Hader notes that it is very important to keep customer service, especially inbound telephone reps, fully in the loop about every email campaign and offer so they can help consumers who call in with concerns and questions.

She notes, "Since we work on the Internet all day, we're so savvy that we don't even think about how much people going to the Web really know."

Hader not only talks to customer service every single week and sends them emailed notifications prior to each campaign, she also sends them a weekly campaign reference spreadsheet. "It's got all the coupon codes we're using on the Internet, and there are hundreds of them. The spreadsheet shows codes, expiration dates, offers and where each promo is. So if someone calls in saying, 'I went to and saw your 20% offer but I can't remember what the code is' customer service can help them."

In return, the customer service team emails and instant messages Hader with customer comments and potential points of confusion in her marketing copy throughout the week. "You can pick up a lot of tips from comments they get from customers."

-> More tests

Aside from offer and creative, Hader is also testing the time of week emails are sent, the time of day, and just about everything else you could think of.

She says, "Our test quantity is always 25,000 names. We're constantly testing different things in every single mailing. That's important - test, test, test!"

As a final note, Hader says that she never takes test results as graven in stone. "It may not work for us, but it may work for somebody else. And, just because it hasn't worked for us now, maybe down the line we'll test it again."

SAMPLES: Click on link below to see samples of the following:
Time Life email marketing creative:
1. Email offer with album cover art
2. Email offer without cover art (worked better)
3. Text-only email offer reminder
4. IMatcher append request note
5. Standard pop-up to collect email
6. Sweeps pop-up & landing page
See Also:

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