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E-Mail: The Upside/Downside

E-Mail: The Upside/Downside

Here's the biggest O'Leary family disaster since Mrs. O'Leary's cow kicked over a lantern in Chicago. Last Decmeber, O'Learys Seafood Restaurant in Annapolis, MD, sent out a promotional e-mail. Unofortunately, the mailing accidentally included an attachment with the restaurant's mailing list, containing names, addresses and comments on some customers such as “very particular….almost to the point of annoying.” At least credit card info wasn't included.

The return in investment in 2008 for e-mail promotion across all industries was $45 for every $1 spent, according to a study by the Direct Marketing Association, down from $48 in 2007. Called “permission marketing” because your customers give you permission to market to them, e-mail promos have proven to be powerful tools for restaurants. They are a great way to market, build your brand and cement customer relationships.

O'Learys is lucky. The restaurant may have ticked off some customers, the competitors probably now have the database and it made headlines in the Washington Post for all the wrong reasons, but so far the feds haven't come after O'Learys. There are federal spam and privacy laws that can cost you a bundle if you run afoul of them. The creeps pushing male enhancement know how to avoid getting caught, but if you anger a few touchy types by sending them unsolicited e-mails, the feds can find you and fine you. On top of that, your e-mail server can cut you off.

You may think you're not sending out spam, but if everyone on your mailing list hasn't confirmed via e-mail that they want your mailing, a prankster can submit another person's e-mail, and the next thingyou know, you're accused of spamming.

The best way to avoid an O'Learys situation and produce high-quality, inexpensive e-mail promos is to use a professional e-mail service provider (ESP). Among the best known are Constant Contact, Exact Target, Listrak and VerticalResponse.

ESPs maintain the mailing list and use a “double opt-in” subscription model. This means that people must first ask for a subscription, then an e-mail is sent confirming their request, and finally, they must click on a link to doubly confirm that they want your e-mails. No pranksters allowed. ESPs also process requests to unsubscribe almost instantly, complying with federal laws requiring that they be handled within 10 days.

ESPs get a higer deliverability rate than you can on your own. AOL, Google, Yahoo and Hotmail are notorious for rejecting batches of e-mail coming into their systems from unknown mailers. Once you get on their blacklist, it is almost impossible to get off.

ESPs also generate useful statistics on how many e-mails were sent, how many were opened, how many were undeliverable, what links people clicked on and more.

Another important reason to use an ESP is that they have ready-made templates that make it really easy for you to compose and design your mailings and end up with something that looks professional on almost all computers.

Chef Jody Adams has Rialto Restaurant & Bar near the top of the Boston restaurant scene in part because of her award-winning food, and in part because of her marketing. Each month she and Amanda Kozinn, her marketing and public relations director, mail a short, stylish e-mail newsletter to their growing two-year-old list of 6,600 subscribers. It contains a personal message from Adams, info about a recipe, seasonal menu previews and event announcements. Each element is linked to their website for more info. There is also a link to a reservation service. About 30 percent of Rialto's e-mails are opened, with several hundred people clicking on links; many other pick up the phone. The restaurant also mails two short event reminders each month. Most of their cooking classes and special events sell out soon after the e-mails fly, but their goal, Adams says, is “more to engage our customers than to sell to them.” They pay Constant Contact $84 per month and invest about five to six hours on each issue.

You should start building your mailing list now. But you can't just add everyone in your address book to your database. They must ask to be added. So design a subscription form and clip it to menus, deliver it with the check, stack then on the bar and by the mint bowl and motivate subscriptions with drawings for free drinks or desserts. Run a contest for your employees with prizes for the ones who collect the most subscription forms. As soon as you have an ESP, use their tools to put a signup form on your website.

Use your mailings to announce menu changes, nightly entertainment, special events, drink specials, etc. In addition to doing the types of things Rialto is doing, try using coupons. One Chicago restaurant sends free drink coupons on customers' birthdays. Include surveys, both serious and whimsical.

Craig Goldwyn produces and its e-mail newsletter. He sent out his first e-mail newsletter in 1990, before there was a worldwide web, and and since then he has produced scores of them for clients.