Oxfam: The Important Relationship Between Trust & Email Success

Oxfam, the global charity, has been in the press for all the wrong reasons recently. I won’t dwell on the accusations of abuse and sexual misconduct that have been made against Oxfam representatives in Haiti and the Philippines. However, they do illustrate how events in the broader environment can impact email program performance.

In the DMA UK’s recently released Consumer Email Tracker report, one in five respondents said they would mark an email as spam because of: 1) loss of trust with the sender’s brand; 2) a negative customer experience, or; 3) they simply no longer like the brand in question.

Consumers may have no issue specifically with a brand’s email program. However, if they are negatively disposed for other reasons (e.g. bad press), and their next touchpoint with that brand is an email, they will be more likely to engage negatively—by marketing the email as spam.

Oxfam’s recent complaint rate trend clearly illustrates this principle:

Reporting from Return Path’s global consumer data network.

For context, it’s worth noting that in Return Path’s 2018 Hidden Metrics of Email Deliverability report global average Complaints rates are 0.17 percent – Oxfam is currently running 10x higher!

In fairness to Oxfam, this is by no means the only example where erosion of consumer trust has an impact on email performance:

  • In May 2015 when Olive Cooke, an elderly fundraiser, committed suicide because of aggressive donation tactics, the UK charity industry as a whole felt the backlash. Average Complaint rates increased six times and campaign activity was scaled back by 25% for several months afterward.
  • The Ashley Madison data breach (also in 2015) saw their average email filtering rates increase by 50 percent in the three month period after the story broke. Read rates declined by a similar ratio.
  • When the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) fined Morrison’s supermarkets in 2016 for deliberately sending 130,671 emails to previously opted out recipients, Complaint rates in the week following the judgment increased four times.
  • In 2017, both Byron Burgers and Deliveroo saw their average read rates for their respective programs reduce by 1/10 in the months following negative press coverage about treatment of their work forces.
  • TV advertisements can also impact on email performance.2 The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) recently published its annual list of most complained about ads. McDonald’s featured a boy asking his mother about his dead father, and there was criticism for exploiting child bereavement (Note: McDonald’s immediately pulled this ad). In the week after it ran, McDonald’s average email complaint rates were six times higher than their long-term average.

The reverse can also hold true, and it depends on what triggered the complaints.

  • Match.com’s “love your imperfections” ad featuring a lesbian kissing scene, and Maltesers’ ad in which a woman described having a “spasm” during a romantic encounter with her boyfriend, both supported the old adage that there is no such thing as bad publicity!
  • Even sport can achieve this effect. A while back I heard from West Ham football club that their subscriber engagement declines whenever the team loses. I pulled West Ham’s campaign data for the current season and overlaid their match results, and it’s true—average complaint rates are 1/3 higher when the most recent result is a loss!

These external influences all have real economic impact for their senders, for three reasons:

  1. There is a direct relationship between deliverability and campaign revenue. As we have seen, higher complaints mean lower inbox placement, making campaigns less ROI effective.
  2. DMA UK has calculated the average lifetime value of an email address at £28.56. Email addresses which complain have to be suppressed, so there is an opportunity cost based on loss of future revenue.
  3. The DMA also showed “Trust” is one of the top-3 reasons that persuade consumers to share personal data with a brand (choice of marketing preferences, and a clear privacy policy are the others). If they trust a brand, they are more likely to provide a primary rather than a secondary email address, and Return Path’s own research shows that 5/6 of all email opens are generated by primary addresses.

The examples I’ve presented all illustrate an important principle. Email senders should remember trust is earned, not given. Many consumers are “data pragmatists”, willing to part with personal information if there is a clear reward for doing so. Marketing audiences built on a strong foundation of trust have greater longevity, and yield more value, than those which aren’t.

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