Making the Case for Relevance

Customers’ personal motivations exert more influence [on email open rates] than the time of day a message is sent or generic offers…

Julie M. Katz, Forrester Research
“Consumer Interests Drive Email Opens”
September 15, 2008

A recent Forrester Research report on e-mail open rates does a great job of driving home a basic tenet of e-mail marketing: the importance of relevance.

When consumers were asked to identify things that influenced them to open an e-mail, “Your Interests” was cited by nearly 60 percent of respondents. “Your needs at the time” was second, with more than 50 percent of consumers calling it an influence. Both of these answers point directly to the relevance of the e-mail content.

When I’m asked about open rates, the questions usually revolve around subject line and the best day/time to send. Forrester’s report showed both of these to be less likely to influence an open (30 percent and 9 percent, respectively) than relevance.

But increasing open rates isn’t the only reason to focus on relevance.

Relevance, defined as “something the prospect is interested in,” was one of three key attributes of successful permission marketing laid out by Seth Godin nearly 10 years ago in “Permission Marketing.” And just three years ago, David Daniels, in “The ROI of Email Relevance,” found that relevance “drives 60 percent of consumers who make immediate e-mail purchases.”

So relevance can not only increase your open rate, it can increase the return on your investment (ROI) in e-mail.

Relevance can also help you avoid the junk mail folder. A study late last year by MarketingSherpa and Q Interactive found that 56 percent of recipients considered e-mail from a known sender that was “just not interesting to me” to be spam. When the sender was unknown, that figure jumped to 68 percent.

It was nice to see relevance as a central topic at the recent “Lifecycle Messaging Email Conference” hosted by BlueHornet, which I spoke at earlier this month. But as much as it is talked about, many marketers have yet to fully embrace relevance as a critical part of their e-mail marketing program.

So why aren’t more e-mail marketers working on relevance? For many it’s a resource issue.

Relevance is a strategic endeavor; you need to segment your e-mail list and target your content to each group (or individual) to achieve relevance. It takes time and effort. Testing subject lines and the best day/time to send to your list is a tactical exercise. It isn’t easy, but it’s easier than segmentation, targeting, and achieving relevance.

Relevance requires you to either (a) ask your e-mail recipients to tell you what they are interested in or (b) observe their behavior, both on the Web site and in their interaction with e-mail, to determine what interests them.

Adding to the complexity: there are many ways to segment any given e-mail list. The key is to focus on the differences between groups and how you will target the messaging to each. If you complete your segmentation and then decide that you’ll treat all the groups the same, you need to revisit your model.

Marketers with legacy house e-mail lists often face another obstacle to segmentation: lack of information. If all you have is an e-mail address, how can you segment in a meaningful way? The answer is that you can’t; you have to invest in an outreach campaign motivating readers to tell you more about themselves or in advanced e-mail and Web site analytics, to observe the behavior you need to group them meaningfully.

And even then… you won’t get 100 percent response. There will be people who ignore your request to provide additional data; you will also find people who never interact with your e-mail or Web site, giving you no behavior to observe and segment by.

Once you do have the data you need to segment and target content, your work’s not done. You still need to develop relevant content based on this model on a regular basis, which takes still more time and effort.

So why work on relevancy? Because it’s critical to the long-term success of your e-mail marketing program. As e-mail volumes continue to rise, people are inundated with messages. Relevant content will make yours stand out from the crowd and deliver not just opens, but results, for years to come.

Take some time this week to think about how you can increase the relevance of your e-mail marketing program — and let me know what you come up with.

Until next time,


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