A Deliverable E-mail Address Does Not a Relationship Make

Does anyone else lament the commoditization of “friend” amid our socially connected, digital lives? I can like you on Facebook, follow you on Twitter, subscribe to your e-mail program and join your community.

But that doesn’t mean I want a relationship.

And that is a problem for marketing and sales people. There are lots of ways for people to connect with brands, but there are not many actual connections. Consider these stats from a national e-commerce retailer with a social forum on its website:

  • Only 2 percent of customers participate (e.g.: visit, post, comment, download) in the forum, although 35 percent of customers signed up.
  • 37 percent of the e-mail file has not opened or clicked or purchased in the past 180 days, even though 100 percent of the file gave active (single opt in) permission. Complaints are below a half a percent (clicks on the “report spam” button) and unsubscribe requests are rare (less than 0.5 percent).
  • 82 percent of all Twitter followers have never clicked on a link, sent a direct message (DM’d or replied) or re-tweeted (forwarded) a post. Of the 18 percent who have engaged on Twitter, the number of followers they have (a measure of influence) is generally below 35 people, but there are a couple who have more than 1,000 followers.

Your mileage may vary on those engagement stats, but the point is probably applicable to every marketer. Our challenge is no longer to be present, but to be valuable.

This matters for response – the holy grail of all marketing measures – but it also matters for inbox deliverability. Most mailbox providers and corporate system administrators use complaints as the primary measure of engagement. The fewer people who click the spam button, the stronger the connection. However, the global mailbox providers like MSN/Hotmail, Gmail, and Yahoo increasingly see the limits of complaints as a singular measure of subscriber value, and want to see not just that people don’t hate your message, but that they actually enjoy receiving them. This might include things like:

  • The e-mail address is one that the subscriber actually checks and uses frequently;
  • Messages are read before being deleted;
  • Frequency of active inbox management – which could be complaints on other senders or the use of filters
  • Feedback from surveys and panels (Hotmail has had a panel for years and other mailbox providers are considering them).

Mailbox providers don’t think of “engagement” the same way that marketers do, it’s not about opens and clicks. It’s about identifying the subscribers who actually find value in their inbox. Marketing messages can be valuable. Witness how important it is for customers to receive an e-mail confirmation of an order, for readers to receive their newsletter before 9 a.m. and the amount of revenue e-mail promotions drive. Clearly there is value there.

Yet, too many of us consider a deliverable address a “relationship.” That is just not so. Permission is not a relationship. Permission is just the starting point. Marketers must re-earn permission with every message we send. Only when subscribers are fully engaged – opening, clicking, sharing, converting – is there a relationship.

Most e-mail broadcast systems make it possible to segment your e-mail file, send triggered messages post activity (e.g.: purchase or download), automate customization of content as well as cadence by audience segment. Take advantage of these to nurture your subscriber relationships. While there may be some value in broadcasting, the value will only be for a small percentage of the audience with each message. Penalties for non-activity in e-mail are going to get harsher, as mailbox providers insist that marketers prove worthiness to be in the inbox by engaging larger segments of the audience. This will not be possible with a broadcast strategy.

As we move into the final quarter of the year and the inevitable rush of e-mail and other marketing, consider two to three ways to boost engagement and maintain a connection with a larger portion of your file. These might include:

  1. Customize the welcome message based on source to encourage a click and set an interactive, relevant tone from the first message. Early engagement drives future engagement.
  2. Trigger a feedback survey and link to the preference center for all new subscribers who have not taken any action (open, click, or convert) in the first 30 days of subscription.
  3. Segment the file based on simple demographics and purchase/website behavior. There are few good reasons to broadcast the same e-mail offer to your entire file.
  4. Match your inactive file (no opens, clicks or conversions in the past 180 days) to your Facebook or Twitter or community audience. If you have cross over, you may be more comfortable removing dead addresses without losing audience share. Do a win-back campaign series prior to removing addresses. Cleaning up your file now will significantly help you with deliverability this busy season.
  5. Specifically seek permission from people for higher frequency options this coming holiday season. We’ve seen retailers and B2B companies earn a 50 percent to 200 percent lift in response from these smaller, but more engaged files. It also avoids the cost of sending unwanted messages and the reduction of sender reputation due to higher complaints.
  6. At the very least, start to use a definition of “relationship” that truly reflects the level of engagement of your subscribers and followers. This will help you make good decisions about list hygiene, content and contact strategies and cross channel integration.

How do you define “relationship” today? Let me know any questions or thoughts in the comments section below.

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