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Times Square vs. chocolate e-mail marketing

Times Square is a marketeer's ego wall. With more billboards than there is coffee at an AA meeting, Times Square is the Internet's ground zero for spray-and-pray marketing. Definition of spray and pray: (1) in near panic, spray fresh VC funding on big image advertising; (2) pray in several languages that the right people come to your site; (3) tell VCs your dog ate their money.

Because our VCs would never believe the dog story, we decided to spend our marketing dollars on other, less glamorous, measures. I'd like to tell the story of one particular campaign, because it yielded a 36% click-through, added tons of people to our permission database, and exposed a qualified group of people to our brand.

1000 pounds of chocolate
It all started with the bare essentials of an e-mail campaign: a targeted opt-in e-mail list, an intriguing subject line, a personalized message, and 1000 pounds of chocolate. Okay, let me explain the chocolate. We knew we had to come up with a compelling offer that would elicit response and enhance our brand, so we co-marketed with a well-known chocolatier to give away wrapped boxes of truffles.

We blasted the mass e-mail out with the subject line, "mmmm…c h o c o l a t e !" When users opened the e-mail, they were told they could give chocolates to a special someone simply by registering on our site. In Pavlovian reaction, respondents flooded the site and over 20% of those who visited converted into opt-in registrants. Though it took only a minute, the registration process involved answering several demographic questions; giving us your gift recipient's name and e-mail; and filling in five e-mails of people you think would be interested in giving chocolate to a friend.

After the registrant hit "submit," the five people they recommended were instantly e-mailed with a personalized invitation to come to our site and give a gift of chocolates. The gift recipient got an e-mail notifying them they had been gifted by their friend - with the giver's personal message embedded in the e-mail -- and to claim the gift on our site. Over 80% of the recipients visited the site and claimed their gift. We made sure these people also filled out some demographic information. Within a week, the person received a wrapped box of truffles and a gift card telling them who we were.

Love fest
The result was a love fest. The gift giver looked like a spontaneous Santa Claus. The recipients were excited because they received an unexpected goodie from a friend. Lastly, our company got more mileage out of the campaign than a '76 Datsun in Tijuana. First, a vast majority of the registrants opted in to our e-mail list, so we ended up with a big database of potential customers to whom we could send relevant and tailored marketing messages. (Ten percent of the number of people we originally e-mailed ended up on our opt-in list.) Second, we gained a detailed snapshot into our prospective customer, as thousands of people told us everything from income to dressing style. Lastly, the nature of the gift and the spirit of the campaign reflected well on our brand.

All told, it cost us less than $3 to acquire an opt-in user about whom we have several data points. By comparison, it can cost more than $7 to execute the same campaign through a big affiliate network (the "per form" deal).
With the venture community growing increasingly critical of the viability of B2C business models, a humble e-mail marketing campaign with a twist might make more sense than a Times Square billboard.

About the Author

Jesse Stein is VP of Marketing at smartcasual.com, a New York based e-retailer of brand-name business casual apparel. Reach him at jesse@smartcasual.com.

Jesse Stein