Reprinted with permission from "The Power of E-marketing," EXPO, January 2002, pp.34–37. Copyright 2002 EXPO Magazine, Overland Park, Kan.

The weeks leading up to the New York City-based Direct Marketing Association’s annual meeting, Oct. 28–31, 2001, at McCormick Place, Chicago, were undeniably the worst weeks in U.S. exhibition industry history. If events weren’t cancelled or postponed, they suffered unprecedented attrition. The DMA forged ahead with its 84th Annual Conference & Exhibition, which last year drew an estimated 15,000 attendees, but an e-mail marketing blitz was the only way to get people there.

“We went out with some incredible offers,” says Lesa Semaya, Vice President of Marketing for The DMA, which used a series of e-mails sent between July and October to complement direct mail promotions. “Given the time frame between 9/11 and the event, the only way to communicate was by e-mail. It was very effective for us.” From free airfare to Amtrak tickets, the incentives enticed people to travel when they could easily have stayed home.

At a time when world events conspire to curtail attendance at non-essential meetings, show organizers need to market smart. E-mail marketing is now being widely touted as just what you need to boost attendee registrations and booth sales.

Personalized e-mail messages cost less to send and get a higher response rate than direct mail promotions. A carefully crafted e-mail campaign can talk prospects through just about any purchase — from an early-bird registration package to a post-conference getaway. Using industry best practices and making an offer prospects can’t refuse, e-mail campaigns pull.

The trend

According to eMarketer, a New York-based firm that provides aggregated statistics, trends and analysis about e-business, e-mail is emerging as not just cheaper and faster, but safer than other direct marketing tools. The eMail Marketing Report (New York: eMarketer, May 2001) estimates the average cost per opt-in e-mail message is $0.20, compared to $0.75–$2.00 for direct mail and $1.00–$3.00 for telemarketing.

More important than the low cost to send a message is the response it receives. Although an e-mail’s click-through rate (CTR) depends on the nature of the offer, the target audience, the type and quality of the list, and the skill of the campaign execution, eMarketer maintains that e-mail outperforms all other media. Estimates range from a conservative 3.2 percent average CTR, a high-end estimate of 16.4 percent. Personalization improves response rates by 8 percent. In contrast, traditional direct mail generates response rates of less than 2 percent, according to Sales and Marketing (SAM) Magazine.

In every instance, response from house lists exceeds that from rented lists. Forester Research found that average CTR for an in-house list is 10 percent, compared to 3.5 percent for a rented list. “It’s always better to use an in-house list if you’ve got it,” advises eMarketer Analyst Jonathan Jackson, author of the May report. “If haven’t got an in-house list built, you’d better start with an acquisition campaign and go from there.”

A customer acquisition campaign can be costly but worth it. According to IMT Strategies, the cost of an e-mail message can range from $1.13 for retention objectives to $20.00 for acquisition objectives. Compared to the cost of a direct mail piece — from $26.66 to $50.00, respectively — e-mail offers a higher return on investment (ROI) for acquiring customers.

E-mail also shortens the sales cycle. While it may take six to eight weeks to receive a response to a traditional direct marketing campaign, 80 percent of e-mail marketing campaigns are responded to within 48 hours, according to Jupiter Research. “The short time to market allows marketers to test multiple messages and adjust the offer, the creative end or the segmentation for optimal results,” eMarketer reports.

Because it is a cost-effective way to reach a highly targeted audience, e-mail use is on the rise among direct marketers. In 2000, e-mail ranked second after direct mail among the top direct marketing methods used by Direct Magazine readers. SAM Magazine reports that 22 percent of marketers spent more than 5 percent of their budgets on e-mail marketing in 2001. Forrester Research projects that e-mail marketing expenditures will triple between 1999 and 2004.

What do the numbers mean for conventions and exhibitions? As e-mail marketing becomes a bigger piece of the direct marketing pie, “the invitation comes by email not brochure,” says Jackson. “It’s definitely cost effective. You’re getting great response rates from people who are willing to accept solicitations that way.” Moreover, in light of the recent anthrax activities, using e-mail reduces the risk that a marketing message won’t be received and lightens the postal load during these troubled times.

How to e-market

The single most important factor in the success of an e-mail marketing campaign is the offer, according to Jackson. And the best way make that offer appealing is to personalize the e-mail message. To craft a personalized e-mail marketing campaign, you need an up-to-date database that captures buying preferences and other information about recipients, a message that compels the recipient to act, and a reporting system that allows you to tweak the campaign based on individual responses.

“E-mail marketing is not just trying to market something,” says Reggie Aggarwal, Founder and CEO of Arlington, VA-based Cvent, provider of online registration, e-marketing and data analysis. “It’s trying to understand your clientele so you can throw better events.”

Capturing personal preferences

Building your house list is the first priority. Kim MacPherson, President and Founder of e-mail marketing agency Inbox Interactive, Bethesda, MD, recommends asking for e-mail addresses at every opportunity and requesting permission to send announcements via e-mail. Make e-mail a required field in online forms, then add a check box to accept mailings. Each subsequent e-mail message should remind recipients that they opted to receive the mailing and offer a way to opt out.

Viral marketing is one way to rapidly build a house list. By asking recipients to forward the e-mail to friends and colleagues, you get your customers to spread your marketing message. Jupiter claims 81 percent of people who receive viral messages pass them on to at least one other person, and nearly half pass them on to two or more people. With the right incentive, the new recipients will opt to join your distribution list.

When prospects opt-in, Cvent recommends collecting two types of information: data generated based on behaviors and actions, such as when a registered attendee navigates the show Web site; and data supplied through responses and interactions, such as when a prospective attendee completes an online survey. Incentives such as discounts for registered users can increase participation. Be sure to state your organization’s privacy policy at the data collection point, revealing how personal information is used and with whom it is shared. (See for privacy policy guidelines.) Once the data is gathered, create a password-protected area on your Web site where users can update their information.

Armed with this data, you can segment your list into categories and create customized messages for each group. “It gives you insight into you customers and helps you turn a no into a yes,” Aggarwal says.

Creating a compelling message

To be truly compelling, an e-mail message must engage the recipient in a conversation about his or her wants and needs, according to the Forrester Report, Effective Email Marketing (Cambridge, MA: Forrester Research, August 2001). These conversations guide recipients through the purchasing process.

Personalizing the pitch makes the conversation flow. It begins with a one-to-one e-mail with individual names in the “to” and “from” lines and at least three or four personal details in the message. For example, the message may have a personal greeting and demonstrate knowledge of who the recipient works for, where the recipient is located and whether or not the recipient participated in the last event.

“All four of those points drive home that this is a personal e-mail,” says Aggarwal. “When that happens, they’re more likely to read it.” Recipients first read e-mails from friends and family, then colleagues, then the groups they belong to, then unsolicited e-mail (if at all). Personalization cuts through in-box clutter by raising the message in the hierarchy of trust.

Customize the offer to the target audience and compel the recipient to act: click a link, call a toll-free number, e-mail a customer service representative. Response rates rise with incentives such as discounts for online registrations, early-bird specials or special offers for first-time registrants.

Blasting the same message to all recipients isn’t always bad, according to MacPherson. JCPenney’s strategy is to send one message to all customers, then follow-up with customized messages — offering an incentive to those who didn’t respond, and cross-selling or up-selling to those who did. “You can impact your results and ROI by doing a more targeted, customized and personalized campaign,” she says. “We’re seeing double-digit response rates.”

Tweaking the campaign

Testing what works with your target audience boosts the end results. Do recipients respond to text, HTML or rich media? What day of the week is best for reading e-mail? How often is too often? “Test everything, especially in the beginning,” MacPherson advises.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that HTML e-mail messages get two to three times higher response rates than plain text, according to eMarketer, but HTML takes longer to download. Experienced e-mail users may actually prefer text. “There’s a ‘Wow!’ factor when you’re first getting online,” Jackson says. “You love HTMLs because they’re fun to see. Then you get cranky because you get 20 of them a day, and you want to read them quickly.”

Forrester reports only 9 percent of marketers are trying rich media, the Super Bowl ad of e-mail marketing, but 30 percent will use it by 2003. Prohibitive costs and recipients’ inability to view an audio and/or video message may make this format impractical. But by sending multiple formats and using sniffing technology, you can detect which format is readable and serve the one that matches each recipient’s capabilities.

Timing is crucial. According to eMarketer, mid-week deployment, timed to arrive in the recipient’s inbox right after lunch, produces the best results. As a rule of thumb, send no more than one e-mail a week. Forrester suggests that the more personal the conversation, the fewer message are needed to achieve the same or better conversion rate.  

When you tweak your campaign strategy, segment your list and test one thing at a time: subject line, offer, message, format, day of week and frequency. For each test, track how many recipients respond, how many don’t respond and how many unsubscribe. The unsubscribe rate should be less than 2 percent. “If it’s more than that, you’re sending it too often, or you’re not hitting their hot buttons,” MacPherson says.

Off-target or too-frequent e-mails break down trusting customer relationships. Aggarwal cautions: “Once you abuse your customer relationship with e-mail, it’s very difficult to get it back.”

Case study: The DMA

Representing the $1.86 trillion a year multimedia industry for direct and interactive marketing, The DMA used an e-mail marketing campaign in combination with direct mail, telemarketing and broadcast fax to promote attendance at its annual meeting in October.

The campaign launched 14 weeks out from the conference in conjunction with a third-class mailing. The goal of this first wave was to drive recipients to the conference Web site ( for a $100 early-bird discount. About 135,000 members and prospects on The DMA house list received the direct mail piece, and 21,121 of those also received e-mail.

The e-mail targeted five categories of recipients — B2B, catalog, creative, past delegates and general — with a message tailored to each. Priority codes tracked registrants to their e-mail source, and the discount offer expired eight days after e-mail delivery as an incentive to act quickly.

The DMA deployed three versions of the e-mail: a rich media message produced for free by Pentastel Technologies, Delray Beach, FL, that auto-launched an audio invitation from The DMA president; an HTML version with a link to play a streaming audio message; and a text version with a prompt to click the link. A sniffer delivered the format that matched recipients’ capabilities. All three versions invited recipients to register via the conference Web site, forward the message to a friend, or opt-out of future mailings.

Of the 23,515 e-mails sent, less than 10 percent were undeliverable. (The industry average is 20 percent.)

The average recipient who successfully opened the message viewed it twice, 204 forwarded the message, 23 opted out and 39 recipients registered — a .18 percent conversion rate.

“I was pleased with these results,” says Semaya. “Our goal was for 60 percent of recipients to view the message and 30 percent to interact. We had 96 percent view the message and 51 percent interact with it.

Subsequent e-mails in text format went out once a week to The DMA members. Although she couldn’t track response without a dedicated landing page for registrants responding to e-mails, Semaya says these campaigns were profitable.

The DMA forged ahead with its annual meeting despite the tragic events that preceded it. A post-9/11 push went to all 40,000 in The DMA’s database with an offer of free airfare to anyone traveling in the continental United States and Canada and staying through Saturday. Non-Saturday stays could get 50 percent off airfare. The initial offer expired on October 5th then was extended to the 12th.

“A substantial number of people took advantage of the offer,” says Semaya. Although The DMA policy prohibits revealing pre- and post-conference attendance figures, she confirms that, without the integrated marketing campaign, the numbers would have been worse. Given the success of the e-mail component, “e-mail will play an even greater role next year, especially now with the anthrax scare.”

The future

E-mail marketing presents great opportunity as well as significant risk, including privacy violations, e-mail saturation and unwitting spam, according to eMarketer. But by implementing an integrated campaign that reflects best practices in direct marketing, show managers can avoid the pitfalls and succeed in boosting campaign response.

“I’ll guarantee you’ll always get a better response through e-mail, and the cost savings will be anywhere between 50 and 90 percent,” says Cvent’s Aggarwal. With an eye on the bottom line in a down economy, show managers may see the potential for cost savings and safer, speedier marketing message delivery as an incentive to become e-marketers.

Cathy Chatfield-Taylor covers technology solutions for business and industry. E-mail This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Best practices in e-mail marketing

At the core of successful e-mail marketing is a trusting relationship between sender and recipient. To preserve that trust, Kim MacPherson, author of Permission-Based E-Mail Marketing That Works! (Chicago: Dearborn Trade, 2001) recommends these best practices:

  • Make it easy to unsubscribe. When you send prospects e-mail, include an unsubscribe tagline somewhere in the body of every message.

  • Link to your privacy policy. At the bottom of every e-mail, post a link for recipients to view your privacy policy. This also gets them back to your site.

  • Be up front. If you’ve made a change to your information collection procedures, notify the people on your list. It is not the disclosure, but rather the lack thereof, that can get you into trouble.

  • Tell them who you are. You can have an incredibly compelling subject line and an offer that is out of this world, but if recipients don’t know who the sender is, they may not read your e-mail. Make the offer and the introduction at the same time.

  • Address who they are. It doesn’t mean you need to address them by name. Often, this can be accomplished in the salutation, as in “Dear Savvy Investor.”

  • Tell them why you’re e-mailing them. Make your purpose crystal clear from the beginning. Don’t attempt to hide the fact the you’re trying to sell them something.

  • Speak in their terms. You know who your audience is at a demographic, geographic and possibly even psychographic level. Carry that knowledge through to your message.

  • Construct good copy. It should include most if not all of these components:

— The greeting (your subject line), to tantalize;

— The promise, to alert the reader about what’s coming;

— The tease, to draw the reader further into the message;

— Features and benefits, directed to the reader, the target audience;

— Your unique selling proposition (USP), what sets you apart from the competition;

— The answer to the promise, how you’ll live up to expectations; and

— The final close, wrapping up the offer, benefits, USP and why you have the best solution. Ask for a response.

  • Design for quick downloading. Keep your overall file size, including HTML file and graphics, to less than 20 kilobytes.

  • Link everything. Embed a link into every call to action.

  • Optimize your database. Splitting your house file and sending unique messages can increase click-through rates 3 to 4 percent.

  • Customize the landing page. You will achieve a much higher conversion rate if you direct people to a custom-created Web page that is specific to your e-mail offer and message.

Excerpted with permission from Permission-Based E-Mail Marketing That Works! by Kim MacPherson. Copyright 2001, Dearborn Financial Publishing Inc.

E-jargon defined

acquisition — The process of acquiring new prospects from a rented list.

click-through rate (CTR) — Calculated by dividing the number of click-throughs by the number of e-mails delivered.

conversion — Turning prospects into customers.

customization — Crafting an e-mail message to appeal to a specific target market segment.

e-mail conversation — An ongoing series of e-mails tailored to customers’ preferences and sequenced to guide them through the purchasing process.

e-mail marketing —The use of text, HTML or multimedia messages delivered directly into an end user’s e-mail inbox to achieve marketing objectives.

HTML (HyperText Markup Language) — Combines text and graphics for viewing in an e-mail program.

opt-in —When an e-mail recipient chooses to receive promotional messages.

personalization — Crafting an e-mail message to appeal to an individual based on an personal preferences, buying patterns and other data.

pull — The ability to draw a target audience in and prompt them to act.

retention — The process of retaining customers on a house list.

rich media — Streams audio and/or video into an e-mail program and plays automatically when message is opened.

segmentation — Separating a list into target audiences based on demographics, buying patterns and other criteria.

sniffer — Format-sensing technology that recognizes whether or not a recipient’s e-mail program can read HTML or rich media, then automatically serves the appropriate format.


Cathy Chatfield-Taylor covers technology solutions for business and industry as a freelance writer and editor. She is a frequent contributor to meeting industry publications and was co-managing editor of the Convention Industry Council Manual, 7th Edition, published in December 2000 by the CIC. She is currently co-managing editor of Professional Meeting Management, 4th Edition, due for publication in March 2002 by the Professional Convention Management Association. Email her at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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