How to Improve Your Process for Acquiring E-mail Subscribers

As 2010 unfolds, I’m seeing more marketers shift attention to list growth. This is a good step, because a strong, growing mailing list is the heart of your e-mail-marketing program. But, acquisition programs can come with a caution.

Too often, when marketers start focusing on growth, they’re not asking, “How can I polish up my acquisition practices so my list attracts more qualified, engaged subscribers?” They’re really saying, “How can I grow my list 50 percent this year?”

That second focus can lead to tactics like one retailer’s recent e-mail, which greeted prospective customers with this message: “Check it out! We think you’ll have a lot in common, so we added you to (our) e-mail list.” This practice is so wrong!

You don’t build a good mailing list by assuming your recipients will be interested, and you can’t cover your actions by including an opt-out link. As with recovery or reactivation programs, you need an explicit opt-in. “No response” does not equal consent.

Prechecked boxes on opt-in forms with fuzzy language and rented lists with dicey permission are other ways marketers build lists fast but open themselves to spam complaints, unsubscribes, and inactivity in the bargain.

Meaningful Choices Trump Permission

Permission is the starting point. Give prospective subscribers enough information to know what to expect from your e-mail program and to sign up knowingly for your e-mails. Prechecked boxes and “conjunction” acquisition don’t provide meaningful choices.

“Conjunction” acquisition looks like permission but really isn’t. It happens when you add the requirement to receive e-mail messages into the fine print of your terms of service or privacy policy when people buy from you, create an account, enter your contest, or participate in your social network. (Pay attention, Facebook application developers!)

Examples: someone creates an account and gets your e-mail, buys your product and gets tossed into your broadcast stream, or enters a contest and gets added to your third-party rental list.

Solution: lose the conjunction. First, ask people to sign up for these lists. Then, tell them exactly what they can expect from your e-mail.

If you’re having trouble articulating these expectations or if you don’t want to be too specific, it says your e-mail program lacks focus. But that’s a problem for another ClickZ column.

Your First 2010 Challenge: Audit Your Acquisitions Practices

The opt-in blank on your Web site’s home page is probably not the only place you collect e-mail addresses. Take an inventory of all your sources of address collection, including these:

  • Quick sign-up form on home page
  • Web registration page (for site use, downloads, demonstrations, contest entries, social networks, etc.)
  • Transactional process
  • Co-registration arrangements
  • Affiliate opt-ins
  • List rental
  • E-mail appends
  • Customer service/support staff
  • Point-of-sale (POS) customer forms
  • POS registrations by salespeople
  • Trade-show requests
  • Any other source, particularly offline

Once you compile your list, ask yourself these questions:

  1. Do I get the subscriber’s explicit permission at each source?

    Don’t assume that the person handing over an address is also asking to receive your e-mail. Think of the last time you were at a store that also sells online. Did the salesperson say, “Would you like to receive our weekly e-mails with news and special offers” or just, “What’s your e-mail address?”

    It’s a subtle difference, but it can spell the difference between an actively participating subscriber (one who interacts with your messages) and a potential spam complainant.

    Your acquisition process must include a positive action directly related to your e-mail program, such as filling out a form to request e-mail or checking a box with clear language. A site registration, purchase, or contest entry might not have that direct e-mail connection, but it should.

  2. Does the language that asks for the address also explain what I’m going to do with it and set clear expectations?

    The previous example shows the difference between just asking for an e-mail address and setting expectations in a one-to-one setting.

    Online, where your prospects are more likely to encounter your e-mail program, you have more opportunities to control the message, both in explicitly asking for the opt-in and in setting expectations.

    Ask yourself, or a friend, neighbor, or relative who isn’t in the e-mail business, “What would a reasonable person expect to receive after filling out my form?”

    Adding more language at the opt-in or creating a welcome program for new subscribers can help set expectations up front and reduce negative actions later by your newly collected subscribers.

  3. Do I know where my spam complaints are coming from?

    Even best-in-class marketers get spam complaints. So, learn from them. For example, they can help you find weaknesses in your acquisition process.

    Segment your mailing list according to acquisition source, meaning where the point at which your complainant entered your list. Then, compare spam complaint rates across the segments.

    Let’s say most of your complaints come from addresses generated via affiliates, list rentals, or e-mail appends. Now you know where to focus your repair efforts.

    Don’t wait for someone to file a spam complaint to root out weak acquisition sources. When you segment by source, you can find out which sources are associated with high inactivity or unsubscribes as well. You also quickly identify the most valuable channels for acquiring new names. This can lead to focus and efforts to expand them and grow an active list.

    All of this information can be used to shore up your acquisition practices. Doing this, in turn, will lead to a much stronger e-mail program with healthy deliverability rates down the road.

Until next time, keep on deliverin’!

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