E-Mail: Less Is Always More

You’ve seen the predictions of astounding spam growth over the next few years. Jupiter believes the average person will receive 2,500 spam messages in 2003 alone. For legitimate email marketers, spam must surely be the biggest barrier to reaching consumers.

Not quite.

Incredibly, the biggest barrier to reaching consumers via email isn’t spam; rather, it’s the staggering volume of messages sent by legitimate marketers.

I recently completed a Jupiter study examining best email marketing practices for travel companies. To this end, I set up a new Yahoo email account to subscribe to email campaigns from various travel companies and to track messages I received.

Within three weeks, my mailbox was full.

I received Yahoo’s 4MB limit from travel companies within three weeks. I cut off the experiment after a month, having received over 120 messages.

Jupiter had forecast that this year, the average person will receive 65 email messages each month from companies mailing to house lists. We’re in the process of updating the study. I believe that figure will be higher when we release the new forecast.

E-mail message frequency is an overlooked topic. Most companies settle on one frequency and never re-visit the decision. Most travel companies decided to send a weekly message containing weekend specials, plus an assortment of newsletters touting discounts and loyalty program benefits. We found nearly all email messages sent by travel companies were used to highlight fare and rate specials. Each month, a consumer who subscribes to even a handful of travel companies’ email programs receives literally hundreds of travel deals.

How many trips can one person possibly take? And, if companies always offer specials, are they still so special?

Over-mailing discount offers to consumers is hardly limited to travel companies.

My colleague David Daniels conducted a similar piece of research and found similar results in the retail sector: 78 percent of retailers feature discounts in email messages, though few bother to mention benefits of the products they sell.

E-mail marketers are caught in a rut. They send too many messages, too often. They contain too many offers. Because of email’s low cost and seemingly infinite space allocation, many of an email marketer’s co-workers believe they can stuff as many offers into a mailing as they’d like. Product managers are rarely concerned with whether consumers are burned out on email campaigns. They’re focused on short-term results. Too often, product managers believe an emailer can “just squeeze one more offer in the newsletter,” without affecting the quality or efficacy of the mailing.

They’re wrong.

E-mail managers must educate colleagues who promote the products advertised in their mailings. This should focus on two areas:

Long term results: Product managers are aware how their product performs, but they’re likely not aware of how company email campaigns perform over time. Simply sharing campaign results with these managers should help convince them long-term campaign effectiveness depends on the cooperation of the entire organization.

Basic direct marketing principles: Test, Test, Test. I could write a column every day of my life espousing the importance of testing messages. Most email marketers would still not get this basic point: The only way to determine the optimal the content of an email message is to test. It’s that simple. Yes, I see reports all the time from email service providers who lament the lack of testing done by their clients. The product manager wants to include a paragraph of text describing the product? Test it. Your boss wants to increase newsletter frequency to three times per week? Test it. With hard data as a backup, it’s much more difficult for co-workers to weasel new content into newsletters “because I think it should be in there.” With testing, there’s no “I think.” Just quantitative proof.

In email marketing less is always more.

(Unless you test and learn otherwise).

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