Arrival Time and Response Rate Decline

If you’re like me, every morning you arrive at work and find yourself wading through dozens, even hundreds, of email messages. You must determine which to read and which to delete. Until someone invents software that does this automatically, I have an inbox routine. Going through it the other day got me thinking about email arrival time and its impact on how recipients responds to email marketing.

I did a quick analysis on one day’s worth of nonpersonal email (senders were not people I know): spam, newsletters, legitimate opt-in offers, alerts, and so forth. Here’s what I found:

Time Period E-mail Messages Received Per-
centage of Day’s Total
Time Period E-mail Messages
centage of Day’s Total
12-1 a.m. 27 5 12-1 p.m. 18 3
1-2 a.m. 21 4 1-2 p.m. 19 3
2-3 a.m. 29 6 2-3 p.m. 24 5
3-4 a.m. 27 5 3-4 p.m. 31 6
4-5 a.m. 22 6 4-5 p.m. 22 4
5-6 a.m. 28 6 5-6 p.m. 22 4
6-7 a.m. 22 4 6-7 p.m. 24 5
7-8 a.m. 22 4 7-8 p.m. 27 5
8-9 a.m. 10 2 8-9 p.m. 26 5
9-10 a.m. 13 2 9-10 p.m. 24 5
10-11 a.m. 21 4 10-11 p.m. 14 2
11 a.m.-12 p.m. 20 4 11 p.m.-12 a.m. 5 3
Total email messages = 518

This may appear fairly evenly spread at first glance, but the picture changes if you look beyond straight hourly averages. Out of the 518 email messages received in a 24-hour period, 40 percent (208 emails) arrived between midnight and 9 a.m., when I wasn’t at work. Add all the email delivered after business hours the previous day — say from 8 p.m. to midnight — and it’s an additional 69 messages. So when I open Outlook at 9 a.m., what I see is 13 hours of email (8 p.m.- 9 a.m.) that account for 53 percent (277 emails) of the nonpersonal messages received during this 24-hour period.

It’s much, much worse on Mondays when all the weekend email has accumulated. It works out to about 1,342 emails over a 61-hour period. You can just imagine how eager I am on Monday mornings to clean out my mailbox. The mission is search and destroy, not read and respond.

Morning Inbox Routine

Let’s look at that morning process for a moment. Here’s how I identify email for deletion. Some of you may not use the preview function, but the process still applies:

  1. My Outlook is set to display 16 messages per screen. I scan all as a group to see if any are personal messages from real people or if any companies or spammers pop out from the nonpersonal messages. To make this determination, I look at return addresses and subject lines. As I do, I’m hell-bent on separating the wheat from the chaff — quickly.

  2. Typically, I identify solid blocks of messages that can be deleted because so many nonpersonal email messages arrive at the same time. Using the shift key, I highlight the first and last items in a block I want to delete, then delete them en masse. Simpler and faster than deleting one at a time.
  3. In some cases, there are messages I want. I use the control key to highlight one email at a time until all the ones I want to delete are highlighted. It’s not long before I get lazy and revert to mass deletion.

I’m willing to bet most people review and delete email similarly. Know what? This may be a major factor behind any response rate declines. Depending on how many messages a given email client displays in one window, your email is one of several being evaluated as part of a block rather than given individual attention.

To deal with the mounting problem of inbox clutter, people are developing “block mentality.” They think, “OK, how I can delete a whole lot of these messages without having to look at and delete them one at a time, while keeping messages I actually want to read?”

When people operate under block mentality, the odds of having your email considered individually are roughly one in the number of email messages per screen, possibly worse. It depends on the recipient’s email client and scrolling habits.

Not very good for email marketers, is it?

Timing Your E-Mail’s Arrival

There’s an easy solution: Time email to arrive during the off-peak hours between 9 a.m. and 8 p.m.

Consider this: From 9 to 10 a.m., I received just 13 nonpersonal messages, almost all of which were interspersed with personal messages. These 13 stood out. I found myself at least considering each on its own merit.

Over the course of a workday, people may be in meetings or otherwise occupied. As a result, several hours’ worth of email can pile up. It’s still nowhere near the sheer volume that greets them when they arrive at work in the morning.

An 11-hour potential mailing window is still a long time. When to mail remains a decision.

There’s more involved in timing email than numbers. The recipient’s mindset plays a key role. At 9 a.m., she’s slogging through a mountain of email, searching for important messages so she can get down to work — not exactly the right environment for your message. You want to reach people when they’re relaxed and unhurried, not uptight and annoyed.

If you’re targeting business people, try to deliver between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. After 4, your message is at risk of being lumped in with the nighttime load. You also want to avoid the 4-6 p.m. slot. Chances are good people are winding up the day and are eager to get home — hardly a responsive frame of mind.

If, on the other hand, you’re targeting people at home, the 9-11 p.m. block may well be the most effective. Your target audience arrives home from work. They have dinner and, at some point during the evening, sit down at their PCs. Like businesspeople at 9 a.m., a “home” audience has a lot of email to deal with at 7 or 8 p.m. By waiting until later (10 a.m.-11 p.m. on weekends), you can email people at home at an effective time.

Other Factors and Response Rate

Message content and time zones are also factors to consider when mailing by daypart.

Naturally, you must measure response rates. Assign a different tracking code for various time periods. Coordinate with your email service bureau to ensure test cells are delivered when you want them to be, for example:

Quantity Code Delivery Time
5,000 XDF805 9 a.m.-12 p.m.
5,000 XDF810 12-4 p.m.

Unless all the marketers who keep sending me messages have tested time-of-day delivery and found early morning to work as well or better than the remaining 15 hours, this should be a no-brainer.

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