The Importance of Expectations

Recently, I’ve been working with two major corporations with the same email problem. AOL tightened enforcement of its 10 percent bounce rate and 0.1 percent complaint rate target thresholds. This increases the pressure on marketers to determine why recipients who opted in to receive their mailing were complaining about those messages.

These mailings weren’t sent to the usual suspects: rental, third-party, co-registration, or prior business relationship e-append; they were sent to the house list. All recipients were customers or prospects who explicitly and knowingly opted in to receive email communications. Further, the lists hadn’t been repurposed, that all-too-common process of sending subscribers something other than what they’d signed up for. All recipients had agreed to receive the messages they were getting.

So why were these recipients hitting the “this is spam” button in such high numbers? What was wrong with the process?

Expectations. Both these companies were making some simple, yet common, mistakes.

Vagueness Equals Flexibility?

The first error was at signup. I call it the “vagueness equals flexibility” fallacy. It’s caused by two primary factors. First, companies don’t want to unnecessarily limit how they can market to individuals. Read a major company’s privacy policy sometime. Far too often, it’s written to protect the company from liability by permitting it to do virtually anything it wishes with any data you provide.

The second factor is uncertainty. Marketers often don’t know precisely what campaigns they’ll run over coming months and years. They don’t want to risk having a database full of recipients to whom they cannot market. As a result, many subscription pages are extremely vague about what subscribers will or won’t receive.

Just because an organization has a legal right to send a particular email to a given recipient doesn’t mean the recipient wants to receive it. Recipients believe they’ve given you permission to send what they expect. That’s what determines their acceptance of your messages.

The Communications Vacuum

The second error was the communications vacuum error. Subscribers could go weeks, even months, between signup and the first communication. This isn’t uncommon in large organizations. With different groups and vendors running the site, data warehouse, and marketing programs, coordination is complex and communication can be slow.

Instead of a confirmation or welcome message, they got silence — followed by campaign messages. It’s hardly surprising some recipients were taken aback and complained. Even if they did remember subscribing, they had little information about what they would receive, how often they’d receive it, and for how long. If there was a value proposition, it wasn’t clear.

Effectively Set Expectations

Studies indicate email users suffer from fatigue and information overload. They’re also frustrated with spam, phishing, and viruses. You must effectively set expectations, then meet them. Here’s what I recommended to our clients:

  • Be as precise as possible. Let recipients know what and how often you send. If you may run ad hoc campaigns, say so. Offer choices when people sign up. Although most marketers want to maximize list size, sacrificing quality for quantity isn’t wise. It’s better to have someone opt out at signup than provide a false address or complain later.

  • Confirm subscriptions. Send a confirmation message as soon as possible after signup. If you can’t accept the loss from confirmed (or double) opt-in, at least ensure the confirmation message lets subscribers opt out if they subscribed in error.
  • Send introductory welcome messages. When recipients are added to an ongoing campaign, such as a newsletter, send an initial welcome message. Tell them what they can expect to receive, how often, and how they can change their subscription preferences.
  • Provide profile management. Put recipients in control of what they receive. Better to have recipients remove themselves from a single newsletter or campaign than to have them entirely opt out of all future communications. This holds particularly true in light of CAN-SPAM.

Implementing these recommendations can be technically challenging, but they go well beyond being idealistic best practices. They’re the basic requirements of well-run email campaigns. Start implementing them now to avoid trouble in the future.

Until next time.

Want more email marketing information? ClickZ E-Mail Reference is an archive of all our email columns, organized by topic.

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