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Ask the Right E-mail Questions

  |  June 18, 2007   |  Comments

Stop wasting time with questions that don't propel your business forward. Three questions (and answers) to let go of.

Talking to people who are new to e-mail is interesting. They have a whole bunch of questions and concerns experienced e-mail marketers never talk (or worry) about. If you're asking these questions, make this column your excuse to break free and start worrying about something that really matters -- and that will really help enhance your e-mail marketing efforts.

How can we find out our absolute open rate?

Actually, this wasn't a question so much as a statement of disappointment with an e-mail service provider (ESP). Two e-mail marketing newbies I was having lunch with announced their open rate wasn't "right."

I quizzed them on this and learned that although their open rate was in the 40 percent range (above the reported industry average of c. 30 percent), they felt it should be higher. When they questioned their ESP, they learned if an e-mail client blocks images (like Outlook 2003 and many others) or a device doesn't support HTML e-mail (like most smartphones and PDAs), an open won't be triggered when the e-mail is read. This led them on a quest to discover their "real" open rate -- and to thinking something was wrong with their ESP.

While obsessing over all the opens they were "missing," they were overlooking another, more favorable lever skewing everyone's open rates: the preview pane. When someone scrolls past your message in a preview pane, it triggers an open, even if the reader doesn't look at it. So while suppressed images and smartphones cause open rates to be underreported, preview pane scrolls cause opens to be overreported.

My companions explained people often tell them they read these e-mail messages "every day," which is why they couldn't imagine why their open rate wasn't closer to 100 percent. But this isn't observed behavior, it's reported behavior. People are forgetful. Sometimes, they tell a white lie.

Bottom line: these e-mail marketing newbies were asking the wrong question. Open rates aren't meant to be, and were never meant to be, absolute measures of how many people read your e-mail. They're relative figures you can use to compare present to past performance and your own e-mail to industry benchmarks.

There's an inherent assumption that a margin of error exists and it's relatively the same for everyone (at least, everyone sending to a given target audience). Some preview pane opens don't mean anyone looked at it; some PDAs are overlooked because they don't trigger an open. Trying to figure out how this all comes out in the wash is pointless. If you're not happy with your reported open rate, there are a few things you can do to try to improve it:

  • Look for deliverability issues and fix them.
  • Make sure your sender line is easily and quickly recognized by readers.
  • Make subject lines more engaging.
  • Confirm your list is opt-in. People who want to hear from you are much more likely to open your message than those who don't know you from Adam.

If we request e-mail addresses offline, what percentage of people will provide them?

This question, which I was asked to research for a client, is outdated. Back in 1995, it was an issue; it isn't.

If you aren't collecting e-mail addresses at every customer and prospect touch point, you're losing out. E-mail is so much less expensive and timely than postal mail. Unless your audience is very old -- and I mean very old, since senior citizens are the fastest growing age group on the Internet and e-mail is one of the first applications people use -- you're crazy not to be asking for e-mail addresses.

Will you always get it? No. My in-laws don't have a computer, so forget about getting an e-mail address from either of them. But they're the exception, not the rule. Any e-mail addresses you can collect offline are valuable. And if you're collecting e-mail addresses online (as this organization is), there's no reason not to be consistent across all channels.

What are the odds of being blacklisted if we add addresses to our list via opt-out (rather than opt-in)?

I've decided this is one of those "we'll just have to agree to disagree" questions. It's really a matter of business risk. Some very small organizations operate without being incorporated; others shun paying for any type of insurance. If your list growth/acquisition method isn't opt-in, you increase your risk.

It's a slippery slope. A sports Web site (I'm a huge sports fan) once shared my e-mail address with its network affiliate, which decided (oh, so wrongly) I'd like to get a daily soap opera digest. I assume it's because I'm a woman; I can't imagine men's e-mail addresses being treated this way. Is this as bad as a spammer sending e-mail offering to enhance a body part I don't even have? Probably not, but where does it end?

Anytime someone claims to know what someone else wants and refuses to ask them, I cringe. If you're confident the recipients want this e-mail, why not offer it to them and obtain the opt-in? Why send it without their knowledge or permission and make them take action to get off the list?

We haven't even discussed where these opt-out lists come from. Sure, you're a legitimate e-mail marketer, but it's still easy to get messed up by folks selling e-mail lists who aren't on the up and up. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is, no matter who's supposed to be on the list. It's a business risk, and one I'm not willing to take. You potentially harm your organization, as well as e-mail marketing as a whole. Rather than spend time justifying your actions, put time into something constructive -- like building a high-quality opt-in e-mail list.

Until next time,



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Jeanne Jennings

Jeanne Jennings is a recognized expert in the email marketing industry and managing director of digital marketing for Digital Prism Advisors. She has more than 20 years of experience in the email and online marketing and product development world. Jeanne's direct-response approach to digital strategy, tactics, and creative direction helps organizations make their online marketing initiatives more effective and more profitable. Digital Prism Advisors helps established businesses unlock significant growth and revenue opportunities in the digital marketplace; our clients learn to develop and implement successful digital strategies, leveraging data and technology to better meet bottom line goals. Want to learn more? Check out Jeanne's blog and Digital Prism Advisors.

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