Lost – E-mail Sign-Ups

With the final episode of the epic television series “Lost” airing on May 23, I had to figure out how to connect this cultural phenomenon to the e-mail marketing world. I started down the path of the smoke monster and spam but like many of this show’s plots, I went down another path. Like the magical powers the island possesses, the emergence of social networks has also done wonders for e-mail as the primary traffic driver, but caused the once ubiquitous e-mail sign-up form to disappear much like the island that Jack, Kate, Sawyer, and Hurley have called home for the past few years.

“Sign up for our e-mail newsletter” used to be fairly standard somewhere on the home page for most companies. Once you think about it, what site doesn’t have giant Facebook and Twitter buttons plastered over the corner real estate where e-mail sign-ups used to happen? One would now think that most brands have abandoned e-mail for social as their go-to digital channel.

Of course, e-mail is stronger than ever. Conversely, e-mail acquisition is as weak as ever (and no, this column will not direct you to an ill-advised short cut that many list brokers advocate). Social marketing fever may be partially to blame, but how many of you know where your e-mail sign-up links are on your site? Exactly.

While I’m not a site user architect, I do know most executives envision their website as a place for customers and prospects to interact with their brand and get relevant information. Usually, media is driving people here and e-mail serves as an extension of that media buy through the beauty of the opt-in. So, if it costs $4 to get someone to your home page, don’t you want to keep talking to them after they leave? The answer is yes, but most marketers are still making that a hard thing to do, even if the site visitor really wants to. Finding an e-mail sign-up can often be a major task and that’s a shame.

I looked at the home pages of the top 10 retail sites and a handful of other top sites (ranging from Weather.com to The New York Times) to see if they offered an e-mail sign-up on the home page. My takeaway is that most companies are missing out on making it easy and obvious for site visitors to sign up and get e-mail updates and offers.

Of the 10 major sites I visited (including ABC’s Lost page), only two had e-mail sign-up offerings on their home page. Three made their social presence available on the home page without providing an e-mail option and five did not offer e-mail or a social call to action. Southwest Airlines deserves special recognition for actually giving e-mail prime real estate twice (!) on its home page and positioning its social options at the bottom of the page (obviously, ROI is influencing site placement at the quirky yet dominating airline and kudos for that happening).

Retailers, who generally depend on e-mail to generate substantial revenue, fared better when it came to merchandising their e-mail program.

All but three of the top 10 retailers made opting in for e-mail an option if you visited their home page. Interestingly, two of the three that don’t offer a clear e-mail sign-up path on their home page embody progressive retailing: Amazon.com and Best Buy. An old school anchor tenant, Macy’s is the third. (It should be noted that I have previously discussed this issue with Best Buy marketing representatives – ironically, on Twitter.)

Many marketing executives face a paradox because of the continued emphasis on e-mail list size as a key performance indicator. Often an e-mail program is judged by size alone. While I believe that’s a big mistake, you can’t grow your subscriber list if your potential subscribers can’t find your sign-up forms or if you fail to make it clear why they should sign up and what they may receive in return for their permission.

Eliminating e-mail registration from your home page in favor of social networks may please the internal team charged with creating a social presence, but your CFO may be the one to eventually question that. Marketing legend Stan Rapp has said the value of a single opt-in address is estimated at $118 and Epsilon recently valued an e-mail address at $23 over its lifetime (around four years). Yes, these numbers vary widely, but the point is they are worth something to each business. You can’t grow if you hide the cash register.

Compare this to a recent study by Vitrue, which valued Facebook fans at an average of $3.60. That means Starbucks’ 6.5 million fan base is worth a bit over $23 million and, using Rapp’s e-mail value, Coke Rewards’ 12 million reward e-mail subscribers are worth $1.4 billion.

I’m not suggesting eliminating e-mail or social engagement for the benefit of the other. As I have written here, the best e-mail programs are well integrated with social. But if you want to grow your database, make it easy to find and provide clear value. It is shocking to hear smart marketers complain that their e-mail database is stagnant when it takes four minutes and some good detective work to find a link to an e-mail sign-up page or communication preference center.

Consider a clear e-mail sign-up your magic magnetic property, like the ones that brought Oceanic Flight 815 to the mysterious island in the Pacific. So the moral of this story, like Lost, may be tough to figure out, but your e-mail destiny can be influenced by the choices you make. Make it easy for them to find you and then you can continue the conversation, and regardless of your math, that is worth something.

What are your e-mail marketing priorities? Take this quick 10-question survey and we’ll share the results back in a future column. Thank you!

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