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Janet Roberts

CRM and Switching Formats
By Janet Roberts

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Format changes are as much a customer-relationship-management issue as they are technical. When it's time to change your format -- going from text to HTML, or changing the look or content organization -- you need to introduce it correctly in order to minimize any fallout from irritated readers.

So, what does a company specializing in customer-relationship management do when it changes formats?

Bob Thompson of described his company's experiences when it switched its newsletters from the original text format to HTML:

"At CRMGuru we struggled with this issue, but after extensive member surveys and industry research, it became clear that 1. The vast majority of our readers did want HTML (and we got lots of complaints about our plain text newsletter) 2. A very high percentage could read HTML (thankfully AOL and other email clients handle HTML better)

"A few months back we decided to make the switch to HTML and give an easy option to change back to plain text. To date a very low number have done so -- less than 5%.

"Of course, some people were irritated. But ultimately we decided that it was more fair to ask a very small minority to switch back, than to insist the majority do extra work to select HTML -- a format they had already said they wanted, and we felt would give them a better experience."

I came up with some pointers last week while rolling out Christmas- cookie dough. Because I was peeling sticky dough off my counter at the same time, I probably forgot a few things. Feel free to add ideas or tell me where I'm off base:

Pre-launch Considerations:

  • You might be tempted to launch with a text edition and develop an HTML version later. It's probably better to launch both at once. You don't have to have a gorgeously finished HTML version, just one that looks good and works. After all, HTML without all the fancy formatting is still HTML. And, if you plan to sell ads, you need a prototype to show potential clients.
  • Also, when you launch both at once, you won't have to update your subscription-solicitation Web form or email invitation.
  • Good publishing practices dictate that you promote your newsletter before you launch in order to assemble a database of names. Even if you're not ready to launch your HTML version, ask people which version they want to receive. The numbers will tell you what you should do.
  • Do you expect to offer an HTML version, but you're not ready to launch it? Tell potential subscribers that, but ask if they would want HTML when it becomes available. Sign them up for your text version, but include a checkbox asking if they would eventually want the HTML version. That will also give you a database to test the HTML version with before you launch it.

At Launch:

  • The big moment comes: Will you ask people to request your new, fabulous HTML edition or just send it to them? Again, you should know the answer if you asked people ahead of time.

  • In CRMGuru's experience, readers had already expressed their preferences. Thus, the company suffered relatively minor collateral damage from unhappy readers.

    Also, think about why you want an HTML edition. Do you want to track open rates and improve ad response? Those are legitimate business decisions for introducing HTML. Will your newsletter read more easily in HTML? Can you put more information in it without fatiguing the reader? Those are legitimate usability decisions. Is everybody else in your content niche doing it? You're heading into marginal territory here.

  • Create a second database for your text people, if your list software doesn't segment them automatically.

  • Warn readers before you make the switch. Put your prototype on your Web site to allow people to see what they'll be getting. If you decide to move everyone over instead of letting readers opt in, announce the switch in the last issue of the old format and give those who don't want to switch the opt-out link.

  • The opt-out link can be either an email address that adds readers to the text-newsletter database or a Web form that accomplishes the same thing.

  • No matter what you do, always link your two editions. If you eventually want to push your text readers to the HTML, always put a subscription link to the HTML version and promote it with enticing copy or a giveaway to those who make the leap.

    In the HTML version, always include a way out for those who don't like or can't read HTML, and make it easy to change.

The Aftermath:

  • No matter how carefully you manage the change, somebody's going to get upset and fire off a letter blasting the change or outlining all the reasons you did everything wrong. No matter how big your list, you should respond to every unhappy person. Create a template in which you explain your reasons and include the opt-out link.

  • Of course, all this assumes your readers care about which format they receive. Perhaps 9 out of 10 will appreciate the switch. Can you afford to irritate the other 10 percent?

Ezine-Tips for December 27, 2002

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