Of all the systems that marketers purchase today, e-mail campaign managers are by far the simplest. After all, what can be complicated about generating a list of names, sending them an e-mail and tracking the replies?

Indeed, e-mail campaign managers fall short of the most advanced rank in both campaign complexity and processing interval, the two dimensions used in my columns to classify marketing systems (see Figure 1). This is unusual: five of the seven systems are on the leading edge of one dimension or the other. Systems in the other exceptional category, interactive customer support, are quite complicated but in ways the matrix doesn't capture.

In terms of campaign complexity, e-mail campaign managers generally send the same letter to everyone in a promotion, and usually include only one message and its response in a single campaign. By contrast, campaigns built with conventional campaign managers often assign different messages to different segments and include a sequence of messages, responses and new messages. Some of the e-mail systems' limits can be overcome through implementation techniques such as segment-based personalization in a letter or links across multiple campaigns to create a sequence of messages. But these approaches are hard to set up, require extra processing and don't automatically generate integrated reports. The advantage of the conventional campaign management systems is real.

Campaign Complexity (Functionality)
None Simple Rules Multistep Campaign, Multiple Campaigns
Processing Interval (Technology) Batch Conventional Campaign Management
Near Real Time Interactive Support E-Mail Campaigns Marketing Automation
Real Time Collaborative Filtering Personalized Web Site Interaction Management

Figure 1: Marketing System Grid

In terms of processing interval, e- mail managers are near real-time systems. That is, they must respond quickly to incoming messages, but need not react immediately. This requires less sophistication than true real-time products such as interaction managers or personalized Web sites. It means that batch update cycles are possible, although in reality most e-mail campaign systems use online application servers to scan for inbound messages and reply as they are received. The initial campaign selections may be done either in batch or online. Although this has significant technical implications, it usually doesn't matter much from the marketer's perspective.

Despite their relative simplicity, e-mail campaign managers do have their own set of issues. Probably the most important is the ability to elicit replies that are easily posted back to an underlying database. This involves two key capabilities: generating a unique key to identify the incoming record and capturing data in a structured format.

Unique keys must identify both the recipient and the promotion. These are often embodied in either a unique URL printed in the body of the outbound message or a response key stored in the message that will be returned. Both methods work, but the unique URL is generally preferred since it requires a smaller outbound message ­ the actual promotion can be stored on the sender's Web site rather than physically e-mailed to the recipient. This is especially useful for complicated messages such as surveys and other forms. Pointing to a URL also lets the system retain greater control over what happens after the response, since all the capabilities of a personalized Web site can be brought to bear. In some systems, the visitor is first sent to a site that tracks response and then is automatically redirected to the company's main Web site. This gives the e-mail campaign system a way to track results without needing to create a separate site.

Capturing data usually involves filling out a form created as an HTML page. The alternative is to have users submit text, but the parsing required to process such input is more difficult and less precise. Often the forms can be pre-filled with data that is already known, such as the customer's name and address. This saves effort. Some systems can automatically apply these forms to an underlying database, while others post them to an intermediate file where they are reviewed and cleansed before being accepted. Systems also vary in whether they store replies to each form independently or require that questions fit into a single profile record. Some products can trigger additional actions based on the contents of a reply, such as sending a message to an account manager or passing information to an order- processing system.

Of course, e-mail campaign managers provide functions beyond data capture. These start with the ability to maintain a customer database: some systems build and maintain an internal database while others can be mapped to external tables. If there is an internal database, the structure may be fixed, extensible around a standard core or totally custom. Most systems provide some degree of flexibility within a standard structure that includes customer data and contact history.

Once the customer database is set up, marketers need to select from it. Most e-mail campaign managers include a standard SQL-based query builder. This is generally adequate, although less capable than the advanced query functions provided in strong conventional campaign managers. One problem is that not all systems offer random sampling which is essential for proper test procedures. Most systems can combine separate SQL selections into one campaign list, with duplicates automatically eliminated.

E-mail campaign managers vary more substantially in the tools they provide to build the e-mail messages themselves. Nearly any system can produce text messages that allow users to specify database variables ­ such as a name field ­ that will be merged into the message when it is delivered. Today, most products can produce personalized HTML messages as well as text. But only some can extend beyond simple value substitution to conditional logic that will send different messages in different situations. Applications can range from sending different offers to different segments, to asking different questions depending on what information is already known about a customer, to listing the products a customer is most likely to want based on past purchase history. To some extent, this sort of personalization can substitute for the conventional campaign management approach of sending different offers to customers in different segments. But the conventional approach generally gives control over segment treatment ­ such as specifying maximum quantities for any segment or allowing random splits to test alternate versions ­ that embedded personalization does not. Even a simple count of how many customers will receive each treatment is harder to get when the decision is made within the body of the letter.

Systems also vary in their administrative functions. Some generate test output, ensuring that all the e-mail forms associated with a campaign produce valid output and point to live Web pages. Most let users schedule a campaign to execute once or repeatedly. Systems built for large- scale implementation also let users specify the time of day and the number of records released per hour to avoid overwhelming the e-mail server. Some track which e-mail addresses are successfully delivered and will retry those that fail or mark them as invalid in the database. Some also track whether a customer's e-mail reader can read rich HTML and send future mail in the appropriate format. A few offer standard marketing administration functions such as project task lists and financial analysis. Many offer automated posting of unsubscribe messages from customers who wish to opt out of future communications.

Reporting nearly always provides basic campaign statistics including the number of records selected; number of messages sent, delivered and opened; and number of responses. Some systems report on the information included in the responses, such as counts of answers to survey questions. Most reporting is provided against the actual customer database, so figures are updated as responses are posted.

Although standalone e-mail campaign management systems were once common, their functions are increasingly being offered within other marketing systems. Given the relative simplicity of the technology, this is fairly easy to accomplish. But as with other components of integrated product suites, buyers must know their actual requirements before they can judge whether the suite's integrated capabilities are truly appropriate.

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