September 18, 2003

New Survey Data: US Consumers Reveal They Only Want to Get Email From an Average of 16 Mailers Each

SUMMARY: This is definitely a must-read for everyone sending email - whether you are a marketer or a publisher. Yes, the results also apply to B-to-B. Includes:

Consumers only want to be on 16 lists at a time

The \"unsubscribe\" myth exposed - why you should worry

Best and worst offers to get new names for your list

How to keep names loyal to your email
Frequency headaches

Useful links

P.S. Yes, this story is a Sherpa exclusive!
The easiest way to get great email results is to send consumers exactly what they want. But, what do they want?

On July 29-August 7th, researchers working on Quris' annual View from Inbox study surveyed 1,691 American email users, representing a broad cross section of the population over 18, to find out what consumers want from permission mailers.

The results, which Quris released exclusively to MarketingSherpa this week, are must-reading for everyone sending email today. Here's our summary of the most useful data for you:

a. Consumers only want to be on 16 lists at a time
b. The "unsubscribe" myth exposed - why you should worry
c. Best and worst offers to get new names for your list
d. How to keep names loyal to your email
e. Frequency headaches
f. Useful links

-> a. Consumers only want to be on 16 lists at a time

Your biggest email challenge for 2004 is what Quris VP Marketing & Business Development Simon Greenman calls "the email inner circle."

Turns out the average consumer only wants to get regular email from about 16 permission mailers. That number includes newsletters, account status updates, sales alerts, you name it. If they get these from more than 16 sources on a regular basis, then they feel like their in-box is overloaded, there's "too much mail."

Once over that threshold, consumers become pickier and pickier about which email they'll open, read and respond to. If they join a great new list, it usually means one of the old ones has to go.

Makes sense, personal attention can’t expand forever. People can only have so many favorite TV shows, or regularly read so many magazines. Email works the same way.

However, it makes the field of permission much more competitive. You not only have to get an email address plus permission to mail it, you also have to achieve top 16 "most favored" status to be sure your messages are noticed.

If you're reaching out to new people, your email has to be good enough to displace one of the brands they currently read regularly. (It's like launching a new TV series and having to bump "Friends" to get viewers.)

If you're focusing on your current list, your content has to be so compelling that it acts as a barrier to competition.

But remember, when we say "competition", we're not just talking about the brands in your exact same field. We're talking about every publisher and marketer in the world who happens to be sending that particular name regular email.

The news alerts are now competing directly with NASCAR collectibles for one of those sweet-16 spots.

-> b. The "unsubscribe" myth exposed - why you should worry

If you are reviewing your unsubscribe metric as a measure of success, stop.

According to Quris' research, 92.3% of consumers say they "just delete them myself by hand without reading them" when they get email they don’t want from you. This data jibes with other reports that the average list owner has an unsub rate of under 5%.

People don't bother to unsub anymore. They just click delete.

So, the only way you can be sure your email is welcomed, read and responded to is if it's opened and also if the user clicks on it occasionally. (Remember, open rates can be affected by automated processes and are not accurate.)

Greenman strongly recommends that you consider segmenting your list by people who click, people who open but don’t click, and people who don't click or open. You'll definitely want to treat these groups differently to get better results.

Also, if you're forecasting results based on your total list size, stop right now and base your forecasts on "click actives" vs "suspected deleters."

-> c. Best and worst offers to get new names for your list

Number one thing to avoid? Opt-out append. 82.5% of consumers do not think a mailer who has their postal address on file "has the right to send me email."

Consumers don't care what's legal or not - they just heartily dislike getting email they did not proactively sign up for even if it's from a company they have a prior business relationship with. (And remember, the fact that they don't bother to unsub doesn't indicate approval.)

Dislike can turn into lost sales. 45% of consumers agreed with the statement "there's at least one company I've stopped doing business with as a result of poor email marketing practices."

Number one way to get new names on your list?

Sweeps and contests. 41% of consumers love them. However, Greenman advises caution with this route, "Those who selected sweepstakes as a motivating factor… were less likely to buy as a result of permission marketing programs than the norm."

In other words, just as with sweeps-gathered names offline, the old rule holds true. Sweeps names are loyal to sweeps offers. They are not loyal to your brand or terribly interested in buying from you. They are, however, likely to enter every sweeps they ever come across no matter what brand sponsors them.

The other top factors that motivated sign-up were:

Already a customer, so favorably disposed - 40%
Email address required to access valued content - 38%
Find site randomly (eg search engine) - 37%
Something a friend recommends - 24%

This spikes the idea that viral email will do all the work of getting good names for you. You'd better supplement with another tactic if you're counting on viral alone.

Interestingly, both co-registration (list join offers on
complimentary sites) and offline requests (retail clerks asking for emails) scored very low at 11% and 6% respectively. On the other hand, these tactics might be among your best for acquiring new names because these people may be more loyal than others.

-> d. How to keep names loyal to your list

What types of email do consumers really love to get? Brace yourself, it's not what you might expect:

Far above all other kinds of email, consumers like transaction confirmations (58% report high interest) and account status emails (50% report high interest.) The boring stuff wins.

So, if you really want to develop an email program that consumers adore, consider including offers in account status emails, and also consider adding reasons to contact consumers about status -- for example reporting on their loyalty rewards point gain each month.

More types of email consumers have high interest in:

27% love personalized email from traditional "offline" companies (examples: your bank, video store updates, area retail stores, local businesses.)

22% love scheduled subscription newsletter from a corporation, club, association or the like.

22% love time-based email reminders (examples: anniversaries, appointments, product replacements.)

21% love customizable information updates (examples: news
headlines, stock quotes, sports, portfolio summaries)

21% love email discussion lists (examples: fellow hobbyists, professional peer group, college friends)

17% love email entertainment programs or newsletters (examples: humor, film reviews, movie clips, serialized stories)

16% love email education series (examples: self-improvement, continuing education, management tip of the week)

15% love independent media outlet newsletter (examples: from a newspaper media site or individual writer)

(Yes, the bottom item makes us worry a bit! And if you're
planning to be famous as a blogger or new newsletter writers, you should worry too.)

The types of email consumers have "low interest" in and rarely open and click on:

70% dislike email advertising clearinghouse (i.e., a service that sends you email offers on behalf of multiple advertising partners.)

59% dislike unscheduled general company announcements,
promotional offers, etc.

This explains why many list rentals get such lousy response rates these days. Don't rent "network" lists if you want clicks.

It's also a clear warning for marketers who may be pressured into sending unscheduled campaigns as 2003 fourth quarter draws to a close. Save this MarketingSherpa article and use it to remind yourself that unscheduled promotions are not a great way to bring in extra sales. You could be damaging your long-term relations with customers you rely on for 2004 profits.

So, instead of planning extra mailings, start thinking about how you can use your regularly scheduled sends more effectively. Have you tested subject lines? Landing pages? Bigger or smaller images? Including offers with account status mailings?

Make your scheduled mailings work harder for you before taking steps to send other types of mail that may cause your brand to get booted out of that sweet-16 circle of favored mailers.

Once you've been rejected, it's incredibly hard to ever get back in again. Keep your place in the favored inner circle.

-> e. Frequency headaches

Most annoying survey results? Turns out that far above all other factors, consumers just hate it when you mail them too frequently. 68% may stop opening and reading your mail altogether if they think you send too much of it.

At the same time, Quris results show your most loyal customers and email recipients prefer a higher frequency. The volume they receive of favorite mail types such as account status mailings, may affect their loyalty and buying patterns favorably.

So, if you mail too much, people hate you. If you mail too little, you're not getting as much ROI as you can from most-loyal (and profitable) customers.

Greenman says, "You have to segment quite carefully according to frequency. You have to optimize frequency and we're not sure what's perfect. We're looking closely at it."

The key is, "You can't be too regular or you will train them to hit the delete key. There's no doubt about it."

-> f. Useful links related to this article

Quris white paper with more data:

Last week's survey results of 2,327 marketers' data:

Equation Research - the firm who conducted the survey on behalf of Quris

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