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The Best E-mail Frequency? It Doesn't Exist

  |  March 26, 2008   |  Comments

How often should you e-mail your list?

The standard audience question at every e-mail conference: "How often should I e-mail my list?"

The standard expert panel answers:

  • "It depends."

  • "Test your list."

  • "See if your spam complaint numbers tell you anything."

  • "Let your readers decide for themselves how often they want to hear from you."

All good answers, but they don't tell the marketer what she really wants to hear, which is "never send more than once a week." That's because the question itself is fundamentally flawed. There's no one-size-fits-all answer because no e-mail program is exactly like another. Weekly e-mail works for one marketer, whereas that's too often for another, and not enough for a third.

My answer, which doesn't fit neatly into the standard Q&A format of your average e-mail workshop or panel discussion, begins: "What do you have to say that your recipients will want to hear?"

And that just starts the ball rolling.

Sure, you want to come up with an optimum frequency, because e-mailing on a regular schedule is an excellent way to build rapport with readers and establish yourself as a trustworthy sender. Yet there are multiple reasons for sending e-mail messages more or less often. It all depends on the kind of e-mail service you provide for your recipients.

It Starts Before the Opt-In

We talk a lot about establishing subscriber expectations. The place to start is at the beginning, when you explain your e-mail program to potential subscribers before they opt in. If you have to e-mail more often, then state it there in raw numbers (e.g., "two to four times a week" instead of "several times a week").

Suppose you're a news publisher. You might publish news stories every day, but you need the flexibility to send breaking-news e-mail when necessary, thereby making your product more valuable to subscribers who depend on your reporting. If you cover a variety of topics that generate news every day, the more active news subscribers could receive several e-mail messages a day.

It sounds like a classic "e-mail overload" scenario, but you can make it work if you offer an opt-in process with the same flexibility you require. To do that, you need two elements:

  • A preference center that clearly states what each e-mail newsletter will cover and how often it publishes, that provides individual sign-ups, and that adds a second layer of frequency to accommodate both the active news consumer and a more laid-back reader who wants the news but not so much e-mail each day.

  • Content that sticks closely to the focus as described on the preference page, both in the topic itself and in the publishing frequency. If it veers too far afield, it loses its value and begins to look like spam (which, as I've said repeatedly, has now become any e-mail the recipient doesn't want, even opt-in e-mail).

Good Example: The ClickZ Model

ClickZ is an excellent model here. This publisher generates multiple e-mail messages every day, mixing breaking news with Expert columns (like this one). I receive three to four e-mail newsletters a day from ClickZ, but it doesn't feel like overload. First, because I knew what I was getting when I signed up way back when. And second, because one e-mail I get weekly is a digest of everything ClickZ published during the week, so I can quickly review what I missed.

Without a workable preference center, though, it would be a mess. See how ClickZ does it here.

But what if you aren't a publisher with strong content, or your opt-in process doesn't allow for that much customization, or your content isn't compelling enough for high frequency?

In such cases, I still say you should review your reasons for sending e-mail and share them with your audience by being as specific as possible about the value your choices do offer.

Let's get away, for example, from the checkboxes labeled "specials and promotions" and "get our free newsletter" that don't explain what value they offer subscribers, what messages will contain, or how often they'll come.

Being upfront during the opt-in process and carrying that frankness through your entire program allows you to e-mail more often with less chance that you'll surprise or overwhelm subscribers with unexpectedly high volume. That's often what leads people to either unsubscribe or click the "report spam" button.

Even opt-in messages can turn into spam in subscribers' eyes if you send more than they expected to receive. In today's e-mail environment, where so much hinges on your sender reputation, the complaints the spam button generates damage your ability to send future mailings.

This is where we introduce testing and feedback monitoring to the discussion. When you're just starting out, you can test several different frequencies that relate to your content and e-mail goals. Adding a series of checkboxes or a blank space for unsubscribers to comment in can provide valuable feedback about content and frequency.

The Last Word: Keep Your Promises!

No matter what you promise during the opt-in process, you must honor it throughout the life cycle of your e-mail relationship with subscribers. Resist the temptation to sneak one or two "can't miss" e-mail messages through. You may get away with it once or twice, but keep it up and you'll pay for your aggression with more spam complaints and less customer engagement.

Until next time, keep on deliverin'!

Want more e-mail marketing information? ClickZ E-Mail Reference is an archive of all our e-mail columns, organized by topic.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Stefan Pollard

Stefan Pollard, who started his career in online marketing in 1999, was considered a selfless mentor and champion of best practices in e-mail marketing. He held the position of senior strategic consultant at Responsys where he was responsible for developing e-mail marketing and lifecycle messaging strategies to increase clients' ROI. Before that, Stefan led the e-mail consulting program for Lyris clients, frequently speaking at industry events on best practices. Prior to that, he managed the audit process and consulted with clients to improve their e-mail delivery challenges for Habeas. As an e-mail marketer, he spent several years building and executing acquisition and retention campaigns at E-Loan and Cybergold.com. He died May 14, 2010.

In Memoriam: Stefan Pollard
E-mail marketing community mourns the loss of a marketing pro dedicated to helping his peers and clients and working to improve an industry. Here are their tributes celebrating his life.

E-mail Marketing Expert Stefan Pollard Dies
An expert in deliverability is remembered as a champion of best practices and someone who selflessly gave of his time to others.

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