When Does More Email Become Too Much?

As the holiday season approaches, thousands of online marketers are asking themselves the same question:

“How many times can we email our customers without ticking them off?”

Email your customer base too little, and you’re leaving money on the table – a bad thing for all those dot-coms that know this holiday season is their last chance for survival.

Email your customers too often, and you’ll leave less on the table come the holidays. In the long run, however, your attrition rates will go through the roof, and you’ll have damaged the only real asset you have: the trust of your customers.

Tough call.

Makes you wish you ran a corner store instead. The thing about a corner store is that people walk by your door every day. On the way to work. To catch a bus. To visit friends. Or while driving the kids to soccer practice.

A brick-and-mortar store is out there, in real life and in plain sight, and customers don’t need to be reminded about the store’s existence over and over again.

An online store, however, is there only when people type in your domain name or click on your link. You depend on people sitting down in front of their computers, logging on, and coming to your site.

That’s a tough thing. Because it means that to keep people coming back, you have to keep sending out those emails. And every time you send out an email, you put your permission at risk. Make an appearance in my inbox too frequently and I’ll find out wherever it is you’ve tucked away that “Don’t bug me any more with your pesky emails” button.

“OK, no problem,” you say. “For this season, let’s just take a look at what we did last year. We can do that again this time.”

Well, probably not. Because the landscape has changed in the last 12 months. Since the last holiday season, it seems that an extra few million e-tailers have woken up and thought, “Hey, this email thing’s cool. Cheap, too. Let’s send emails — lots of ’em! — out to all our customers.”

The trouble is, their customer list overlaps with your customer list. Which means all those millions of customers will be getting a whole lot more emails this holiday season than they did last time.

Recently I had to stick my neck out and suggest to an e-tailer just how many times it should be emailing its customers over the next two-and-a-half months. I figured once every two weeks.

Is that figure right for you? I don’t know. You’ll have to figure it out yourself. But I wouldn’t try emailing people more than you did last year.

And I’d also be careful not to push too hard.

I don’t know about you, but I notice when an e-tailer starts pushing a little harder. One day the tone and style is friendly, one-to-one, conversational. The next day it’s all sales-speak and “Buy now!” And my guess is that a lot of other people notice it, too.

So here’s your “rock and a hard place” question for the holiday season:

Do you send out more emails now in a smash-and-grab rush to make as much as you can and keep your dot-com afloat a little longer?

Or do you protect that key asset — your customers’ trust — and hold back a little, showing some restraint and respect?

Well, I guess it depends on your situation. But if you possibly can, I’d advise the latter approach.

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