How to Empower Your E-mail Subscribers

At the DMA Annual conference last week, a B2B (define) marketer for a mid-sized software firm said to me, “I want to offer options for our e-mail subscribers, but my CMO is afraid that people will choose to get fewer messages and restrict our ability to promote widely.”

Alas, another e-mail preference center project dies on the vine.

This is part of the yin-yang of e-mail marketing. Marketers want to do the right thing by subscribers, but we also have a number to hit each month. Management wants us to keep the list large and growing, and to send more messages rather than fewer. Of course, there are penalties. High frequency with low relevance will depress inbox placement due to higher complaints (clicks on the “report spam” button in Gmail, Yahoo, or Outlook). An untargeted approach also churns the file, reduces response rates, and lowers lifetime value.

Those penalties are real, but so is the pressure to accept the long-term hit for a short-term gain. Plus, let’s face it, marketers are ever hopeful. We continue to e-mail subscribers who haven’t opened, clicked, or converted for a year or more. Tomorrow, we hope, will be the day that they respond!

Hope isn’t a strategy. A preference center is a great way for marketers to improve response rates by sending the kinds of messages subscribers actually want. Preference center data is also very helpful to convince management and internal brand owners about the optimal content and frequency for key segments of subscribers.

Despite those benefits, selling a preference center internally often fails because, fundamentally, most companies don’t want to give up control. We want to keep our marketing options wide open. If we respect subscriber preferences, we may not be able to e-mail anything we want at any time.

That is dangerous thinking in today’s socially connected world. Marketing is not about campaigns, it’s about relationships. Marketers must shed the idea that we control access to information about our own products and services. We’re here to engage and nurture, not broadcast. We don’t own the messaging as it gets passed along, but we can influence it. Preferences strengthen the relationship and help keep our messaging pure as it flows through subscribers’ networks.

Here’s how to make a strong case for a preference center — in terms that management understands.

  1. Revenue — now and later. Sending information that subscribers want, even if it’s less frequent, will earn higher response now, and improve the chances that subscribers will continue to engage and respond in the future. Prove your revenue opportunity by measuring for the same set of subscribers, the difference in response rates between messages that have explicit permission (information specifically requested by this subscriber) and messages with assumed permission (everything else). That lift can range between 2 percent and 200 percent, and is generally what you can expect to earn in overall revenue by targeting all your e-mail marketing by preference.
  2. Cost. Over mailing or sending irrelevant and untargeted e-mail messages has a cost — both in opportunity and real dollars. Subscribers who don’t find value will complain (clicking the “report spam” button) which depresses inbox placement for all your messages. If you don’t reach the inbox, you can’t earn a response. There is also a small, but real, cost and wasted marketing resource (pennies per message) to sending e-mail that no one is interested in reading.
  3. Data. Subscribers tell you about their interests and needs when they visit the preference center. Use that data to guide social and other digital content and improve the depth of connection with prospects and customers.
  4. Persona. Customers aren’t all created equal, nor do they have static needs. All great B2B marketing operates dynamically within the sales life cycle. Preference center data identifies subscribers who are moving in the cycle or have new needs (e.g., changing content selections) or are feeling neglected (e.g., lowering the frequency). Use that data to guide segmentation, targeting, and sales team outreach.
  5. Investment pays off. If you build it, they may not come. A preference center has to be marketed in order to provide value. Be sure to celebrate your preference center in the welcome message, on the unsubscribe page, in your Web site navigation, via Twitter, in your footer, and with dedicated e-mail messages. Like any other feature of your Web site, a preference center must have real value or it won’t be used.

Do you have a preference center that works? What engagement strategies have you employed? Let me know what you think, and please share any ideas or comments below.

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