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May 08, 2003

Exclusive Michael Wexler Interview Part II: The Future of Email Marketing & Publishing

SUMMARY: This second half of our interview with email research king Michael Wexler features his insights into:
- The problem with requiring confirmed subscriptions
- Landing pages that convert more clicks
- Why does Hotmail kill your hotlinks at five minutes?
- The future of email: RSS?
e-Dialog's Michael Wexler has been researching email metrics and use ever since he worked for then-start-up Hotmail. Now, in Part II of our exclusive interview he shares insights on:

-> The problem with requiring confirmed subscriptions
-> Landing pages that convert more clicks
-> Why does Hotmail kill your hotlinks at five minutes?
-> The future of email: retro-Pointcast?

-> The problem with requiring confirmed subscriptions

Double opt-in is not only the politically correct way to gather email names, it is also being hailed by many list owners and list hosts as their salvation from blacklists. If you can prove you only ever mail to doubles then ISPs should be more willing to let your mail through.

Wexler agrees in a perfect world double is the way to go. However, he sees a drawback in reality.

"Tech savvy people know to expect that confirmation email, they expect to deal with it. But, many consumers don't understand. 'Am I on the list or not?' It's unclear to them."

Consumers figure if they signed up already, why should they have to confirm? No matter how much explanatory copy you write, for many people it just will not sink in.

Wexler's dream solution, "It would be nice if the industry agreed on a standard version where an obvious box showed in your email client saying 'You've signed up to this list at this address, simply click on the green light to agree to it.'"

In fact, industry groups are discussing something of that nature. The main hold up is "making sure spammers don't abuse it." You know they will try to.

In the meantime, if you are doing double, why not give your confirm request message the same Mom Usability Test that all sites should get? Have your mom sign up and see what she makes of it.

Chance are there is something you could do to your subject line, copy or graphics to improve confirmation response.

-> Landing pages that convert more clicks

Emailers are spending so much energy on subject lines, list issues and creative that they often end up tossing up a campaign landing page at the last minute almost as an afterthought.

Your campaign investment is wasted if your landing page is not designed to encourage maximum conversions. Wexler's tips:

o If you are mailing more than one creative, avoid having everyone click to one general landing page. Instead create several tailored versions (these can be dynamically generated based on the link they click through).

o Reiterate the offer. Some landing pages just have a logo and a form to fill out. The visitor wants to be reassured they are in the right place, and may need to be re-sold on the reason why they should fill out the form they are confronted with.

o Make response forms as easy to fill out as possible. Too many drop-down boxes are hard (in fact some Net newbies do not understand how to use drop downs). Make it easy to move between questions with the tab key. If the visitor already has a relationship with you, pre-populate parts of the form for them so they do not have to type again.

o Give visitors a good reason for every piece of personal data you are asking for, especially age, phone, and income. Wexler says you would be surprised at how willing consumers are to reveal information, once you have told them why you are asking for it.

If you are asking for birthday or age because you are worried about minors responding, state it clearly. "Kids and parents understand that, and they are willing to give that information when we explained why we were asking for it."

o If your system is checking for common email errors, such as forgetting the @ symbol in address, copywrite a consumer-friendly error note instead of using an error note written by a techie. Wexler suggests, "We're not sure your email is entirely correct. Could you check and make sure? Thanks."

o Leave your landing page up for a long time. Just because the majority of email responses come within 24 hours does not mean you will not also get response days, weeks or even months later as well. If your campaign deadline is past, at least redirect that traffic to a friendly page perhaps an explanatory note and another offer. Do not leave clicks hanging in dead air.

-> Why does Hotmail kill your hotlinks at five minutes?

Hotmail's 4:59 minute link timeout policy has annoyed mailers for years now. (As we have reported in the past, your links do not work when clicked on after a recipient has held your message open longer than that time period.)

Wexler explains, "The five minute timeout is due to people not logging out, which is a huge problem across the world. Some folks at Hotmail argued it should be one minute, but five minutes seemed to be a good compromise."

Luckily, according to his and other mailers' research data, many Hotmail recipients understand the link problems are due to Hotmail and not the mailer. They have learned to cut and paste links directly into their browsers instead.

This trend is exacerbated by the loathing many Hotmail users feel toward the Hotmail header on opened link pages.

"The page header and redirected links really annoy users," notes Wexler. "[Hotmail headers] cause redirected pages to operate defectively in many sites. Additionally you can't bookmark the resulting page because of all the Hotmail junk around it."

"So users learn not to click, and just copy and paste where they can."

This user trend means your email has to have cut-and-pasteable links with complete URLs visible, not just hotlinked words and graphics.

It also means your clickstream analysis for campaigns sent to Hotmail users may be incorrect. Perhaps you should get reports on Hotmail users separated out from the rest of your list?

-> The future of email: Retro-Pointcast?

To everyone who is fretting that email results are being crushed by bulk mail overload, Wexler reiterates that his data shows if you send highly relevant messages to people, they will open, they will read, they will click.

Response rates are *not* plummeting the way you might expect. There is a "slight decline," but email is not death-on-a-stick by a long shot.

Wexler also has soothing words for marketers and publishers who are worried about newer versions of Outlook. Two main concerns many voice these days are:

- Outlook 2002 and above users can not post a form (though forms coded as "get" will still work) which means your subscribe boxes, surveys or order forms embedded in emails may not work.

- The newest version of Outlook, which is currently in Beta and scheduled for public release this Summer, is set to display messages in the Preview Panel without images. Your HTML message may look pretty weird for users who like to view in Preview. (Although this may help make your open counts more accurate.)

However, Wexler does not expect corporate America to upgrade to new Outlook versions quickly or wholeheartedly. In fact he named two Fortune 500 companies still using Office 97, that "are not ready to upgrade."

Mailers have breathing space.

In the meantime, Wexler's most excited about potential workarounds that could replace broadcast email and all its attendant delivery problems.

"There are already RSS feeds for Blogs. Instead of publishing to an email box, they publish a channel and an RSS aggregator sucks down the headlines of interest to readers," he says excitedly.

"I imagine you could subscribe to a newsfeed of your interests and the headlines would be customized to you. Instead of sending eight million emails, publishers would establish a feed and people would add the feed to their reader or desktop. Certainly sending sales alerts and customer service email could be subsumed by it."

"You'd need a very clear way to control the mail you get, such as check boxes by mailer. You wouldn't have to worry about spam in this feed because you would only add feeds that you're interested in."

Currently RSS does not allow that level of individual recipient selection, but there are industry groups working on it.

In the meantime, some publishers, such as Entertainment Tonight's site, are creating their own direct-to-desktop feeds that bypass email. Either they build it themselves or use tech from several eager start-ups in the field.

However, Wexler strongly recommends publishers work together on a common solution, rather than expecting consumers to download a separate application for each service. In the end, it should be like having a single email box that you can surf and sort all of your incoming feeds in, instead of a bunch of disparate icons competing for space on your desktop.

How realistic is this vision? The future may be closer than you think. In fact we are working to bring you a special report on RSS feeds this Summer.

In the meantime, Wexler says, "I prefer not to think of myself as an emailer. We're sending interactive messaging that drives appropriate behaviors."

* Link to Part I of this interview
The Time of Day Myth, Segmentation & Best From Address: Email Researcher Shares Tips
See Also:

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