In-Box Shoppers

Plugging e-commerce into e-mail

This past holiday season, Zagat survey tried something new: It sent out e-mails that let recipients buy Zagats famous restaurant guides directly from the body of the message, without being directed to the companys Web site to complete the purchase.

Early results from the nearly monthlong campaign that began in early December are impressive. Zagats so-called transactional e-mail had conversion rates five times that of regular e-mail, according to Bigfoot Interactive, the agency that developed the campaign. Kate Leahy, director of marketing at Bigfoot, says rates were higher because the buying process was so easy.

Trial Run

The campaign, which Bigfoot created using Radical Communications technology, was among the first of its kind. A similar service is available from Cybuy, which has run transactional e-mail campaigns for clients including and eBags.

While Bigfoot recommends transactional e-mails to some of its clients, Leahy admits the concept is very immature. "Would I want to sell this at full price and say this is definitely going to work? Probably not. Id want to work with it more."

Other agencies, such as Beyond Interactive, arent mentioning the option to clients. "[Transactional e-mail] will play a significant role in our marketing effort as an agency sometime in the next year," says Jordan Berke, director of dialog management at Beyond. But for now, he says, "Clients arent asking for it."

One reason the technique isnt more popular may be that many advertisers are just learning how to use e-mail as a marketing tool and arent prepared to add bells and whistles like transactional capabilities. Online shoppers also are more accustomed to logging on to a secure Web page when they buy things over the Internet. And the transactional e-mail systems require users to view the e-mail in HTML format, an option that many people dont have enabled.

Different rate cards make it hard to generalize how much these new campaigns cost, but Dominic DiMascia, Cybuys chief executive, says adding the ability to buy within an e-mail would add an average of $500 to $750 to a $5,000 e-mail campaign.

The added expense may prove worthwhile, because traditional e-mail promotions have proven weak at generating sales. A recent study by Arthur Andersen and Knowledge Systems & Research found that 68 percent of respondents say they "occasionally" purchase something after receiving an e-mail, and 15 percent say they never make a purchase.

Giving consumers a faster way to buy may work particularly well for companies selling items that need to be reordered at regular intervals, Internet marketing execs say.

Nevertheless, transactional e-mail still doesnt relieve advertisers of the biggest hurdle they face: They still have to get their e-mail opened and read by consumers already inundated with digital mail.