August 21, 2012
How To

Email Marketing: 5 tips for improving the value of your list

SUMMARY: In this follow-up to a recent MarketingSherpa webinar, we speak with lead presenter W. Jeffrey Rice, to discuss rising expectations of email performance, increasingly stringent delivery requirements, improving relationships with your recipients, and more.
by Brad Bortone, Senior Research Editor, and Stonie Clark, Research Associate

In a recent webinar, "How to Improve the Value of Your Email List" (sponsored by Bronto Software), W. Jeffrey Rice, Senior Research Analyst, MECLABS, discussed how marketers are constantly trying to improve the performance of their email lists, while simultaneously doing so with fewer resources and the possibility that all their work may not guarantee an ounce of ROI.

We followed up with Rice to discuss rising expectations of email performance, increasingly stringent delivery requirements, improving relationships with your recipients, and more.

Rice offered five valuable tips following the webinar:

1. Respect the customer relationship

As with most facets of our business, email marketing is built upon relationships. According to Rice, when these relationships are properly nurtured, and recipients are given the proper respect, it often means it’s not the largest list that wins, but rather the most active.

Marketers can take actions to meet these expectations. These actions may come in the form of clearly communicating expectations of what, when and why the subscriber will be receiving emails, before they opt-in. However, the most important task -- and maybe the toughest -- is keeping the promise to deliver only what the opt-in requests, and nothing more.

"Sure, the more email marketers can keep [the relationship] a two-way conversation, the better," Rice says. "We see brands optimizing messages with games and videos to spur interaction. But, there are engagement elements marketers can include in their processes that allow subscribers to control the conversation."

2. Establish (and deliver upon) expectations

It is critical to set expectations right from the start of the relationship. By doing so, marketers can reduce potential subscribers’ anxiety during the registration process and increase opt-ins. When brands take the time to inform new subscribers of what they will deliver, the step yields more long-term subscribers.

Rice believes every opt-in page should answer the following four questions:
  • What -- "The focus should not be on the incentive, rather the value of the content. Clearly state what type of communications will be sent. Include a sample newsletter, which can contain evergreen content, so it’s more likely to be relevant to the potential subscriber."

  • When -- "At minimum, identify how often email communications will be sent. Better yet, let the new subscriber set the frequency at which they would like to receive emails."

  • Why -- "Spell out the features and benefits the subscriber will receive in specific detail. The more descriptive and fact-based the copy, the more effective it will be at converting opt-ins. Don’t just ask, ‘Sign up for our FREE newsletter!’ but rather write from the subscriber's point of view, by explaining how the membership will assist in learning and solving his or her challenges."

  • Is it safe? -- "Adding a link to your privacy policy will reassure the subscriber what the company will and won’t do with his or her email address. This tactic aids in overcoming the psychological fear factor of sharing personal information held by many new opt-ins."

3. Be able to accommodate rising customer skepticism

In the past, it was enough to simply have permission to send email to a user. However, as customers become more skeptical of unscrupulous email practices, the determining factors of what is or isn’t spam have become increasingly muddled.

"The rules of the game have changed," Rice says. "As well as providing content on a subject the subscriber is interested in, ISPs are now filtering emails based on engagement. It is the individual user’s response to emails that are being measured to influence the placement in the inbox."

Rice cites Microsoft’s declaration of war on "graymail," which states, "75% of email identified as spam by our customers actually turns out to be unwanted graymail that they receive as a result of having signed up on a legitimate website."

The following support this:
"Spam folder placement jumped 19% to 7.4% in the second half of 2011, and missing, or blocked email, increased a whopping 38% (13.3% missing rate) during the same time frame." - The Global Email Deliverability Benchmark Report, 2H 2011.

4. Know how to encourage interaction and appease customer desires

Marketers who recognize this shift in customer expectations have begun to think in terms of both building the aforementioned relationships and giving the customer the freedom to determine what they want, when they want it, rather than forcing information upon them.

Rice discusses a number of ways to promote this interaction:

Preference Centers -- "Email subscribers are not the same people they were when they originally signed up for their newsletters," Rice says. "They may have changed jobs, developed new tastes, or even had children. With so many changes, it may be difficult to keep track of a customer’s current email address and preferences."

To address these challenges, organizations have developed robust preference centers. These pages allow subscribers to select specific product categories and message types (e.g., special offers vs. product education). When subscribers share more about themselves, marketers can advance their messaging to reflect external relevance factors.

The challenge lies in encouraging opt-ins to regularly participate. Frequently asking email members to update their preferences will benefit a long-term relationship. When updated, marketers can speak to a subscriber’s personal interests, demographics and chosen communication channels, specifically mobile devices.

But, Rice warns of potential downfalls to having this new data, saying, "Proceed cautiously. Only ask for information you are going to use. Not acting on cultivated personal information will quickly be viewed as disingenuous behavior, and hurt your brand’s reputation."

Opt-Downs or Paused Subscriptions -- Before email marketers start thinking about how to handle unsubscribes, they may want to consider offering opt-downs or paused subscriptions.

Inside a preference center, or on the unsubscribe page, marketers can give customers more options to "opt down" rather than "opting out." The opt-down can include reducing frequency and changing offer types or subject matter topics.

"I encourage marketers to include links to update ‘follows’ and ‘liked’ statuses," Rice says. "You may lose them from your email list, but catering to a customer’s preferred communication medium, like Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter, can keep them engaged. Remember, the goal is to have conversations on opt-in’s terms, not those of the brand."

Another approach is to offer a paused subscription, which allows the recipient to set the date the email delivery will stop and start up again.

"This option can be set for a week or a month," Rice adds. "This is perfect for times when your subscriber goes on vacation, or has a big project due over the next few months, and wants to keep a clean inbox. Both parties win: The email recipient can better manage their inbox, and the sender keeps them on their list."

Unsubscribes -- Though seemingly unorthodox, giving customers the chance to unsubscribe from all sends can actually promote more brand loyalty and customer interaction. Rice explains why email marketers shouldn’t be so resistant to this idea.

"I believe email should strive for a one-to-one relationship," he states. "If a subscriber is giving signals that they are not interested, a brand should be proactive in their response, and respect their subscribers’ choices. An opt-out does not hurt a brand’s deliverability reputation, but inactivity or a complaint will."

Instead, Rice recommends that marketers don’t bury their unsubscribe links, but rather feature them prominently so readers can find and use them appropriately. The alternative could do more harm than good.

"Today’s consumers read emails very quickly," Rice says. "They will take the path of least resistance when choosing to unsubscribe. Many email recipients end up clicking the more harmful spam button in their email clients, rather than looking for the unsubscribe link."

5. Be sure to know the cornerstones of quality lists

According to Rice, the cornerstones of quality, well-performing email lists are exclusivity, uniqueness and humility, which he discusses below:
  • Exclusivity -- "As we all know, today’s marketers do not have tight control of their brand. This lives and breathes with consumers, during interactions on channels of their choice. What marketers can do is be selective in whom they empower to become brand evangelists. Email commonly carries a company’s best offer, so keep it exclusive. Strive to have conversations only with people with whom you can have a mutually beneficial relationship."

  • Uniqueness -- "Give subscribers something they cannot get anywhere else. Anybody can put water in a bottle. What can your company offer that is different? Can you offer a blue bubble gum flavor? Think about how your brand’s personality or expertise can be a differentiator in a cluttered email inbox."

  • Humility -- "As marketers, we sometimes think we know what the customer ‘really’ wants before they actually tell us. There is nothing more important than keeping the promise to deliver exactly what the subscriber requested, and nothing more. The majority of email messages should contain valuable information in the form of reports, entertaining videos and insightful stories, not endless self-promotion."

View the webinar replay

View the webinar slide presentation


The Global Email Deliverability Benchmark Report, 2H 2011

Related Resources

30-Minute Marketer - Growing Your Email List: 8 tactics to boost your registrations

The Upside of Opt-outs: Refining your email list with a preference center, opt-downs and unsubscribes

Email Deliverability: 5 tactics for 99% (or greater) delivery across millions of subscribers

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