I recently introduced my young son to the story, "Goldilocks and the Three Bears." As I read the story to him for the fourth time in a single day it occurred to me that Goldilocks may have a thing or two to teach email marketers. After all, her visit to the three bears' home entailed a few tests to help her identify her preferences. She sampled their porridge, their chairs, and finally their beds. In all three tests she gave each of her three options a try before deciding that the baby bear's "was just right."
As clearly illustrated by this children's book, many times in life there just isn't a one-size-fits-all solution. The same is true in email marketing. This makes answering persistent questions, such as how many emails a brand should send in a given period of time, complex and multifaceted. While conventional rules of direct marketing indicate that multiple touches to a targeted audience produce better response rates, ultimately, there is no industry standard to apply for email frequency regulation. Optimized frequency requires evaluating a combination of factors to help determine how your brand's recipients respond to your mailings. Let's take a page from Goldilocks' book…there is more than one moral to this story!
Goldilocks' Email Marketing Moral No. 1: Relevance and Timing Drive Engagement
Make no mistake, the order and timing of Goldilocks' tests had everything to do with the items' relevance to her most pressing needs. At first she was hungry, and then needed a place to sit while waiting for someone to return to the house to show her the way home. Finally, she felt sleepy and was compelled to test the beds for a little nap. The lesson here - relevance and timing are essential when determining your approach for reaching out to your customers.
Before you jump into the business of evaluating the number of messages you're sending, be sure to evaluate the quality of the content you're producing. You know the old marketing adage, "Get the right message to the right person at the right time." If this isn't happening, you are not likely to have great success with your frequency optimization either. A great place to start your relevance and timing evaluation is by tracking your inactive subscribers - those who haven't engaged with your company's email in an appropriately defined timeframe for your business. (This determination is typically related to your industry. For example, many retailers with holiday seasonality use a 365-day parameter here.) If this group is reflecting an increasing number it may be an indication that your content is not relevant for your audience. However, further investigation should be done to rule out the possibility that you are simply over-mailing your list, too.
Goldilocks' Email Marketing Moral No. 2: Make Your Frequency of Communication "Just Right" for Your Recipients
In all three instances of Goldilocks' sampling from the bears' home she determined the baby bear's porridge, chair, and bed to be "just right." She knew what she wanted and so do your customers! The best (and coincidentally easiest) way to determine the optimum frequency for your subscribers is to simply ask them. Give them as many opportunities as you can to share this information.
Include it in your preference center and allow for easy access in your messages:
Be sure to provide an option as a last ditch effort for those who are about to unsubscribe:
Of course, this will leave you with a large majority of your audience still to optimize. Here's my recommended approach.
Start by Analyzing Your Existing Email Program
Look at your performance metrics and set some preliminary benchmarks for your various message types. Metrics that indicate level of engagement with your brand will be most helpful here: open rates, viewed image rates, click rates, conversion rates, and unsubscribe rates should all be on your initial list. If you're able to go further with your analysis, try to identify your audience's frequency threshold, or the point at which there is no longer a positive lift in your email metrics.
Ideally, this work should be done against segments. Not only will segmenting your subscribers help you to provide them with more timely and relevant messaging, it will also help you identify varying thresholds of frequency among them. You'll most likely find that some segments are tolerant of much higher frequency while others need to be delicately managed as illustrated in this simple segmentation example:
Note: the math has been "dumbed down" to help illustrate the point that two segments of this example clearly tolerate many more communications than the entire dataset as a whole would indicate.
If you have access to professional analysts to perform this type of work it will likely be well worth your time and money.
Once you have your baselines established it's time to consider testing to help calibrate your optimal frequency for each segment. The ideal method for this type of testing involves directing different mailing frequencies (including the current one) to various customer segments (usually based on engagement levels). Tests can run between two to four months, and outcomes are evaluated in terms of comparative email opens, clicks, and conversions.
Three important steps to incorporate in your testing are:
Here again, I would highly recommend leveraging professional marketing analysts to help execute this type of testing to ensure it's done accurately.
Two final considerations for frequency optimizations:
…and you thought Goldilocks was just a silly little girl lost in the woods!
Goldilocks image on home page via Shutterstock.
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Tia Matsumoto is a Senior Planner on the Strategy & Analytics team at e-Dialog. She has 12 years of integrated marketing experience with an extensive background in business development, client services, and expertise in direct marketing with a digital emphasis. With proven success translating performance data into strategic action plans that increase brand exposure and leverage organizational position she has been integral in the development and execution of multichannel database marketing strategies for clients including: Abbott, American Airlines, AirTran, Calendars.com, Emergen-C, Kellogg's, NAPA Auto Parts, and The North Face.
March 19, 2014