When You Really Lose Customers

They've changed e-mail addresses without telling you. But new services mean wayward clients aren't gone forever.

By all accounts, you're a good web marketer. When shoppers visit your website, you ask them to register, and then you dutifully collect their e-mail addresses. You also regularly send out e-mail messages that serve to market your products, services and seasonal promotions. You've done such a good job managing your company's e-mail mailing list, in fact, that sales have improved and you even have your best customers segmented to receive special promotions just for them.

Then, suddenly and without warning, your formula for success breaks down. Instead of receiving orders from eager customers wanting to buy your wares, you're hit with a mountain of electronic messages that have bounced back from expired accounts. Before long, "Undeliverable. User is not recognized" messages fill your inbox. Now you're left wondering if you'll find those great customers ever again. What's going on?

As you've probably already guessed, your customers have moved on, changed jobs or their ISPs and neglected to let you know about it. It happens every day: A recent study by research firm NFO World Group found that on average, less than one-third of consumers notify regularly visited Web sites, online newsletters and discussion lists when they change their e-mail addresses. The study found that the most common reason for switching, as indicated by 55 percent of the respondents, was going with a new ISP. New jobs accounted for 25 percent of e-mail address changes. But it's not that customers don't want to keep up with these relationships; 36 percent of survey respondents explained there were just "too many people to update," and 17 percent said they thought the whole process would be "too time-consuming."

This is seriously bad news for e-mail marketers--especially because they don't have the convenient tools that help traditional direct marketers deal with changes of address. Catalog senders can always turn to the U.S. Postal Service's National Change of Address (NCOA) program to help them locate new addresses. For a modest fee, the NCOA will update a direct marketer's list whenever a U.S. resident files a change-of-address notice. But unfortunately, it's not as easy to update e-mail address changes.

According to Larry Chase, 48-year-old founder and publisher of Web Digest for Marketers, a weekly e-mail marketing newsletter in New York City, "E-mail addresses are sort of a moving target, because it's obviously a lot easier to abandon an e-mail address than a physical address." So what's a marketer to do?

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Melissa Campanelli is a technology writer in Brooklyn, New York, who has covered technology for Mobile Computing & Communications and Sales & Marketing Management magazines. You can reach her at mcampanelli@earthlink.net.

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This article was originally published in the January 2002 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: When You <i>Really</i> Lose Customers.

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