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The Magestic Splendor of Online Advertising! or some damn thing like that.

Brand Central Station: Branding through email
by Jim Sterne, President of Target Marketing

Email as a branding tool? You bet your in-box.

Keeping in mind that every customer contact has an effect on your brand, it's time to pay close attention to the way most of us reach out and touch our customers -- email.

Today email is used for advertising, moving a prospective customer through the sales cycle, and providing customer service. Each one of those touch-points is an opportunity for your company to do some good or some harm to your brand.

At The Tone, Your Brand Will Be: Altered
What's the tone of the messages you send out? There are three general answers to that question: 1) Serious, business-like, formal, dry; 2) Light, breezy, personal, happy, cheerful, or; 3) (and most likely) We have no idea -- what are you talking about?

When you rent an opt-in email list like, the messages you write are for advertising and marketing. They are well thought-out, well designed, well planned and well timed -- or should be. But where do they fall in the continuum between impersonal spam intent on selling another CD of email addresses, a formal notification that your product has been known to cause cancer in mice and a note from your mother telling you you're brave and kind and smart and she loves you?

Somewhere in there is the personality you express with every message you send out. Good, bad or indifferent, realize that the tone of your message is communicating as much about your company as the offer you're sending out. Top advertising and marketing people decide on the image they want to project, and do their best to be consistent. Customer service people should be as well.

Putting up a Web site is an open invitation to send you email. How quickly you respond makes a huge impression on the other side of the screen. Score 4,000 points for responding before your customer expects it with a message that answers their question or solves their problem. How soon does your prospect or customer expect a response? It depends.

If they're trying to buy flowers from your Web site, an hour may be too long. While you should never let email sit unanswered for more than 24 hours, answering sooner is always better than later.

If email languishes, unanswered within your company, the possible reactions are that your email doesn't work, your organization isn't bright enough to make it work, you're too busy at the moment or you simply don't care about your customers at all. You simply wish they'd go away and stop bothering you. If you ignore them long enough, they will.

An instant auto-response that bounces back telling me that my message was received isn't necessarily a positive brand experience either. Especially if it has the feeling of those awful messages on hold about how important my call is and would I please hold for the rest of my life. Make the most of an auto-responder and tell me that my email was received, that it is being routed to the proper person for a proper response, and that it has been assigned issue number 476535. I now have something tangible I can use to bludgeon you with if I don't hear from you.

The Personality Database
Do you have a collection of answers to frequently asked questions that you, your sales people and your customer service reps draw from to help speed their response time? Who writes those? What personality do they project?

Are you formal? Curt? To the point? Does your email look like everybody on staff has a law degree and is very interested in protecting the firm from liability claims?

Do your messages include sentiments of concern? Do they show a sincere interest in the customer as an individual?

Are your messages chatty? Casual? Personal? Do they give the impression that your company is open, friendly and genuinely interested in your customers' well-being?

    "We recognize that the potential of the Fleegman Chain Saw to intermittently fail may cause some inconvenience for some of our customers. Please forward any further documentation to Mr. Thurgood Fleegman, ESQ."

    "Holy mackerel! Thank you for letting us know, Bob. Jeepers but we're so sorry to hear about what happened! We've always tried to ensure that the Fleegman Chain Saw is the safest in the world so I'm forwarding your message directly to Bob Fleegman who's responsible for all product design issues. Helen Fleegman is in charge of customer care, and she'll be in touch with your insurance company this afternoon and everybody here is very impressed with your acumen with your wireless Palm Pilot given the circumstances. We'll all be rooting for you and the reattachment of that thumb!"
Which is the best answer? Obviously somewhere in between. The point is not that you smother your customers with Band-Aids and flowers, but that you select a communication style that best represents your company and stick to it.

Discuss the image you want your customers to have of the company and decide which perceived personality traits are the most important. Then outline a policy that communicates this image to those in your firm who communicate through email. Give them some tools that will help them reflect those traits. Write a bunch of sample copy to show them what you mean.

Finally, and perhaps most important, randomly monitor the email communications that go out. You might be able to pluck a couple of bad apples out of the barrel just in time.

A Real-Life Story
My wife got me a digital camera for our anniversary. Wonderful toy. The first time I took it out on the road, I noticed that it beeped every time I changed a setting, or took a picture. It was annoying.

I was at the airport at 6:30 in the evening on a Friday night waiting for a plane and decided to take a look at their site. There was my camera and a world of information about how wonderful it would be to own one. But no clues as to how to use it.

I filled out a Web form with a single question: How do I turn off the "beep" on this particular model?

On Saturday, I used the camera and annoyed those around me with its incessant beeping. On Sunday, I left it in my suitcase. On Monday I had meetings and on Tuesday, I got a response that consisted of my question, and a one line answer:
    Page 98, owners manual.
I was shocked. I was stunned. I resorted to derision. I replied with his message intact and my only addition was, "This is a joke, right?"

He didn't think so. Three days later I got the reply:
    Quite seriously sir; page 98, of you owners manual explains: "Setting the Beep Sound".
Pardon me, while I go see about having my thumb reattached.

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