E-Mail Is a Two-Way Medium

This year marks my 10th anniversary in email marketing. Over the past decade much has changed, but there’s one thing I fully expected would change that hasn’t. Many marketers still don’t grasp the critical difference between email and offline direct marketing:

E-mail is a two-way medium.

It’s a very simple concept, but one with profound implications. Two major benefits of email is recipients’ responsiveness and the ability to track and monitor those responses. Most marketers love the ability to track HTML opens, click-throughs, even ROI (define) in real time. Though no one wants bounces, most understand it’s far preferable to know about addresses that no longer exist than not to know.

Yet I regularly meet marketers who view other types of response as undesirable and unwelcome. Some try to prevent responses or even ignore them. Years ago, I attended a seminar entitled, “A Complaint Is a Gift.” The key message was it’s essential for organizations to understand how many customers are dissatisfied and why. This goes double for email.

Interactive media puts the recipient in control, whether it’s time shifting in TiVo, ad blocking on the Web, or permission requirements in email. Rather than fight to restrict customer responses, embrace them. Accept that customers will respond to your messages in both positive and negative ways. Treat both as valuable gifts, and use those gifts to their full advantage.

To that end, don’t:

  • Ignore complaints. Abuse complaints, either direct or through ISP feedback loops, are a clear indicator your current processes aren’t working effectively. Simply removing complainants or, worse, ignoring them just stores up trouble for later. If you ignore complaints, you’ll eventually be blacklisted or even publicly lambasted (search Google for “spammed me“) and have to deal with those complaints on a much larger scale.

  • Attempt to prevent unsubscribes. Hiding your unsubscribe copy in a tiny footer, requiring double opt-out, or password entry isn’t a solution. If people want off, they want off. Don’t fight it.
  • Ignore or refuse responses. Don’t put copy to the effect of “this is a post-only address, your replies will not be read” in messages or accept the messages and then not deal with them. Definitely don’t send an autoresponse saying the email has been ignored.


  • Analyze complaints. You should perform at least as much analysis of who’s complaining and why as you do on who’s responding. When people complain, they usually tell you what’s wrong. Collect this information and analyze it. The numbers of complaints via ISP feedback loops (FBLs) are often high enough to perform statistical analysis of which groups of recipients are complaining.

    Just as you test creative treatments and subject lines for positive responses, test mailing frequencies and expectation setting measures for negative ones. For example, adding a welcome message that explains what recipients have signed up for, what they’ll receive, and how often they’ll receive it can substantially reduce complaints among new subscribers, statistically the strongest performing segment of any list.

  • Understand why people unsubscribe. Add an exit survey to your unsubscribe page to find out why they’re unsubscribing. Offer a profile management site so subscribers have more options other than just unsubscribing.
  • Route responses to customer service. Ensure replies to your email are forwarded to customer service just as they would be if the customer phoned, filled in a Web form, or used a live chat link.

    It’s significantly cheaper to respond to an inquiry by email than by phone. Don’t annoy your customers and push them to a more expensive communications channel when they’ve already opted for a cheaper one.

We’re all used to receiving and responding to email. It is and always has been a two-way medium. Rather than bemoan interactivity and the response it produces, consider it a gift. Use it to your advantage to improve marketing programs, customer service, and customer retention.

Until next time,


Want more email marketing information? ClickZ E-Mail Reference is an archive of all our email columns, organized by topic.

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