E-Mail Complaints? It’s Your Fault

Last week’s ClickZ E-Mail Marketing Conference was a huge success. As in previous years, my favorite session was the “5 Experts/5 Minutes” session that ends the conference. I wrote about it a few years ago, and still think it’s the most entertaining session of the day. For a full hour, five experts have one minute each (patrolled by Rebecca Lieb with a bell) to succinctly answer real business questions from the audience.

Most of the questions this year had to do with day-to-day tactical e-mail issues, such as what to do with bounced e-mail and how to know if an ISP has blacklisted your messages. But there were also a few big-picture questions. My favorite (as attendees can attest) was this one: “We send out marketing e-mails on a regular basis. Our complaint rate is fairly high on these e-mails. What should we do?”

I was more than eager to answer this question, as were my colleagues on the panel (an illustrious group: Jordan Ayan, Jeanne Jennings, Jeanniey Mullen, and Al DiGuido).

First, thank users who complain. At least they’re alerting you to a problem and trying to help you solve it. They could’ve just unsubscribed and never told you about the problem at all. (I think Jordan Ayan was the first to say “thank them.”)

My response: “E-mail is a dialogue.” If you have a complaint rate, you’re doing something wrong with your e-mail. Most companies use e-mail simply as a one-way direct marketing channel, not as a two-way communications device. If you’re sending e-mail with irrelevant content that has nothing to do with users’ immediate needs, of course they’ll complain!

The solution? Talk to your subscribers. Engage in a dialogue. Make sure you’re sending them the information they want. Include a one- or two-question survey in your marketing e-mail messages asking readers if the content is useful to them. Web sites do this on FAQ pages now, some even do it on product pages. Always look for chances to ask for user feedback. Ask what else they’d like to hear about in your messages. If the e-mail is personalized, ask if the content is what they expected. If not, ask how you can improve it.

If your complaint rate measures at 20 percent, it’s probably really around 70 percent. The rest just aren’t saying anything. Plus, the group of complainers didn’t just decide to hate your e-mail. They probably hated it two months ago. They probably hated it four months ago. They probably even hated it six months ago. You’ve finally hit their last nerve, and they’re complaining (miraculously, not just unsubscribing). They’ve been giving you the benefit of the doubt this entire time, hoping you’d get your act together. But you haven’t.

It’s time to reevaluate your e-mail marketing strategy. Reach out to your subscribers. Ask if what you send is really what they want. If your messages aren’t personalized, it’s pretty obvious what you need to do next. If they are, find out how you missed the boat in your segmentation and personalization strategy, because you obviously aren’t doing something right.

Most important, view every customer touch point as an opportunity to foster dialogue. Don’t be afraid if it. At the least, you’ll engender loyalty by encouraging an open connection between your customers and your company. At most, you may learn something from your customers you didn’t know before. Either way, you both win.

Agree? Disagree? Let me know.

Until next time…


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