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Quantity vs. Quality: The Email Marketer's Dilemma

  |  April 2, 2013   |  Comments

If we have the same underlying offer and target, how do we decide between making our emails better vs. managing sending more emails to the same group?

In a perfect world, a brand sends the perfect number of perfectly composed emails to elicit the maximum response possible. In the real world, email marketers must balance between quantity and quality.

Total email volume per sender is up about 5 percent year-over-year, according to the Experian Q4 2012 Quarterly Benchmark Study. The same organizations that are sending more haven't hired more people to manage that increased volume. And so they must make a decision: spend time creating more emails or better emails.

If we have the same underlying offer and target, how do we decide between making our emails better vs. managing sending more emails to the same group?

Arguments for Better Emails

Something about the quality of a single email makes a difference in response rates. Thousands of tests and studies tell us this. But just how much does quality help?

Imagine a welcome email for a typical retailer with the following engagement:

Open rate: 20 percent
Click-through rate: 5 percent
Value of a click (calculated by on-site conversion rate and average order value): $1

If 1,000 people received this email, then:

200 would have opened
50 would have clicked
$50 revenue was earned

Now, what if we improved subject lines to increase open rates by 10 percent? Then:

20 more people open
Five more people click
Five more dollars earned

Not bad, especially considering the increase will likely stick. Let's say we spend more time and improve the creative, possibly investing in a responsive design for better rendering on mobile email clients. Let's say this improvement increases click-through rates by 20 percent. Out of the original 1,000 who receive the email...

200 still open
60 click
10 more dollars earned

Again, we assume this gain will be incremental - lasting throughout the subsequent sends to this campaign. (This is especially true if you invest in something like a responsive design that can be used in other mailings.)

Of course, the primary tool to drive qualitative gains is the A/B test. Making a subtle change to your email and measuring how the change affects your response rate can easily add those incremental gains that last and make the investment in the setup worthwhile.

Arguments for More Email

We know better creative can drive a better response rate. The fact remains, however, that a majority of people won't open your beautifully crafted email. Whether the recipient is on vacation, triaging her email from a mobile device, or just isn't particularly interested in your brand at the moment, the time you invested in improving quality, at least for this one email, is wasted.

We've all heard that there is a certain number of touch points required before a customer will buy (anywhere from five to 11, I've heard). The important point is that the optimum number is more than one and less than 1,000. In other words, it's possible to send too little or too much.

There's a balance, and it's tough to find, because…

  1. Unlike quality, we can't continue to increase quantity without negative consequences.
  2. It's tough to know when too much is too much.
  3. Different recipients have different expectations, rules, and sensitivities to volume, and it can be difficult to elicit this from customer data if not explicitly requested (e.g., a preference center with volume options).

Difficulty aside, the hunt for an appropriate email cadence is critical for email marketers. Let's discuss the example above once more:

1,000 people receive a welcome message
20 percent (200) open rate
5 percent (50) click-through rate
$1 per click earned ($50 total)

Let's say we add two more emails to the series. It's likely that average open rate will fall, as will click-through rate. But if we assume that those who are clicking through on subsequent emails either didn't make a purchase earlier on, or, if they did, are likely to make another, we can assume that the revenue-per-click remains the same. With three emails then, we see:

1,000 people receive three messages (3,000 total delivered)
18 percent average open rate for all three messages (540 total unique opens)
4 percent average click-through rate (120 clicks total)
$120 total earned (at $1 per click)

So just by sending a few more emails we see a 2.4 times increase in revenue. Nice! But don't go sending more email just yet.

Unlike quality, when quantity increases too much, negative consequences occur. If you email too much, your unsubscribe rate will increase. You may get more revenue for the email series you've just sent, but you've lost the ability to reach out to some of those people ever again, which translates to lost revenue. Also, if you email so much, people may respond now and ignore you later. The current email results look good, but you see dropped engagement down the lifecycle.

Of course, the question is what is the reality in your business? How are open rates, click-through rates, and revenue-earned affected when quantity increases? If you can get 2.4 times more revenue from a program, these may be questions worth investing time in over creating better creative.

What Is the Best Mix for You?

Only you can tell. While the two scenarios above seem to paint a clear picture that quantity should be increased over quality, beware of the long-term negative effects of emailing too often or too infrequently.

Also, gains made in quality can more easily become persistent gains than gains related to quantity, which tend to center around a certain promotion or point in the lifecycle.

To better measure the effects of quantity, investigate implementing cohort studies to test different quantity mixes and improve your understanding of how quantity affects response rates.

The next time you're working on your campaigns, take a step back and ask, "What use of my time will result in a bigger long-term gain?" The answer will depend on your products, your current mailing mix, and your ability to measure response by email and over time.

Image on home page via Shutterstock.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Justin Williams

As one of StrongView's in-house marketing strategists, Justin Williams helps email marketers develop and implement strategic lifecycle marketing campaigns that are continually optimized to increase engagement and revenue. For the past five years, Justin has applied his expertise in email marketing, social media, web design, and other interactive marketing disciplines across a variety of industries, including retail, finance, media, and technology. In addition to founding his own consulting company, Justin has built go-to-market strategies for early-stage startups and worked with brands like Cisco, Qualcomm, and Geeknet. Justin holds a BA in cognitive science from the University of California at San Diego.

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