Get ‘Em to Tune In, Not Drop Out

This morning, my colleague told me about an unusual dilemma he’s facing. He’s a regular at a coffee shop near our offices. For some reason, the manager has begun chatting with him every time he goes in.

The fellow consults my friend on potential discount offers and suggests he bring coupons back to our offices. Yesterday, my colleague only wanted to buy a quick drink, having come in late after a breakfast meeting. But as soon as he walked in, the manager ordered the cook to re-start the grill and to make my colleague’s usual breakfast. He made such a big deal out of it, my friend ended up with breakfast number two. How could he refuse? The manager has decreed he gets a 10 percent discount on his every purchase.

The story reminds me of some email relationships. The coffee shop manager consults his customer, offers discounts and remembers his customer’s preferences. He seems to be doing everything right. What’s bothering my friend, though, is the intensity of the relationship the manager seems to be seeking. I mean, my co-worker likes this place, but he has no interest in becoming that involved. It’s just a breakfast/lunch place to him, not a serious relationship. If I were him, I might stop frequenting the place, just to send the manager a message.

Turns out that’s how a lot of email marketing recipients feel. Next to spam, receiving too many emails from legitimate marketers is the biggest concern consumers have about their inboxes, according to a DoubleClick Consumer E-Mail Study released this month. Forty-two percent of respondents note too-frequent emails as a concern in 2003; compared to only 28 percent last year.

“Even permission-based email can be offensive if it’s received too often,” said Scott Knoll, DoubleClick’s vice president and general manager of marketer solutions, when presenting the study.

Here’s a breakdown of how frequently respondents say they want to hear from mailers in different categories, according to DoubleClick’s research:


  • news
  • weather


  • special offers from retailers, online merchants and catalogers


  • account statements
  • bill payment communications

While those were the most popular responses, more than 20 percent of respondents wanted special offers to come monthly, not weekly.

Here’s how often apparel marketers send to their email lists (judging by my inbox in October):

  • Eddie Bauer: six days intervals, on average.
  • Land’s End: seven days intervals, on average.
  • Gap: usually seven days intervals. One mailing came only two days after another.
  • Old Navy: all over the place, from two weeks to two days.
  • Ann Taylor: monthly (only one received in October).
  • Neiman Marcus: monthly (only one received in October).

E-mail agency Quris has looked at the issue, too. “In the travel industry, consumers like to receive more emails than in the financial services industry,” says Simon Greenman, vice president of marketing and business development at Quris. “Travelers like to shop around more. So there’s no one right frequency, but frequency is the biggest determinant of engagement or lack of engagement.”

If you mail too frequently, customers are probably going to leave, like I’d do if that real-world shop manager started to bug me too much and too often. A recent Quris study confirms that suspicion. Researchers found nearly half of consumers surveyed (45 percent) stopped doing business with companies altogether due to poor email practices. Guess what’s most likely to make people lose interest?

“The number one reason someone’s going to be booted from the ‘inner circle’ is frequency. What frequently happens is that companies train their customers to ignore them with frequency,” says Greenman. “If you send it too often and I’m busy, I’m just going to hit the delete key. If you send it again and I’m too busy, I’m just gong to delete it again.”

Worse, Quris found the folks who quit doing business with companies that flood them with email (dubbed “Permission E-Mail Program Punishers”) are actually the biggest online spenders. “Punishers” reported an average 11.9 online purchases over the past year, compared to others’ 9.2. “Punishers” spent an average of $1,125 online in the last year, others spent $939.

What can you do to determine optimal frequency? Establish a preference center. Let customers declare how often they’d like to hear from you. Take note of people’s behavior over time, not just on a single campaign. Look and see whether a recipient seems to lose interest over the past 60 or 90 days (reflected in lower open and click-through rates). If that happens, mail less frequently. And of course, make sure your content is relevant.

The temptation to increase frequency — especially if email marketing is working well — may be irresistible as the holiday season approaches. Resist the impulse. Remember, people are going to be busier than ever over the next couple of months. Respect their time. Train them to tune in, not drop out.

Related reading