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Inbox Engagement

Before the launch of Facebook in 2004, and before such words as "Tweeples" and "Retweet" entered common vernacular, there was e-mail. And while it is still debatable whether social networking sites are a fad or the next big thing in digital marketing, e-mail remains a unique asset for any business wishing to connect with its customers.

"E-mail marketing is experiencing a renaissance as we head into the next decade. Technology trends are only making e-mail more important in people's daily lives, not less," said Deirdre Baird, president and CEO of Pivotal Veracity, an independent e-mail delivery auditing and optimization firm.

For retailers, e-mail has advantages over traditional marketing efforts. "What makes e-mail special is that it's a hybrid -- part direct marketing, but also part interactive," said Baird. "With e-mail, you get all the best of interactive advertising, but couple that with a foundation of customer data that can facilitate true one-to-one communication."

And unlike other online marketing mediums, "people still send e-mail and more importantly, they respond to it. Oftentimes, when on social networking, messages tend to get buried," explained Peter Prestipino, editor-in-chief of Website Magazine. "[E-mail] is a very powerful tool, and should not be ignored."

E-mail marketing can take several forms, including transactional marketing messages or ongoing messaging. Because of this, it is imperative retailers determine how their communication strategy can utilize e-mail as part of an overall business plan, according to Prestipino.

For some convenience store retailers such as Speedway SuperAmerica (SSA), e-mail marketing efforts go hand-in-hand with loyalty programs.

Enon, Ohio-based SSA connects e-mail marketing with its Speedy Rewards loyalty program. Through permission-based e-mail messages, loyalty customers receive information on their points balance. Points are earned when making purchases at SSA stores, and can be used to receive free items and discounts.

During a session on digital marketing at the 2009 NACS Show, held last year in Las Vegas, SSA's manager of customer relationships, Christi Frizzell, detailed how the retailer developed a business case for its digital marketing initiatives. Digital marketing is "an opportunity in the world of shrinking budgets, as we're challenged to connect and build the brand outside of traditional mediums," she explained.

SSA delved into e-mail marketing a little more than a year ago. "It extends the conversation beyond the store transaction, and does not put the burden [of communication] just on the cashier," Frizzell said. "It is difficult to engage customers beyond their functional needs in a short store visit. We utilize [digital] mediums to connect in a low-cost, meaningful way, so customers look at our store beyond just a place to shop."

Acknowledging the sophistication of SSA's Speedy Rewards program, Website Magazine's Prestipino said it's "important to push the loyalty projects and practices, and being able to keep customers informed is the best part of e-mail."

He added: "The beauty of e-mail is it's not an acquisition tool, it's a maintenance tool. Ideally a [customer] acquisition is perfect, but in reality there's years of maintenance and trust building, which is the key to any good relationship. E-mail gives you that."

Knowledge is Power
Customization and personalization is another strength of e-mail marketing. "One of the most powerful things about e-mail -- especially for retailers -- is that you can match offers with individuals based on a combination of their self-reported and observed Web site activity preferences," explained Baird.

It is this strength that La Crosse, Wis.-based Kwik Trip Inc. harnesses through its e-mail marketing program, which has been in operation since August 2007. The convenience store chain utilizes a variety of e-mail types, including informational messages, discounts and coupons, and even holiday greetings, said Brenda Waldera, marketing program manager, who handles the initiative for the chain.

Coupons sent through the e-mail program, which was developed in-house, are based on demographic data established when a subscriber signs up. In addition to a person's birthday and zip code, Kwik Trip asks what types of coupons customers would like to receive for offerings such as gas, milk, bakery/bread, hot beverages, hot foods, tobacco, candy and many more.

The top coupon choices for customers are gas, at 95 percent of subscribers, and milk, at a little more than 86 percent, according to Waldera.

And through a new lifestyle initiative, the personalization can go a step further. Kwik Trip recently surveyed its subscriber list to determine their hobbies and interests, allowing the chain in the future to tie its offers directly to customers' likes.

"We can send an e-mail to hunters saying hunting season is here, pick up these items. Or if there's a craft show in an area, we can pull [craft enthusiasts] in that zip code and send them an e-mail about it," she explained. "It gives us another reason to reach [out to] customers. It shows we know their interests, and usually it's a hotter coupon because we can tailor it down to less people."

The goal of Kwik Trip's e-mail marketing program is to drive people into its stores and increase sales, she said. Redemption rates average 27 percent, and two popular offers are 50 cents off a gallon of milk, and a free cookie -- the latter averages a 65 percent redemption rate, according to Waldera.

Like Kwik Trip, "thousands of retailers have come to learn that customers' e-mail addresses are gold. With them, they have the opportunity to build one-to-one relationships with customers on a foundation of data," said Baird.

But personalization is not a prerequisite for success in e-mail marketing. Whitehouse Station, N.J.-based Quick Chek Food Stores has sent out one to two e-mail newsletters per month since April 2008, focusing on promotions and coupons, as well as informational newsletters, said John Schaninger, vice president of sales and marketing for the retailer.

While the company does not currently use personalization in its newsletters, e-mail coupons have the "strongest redemption of all coupon types," and the offers that work the best are for free items, he said.

The retailer chose to use e-mail marketing to reach its customers one-on-one, he added, noting the goal of Quick Chek's e-mail program is to reward loyal customers and foster brand interaction.

However, e-mail marketing is not the chain's sole digital marketing effort. Quick Chek also uses social networks Twitter and Facebook, and Schaninger noted e-mail works in conjunction with these outlets, which is a best practice for digital marketing, according to online experts.

"There isn't one marketing channel that reigns supreme," Baird said.

Before diving into e-mail marketing, retailers should analyze what each element of an e-mail message should be designed to achieve individually and in aggregate, Website Magazine's Prestipino recommended.

"Understanding how businesses can apply the technology to achieve what they want is really the most important thing. Technology is but a tool, it's nothing more than that," Prestipino said.
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