Email marketers invest millions each year to achieve relevance, working to integrate transactional and behavioral data into email templates in the hopes of delivering the right message at the right time. The problem is that the right message at the right time does little to benefit the brand if it’s never opened.
To deal with lackluster open rates, many email marketers look to subject lines and subject line testing. This is a defined best practice and if executed correctly will almost always result in at least a short-term lift in engagement. I would argue that the issue, though, goes well beyond subject lines to the initial perception a subscriber develops regarding your email program.
While no study exists that I am aware of, I would argue that brands have one to three emails to set a tone of value with their subscribers. Once that sense is lost, so is engagement, and getting it back is nearly impossible. Email marketers need to reinvest in the front end of the customer lifecycle and focus on setting the tone for the ongoing email relationship.
Data Capture and Preference Management
Marketers are mixed as to the importance and practicality of preference centers. Everyone agrees that the collection of data from a subscriber detailing their interests is valuable – especially at the beginning of a relationship where transactional data is limited. However, arguments against implementing preference centers are common. The primary two reasons being that consumers are unwilling to provide brands with meaningful preference data or that putting control in the customer’s hands will limit a brand’s ability to monetize the email channel. In my opinion, both objections are misplaced.
The first argument, that customers are unwilling to provide data, is ridiculous. Customers regularly provide businesses with personal information. Banks and insurance companies maintain a huge amount of personal information. Why? Because the value trade-off is easily understood by the consumer:
Fill out information for my bank = get a line of credit.
Provide information to my insurance company = get coverage for my family.
Where is such a clear value proposition made between brands and subscribers in the email channel? The answer is simple; there isn’t. Brands need to make preference centers more valuable to the subscriber than to the brand. Today, they are built and executed to help the marketer. If this approach is flipped and preference centers are built to benefit the subscriber, participation will increase and relationships will deepen. In exchange for providing profile information, subscribers should get exclusive access to content and offers, be invited to participate in focus groups, or earn loyalty points and rewards for their commitment to the relationship. If brands communicate these concepts at the front end of the subscription process, they will reap the rewards of deeper consumer-set preferences.
The second argument is that, if given the choice, consumers will ask the brand to decrease message frequency. While many brands have already dialed down frequency or have rules in place to do so, they still want to maintain control over these decisions. Tests have repeatedly shown that frequency declines can help drive higher conversion rates. More importantly, the entire social web movement is about increased transparency and control. Brands should embrace this trend, not fight against it. I have seen several preference centers that not only enable frequency control, but allow users to initiate new communication opportunities. FTD, for example, allows subscribers to input customer dates to remind them of personal events that require flowers or select holiday reminders via checkboxes. Consider how putting increased control in the subscriber’s hands could help drive a deeper relationship and more meaningful communications, even at a decreased communication frequency.
The Welcome Program
Most email marketers have implemented a welcome message, but unfortunately they stop there, with a single message. It’s like meeting a person for the first time, shaking hands, and suddenly turning tail and walking the other direction – all the while feeling that you have planted the seeds for a deep, personal relationship. A welcome message is just that, a message, and it is only the first piece of the welcome program. The welcome program is the brand’s opportunity to establish the value of the digital relationship and credibility in the email program as a whole. Brands cannot simply accept a subscription, deliver a welcome communication, and insert the subscriber in the general cadence of communication. Each subscriber should be indoctrinated in a way that reinforces the initial subscription.
The welcome program should accomplish all of the following:
- Confirm subscription: The welcome program is an excellent confirmation opportunity. Weed out non-responders before they have a chance to create a negative reputation for your brand with ISPs.
- Explain cadence and value of upcoming communications: Show actual examples of future communications, explain the frequency of delivery, and stress the value of each communication in the stream.
- Educate on brand’s engagement opportunities: Email is not the only way a subscriber can engage with a brand. Explain other opportunities to get connected to the brand on the web, in social media, or on mobile devices.
- Ask for and reward referrals: There is never a better time to solicit referrals than on the front end of a relationship. Ask for and reward your subscribers for referring their friends to your brand. Social media has made word of mouth scalable. Make sure your brand is taking advantage of it.
Triggered Reengagement Capabilities
Once subscribers become unengaged, it is very difficult to reactivate them. Build rules into your welcome stream that recognize disengagement and attempt to reengage in real time. Too many brands wait until subscribers have been non-responsive for months before trying to reengage.
Email marketers should remember that our channel is subject to the same psychological realities as general human interactions. The bottom line: first impressions mean more than they should. Remember that and invest in making it the best possible.