While a Web site with interactive features and scintillating content is an important component of an institution’s marketing strategy, one that is often overlooked — e-mail — may prove more effective in maintaining and solidifying bank investment representatives’ relationships with customers.

Aberdeen Group says e-mail marketing volume rose more than 270% in 2001. In a June report titled “e-Mail Marketing: Relevancy, Retention, and ROI,” the market research firm predicts that this form of marketing will “continue to grow through 2003, based on its simplicity, cost-effectiveness, and ability to retain and cultivate long-term customer relationships.” Before implementing an e-mail marketing program, a bank has to weigh the four C’s — compliance, creation, control, and consent. Let’s start with the most important of these — compliance.

Given the nature of the investment business, a bank cannot afford to let representatives send e-mails messages that aren’t pre-approved. Thus, the temptation to use a general e-mail messaging package such as Microsoft Outlook, one of the free Web-based e-mailers, or even a contact management system to e-mail customers raises a host of compliance concerns.

To avoid problems, use a content-management system that allows the distribution only of pre-approved messages, not free-form text. Ideally, such a system would incorporate a workflow process and audit trails to ensure compliance.

Next, to build relationships through e-mail, reps will need a steady supply of fresh, compelling content. Here again, having a content-management system enabling efficient content creation by marketing, sales support, and investment management staff will ensure that the content pipeline never runs dry.

A database of pre-approved content would let reps pick and choose among timely articles and messages that could be tailored to their customers’ needs and interests. Ideally, such a system would be template-driven and allow content creators to deliver materials in the appropriate format — text-only, Web-ready, or rich media. This would eliminate the need for reps to be HTML or XML experts and let them concentrate on the content itself.

Delivering the right content to the right set of customers requires a control system. Determining what customers want and need is the key to providing relationship-building content.

A mechanism for collecting customer preferences should be integrated with the content database so that it is easy to link people with material that suits their specified interests.

Ideally, this mechanism should be integrated with the “opt-in” registration form on the bank’s Web site, which would collect data on customers’ interest categories when they grant reps the permission to send relevant e-mail. However, just to get started, reps could gather their own lists of customer e-mail addresses.

This brings us to consent. Though it may seem obvious, it is worth saying that it is crucial to get permission before sending e-mail to customers or prospects.

There are two compelling reasons for obtaining permission. First, a rep or institution that sends unsolicited e-mail, or spam, opens itself to harsh criticism. The practice is frowned upon by e-mail recipients, the Internet community at large, and the e-mail marketing industry.

Second, in today’s e-mail-overloaded environment, people are much less likely to open unsolicited e-mails than those from parties they have asked to send information and offers. Getting consent is not only a best practice for e-mail communication, but it makes for a better return on investment.

In the end, a system designed for easy use is essential. With a content-management system in place, e-mail can be made effective with just a few easy steps: address-book creation, selection of recipients and content, previewing, and sending. Rather than thinking in terms of an explicit “e-mail campaign,” financial representatives should see the medium as a personalized means of communication with their clients.

This “softer sell” approach, compared with the call-to-action nature of most direct-response efforts, uses content generated throughout a financial institution more effectively, and it can strengthen client relationships without requiring an inordinate investment of time and money.

Remembering the four C’s of e-mail will help an institution and its representatives establish credibility, and ultimately will lead to lasting and profitable customer relationships.

Mr. Jeon is the managing director of electronic commerce at Pioneer Investment Management Inc., a mutual fund company in Boston.

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