Get Rid of the F-Word

In my travels as a market analyst, a top question I’m consistently asked by email marketers is, “What should my campaign frequency be?”

What people are really asking is, “How many times can I email my customer before they complain and I get diminishing returns?” At industry events, I regularly encounter passionate sidebar conversations about frequency, almost as if we’re all singing along to the REM tune, “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?”

My answer is simple: Send when the email is relevant.

E-mail marketers should think of frequency as equaling relevancy, and relevancy is equal to our ability to anticipate specific customer needs by understanding behavior and lifecycles. A still easier method is to think in terms of continuity. I suggest we forget the f-word (frequency) altogether and think in terms of continuity instead. E-mail shouldn’t be viewed as a single event that happens X number of times a month, but rather as a tactic to push the customer through multiple steps, steps tied to a lifecycle.

Consumers don’t think in terms of a set frequency of promotional messages. A Jupiter Research survey found consumer preference for email frequency is inconsistent. When respondents were asked to choose between weekly, biweekly, monthly, or bimonthly, none won out. Less than a third of respondents chose each option.

A similar survey question posed to marketers found that overwhelmingly, marketers had locked into a set frequency of weekly, biweekly, monthly, or bimonthly. In this survey, only 16 percent of marketers triggered the frequency of their campaign to a specific customer event (e.g., cart abandon) or a specific lifecycle (e.g., product). Such low adoption presents a tremendous opportunity to use continuity to improve the relevancy of email campaigns.

When crafting relevant offers, marrying the correct content to the right segment is the more difficult leg of the relevancy riddle. The other leg — frequency — is much easier to manage, even without sophisticated segmentation.

Try these examples:

  • Product lifecycle. A manufacturer mails offers for consumable accessories that are tied to the lifecycle of the products. This approach can apply to warranties and contract expirations. One savvy wireless carrier emails its lapsed clients after 11 months, knowing they will likely be in market for a new cell plan based on the common 12-month agreement.

  • Market lifecycle. As consumers, we find ourselves swimming against the tide of market lifecycle. Mortgages are a good example of mailing to a customer at requested intervals, such as when rates change, and doing this for only 45 to 60 days, knowing the consumer is in market only for a short time. Travel is another category most consumers tend to buy in a market lifecycle manner, such as a winter or summer vacation.

  • Broken lifecycle. Look for clues in customer behavior when a lifecycle is broken or beginning. For example, some retailers and manufacturers remove customers from email marketing offers when the customer has called for product support. These merchants replace the more offer-rich content with softer informational newsletter content.

Adopting such an approach helps limit overexposure, a perception your email is irrelevant, or, worse, that it’s spam. To effectively execute a lifecycle-driven continuity approach, you need technology that allows for a mailing governor.

A mailing governor is a set of rules that guides and limits the frequency and recency of campaigns. One challenge of moving to a more continuity-oriented campaign is lifecycles and events may overlap, actually causing the customer to get more mail than before.

To guard against this, set frequency and recency caps, rules that govern how often customers will get email from the sending corporation. If you have multiple business units vying for the same customer list, use product or campaign profitability as the primary means to determine which division gets to send mail first. By doing these things well, you can limit the number of overall messages and only send the ones that are highly profitable and relevant to customers.

Next time someone asks what your frequency is, tell them you’ve switched to an entirely different spectrum and you’re now dialed into relevancy.

David is off this week. Today’s column ran earlier on ClickZ.

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