Return Path's New Year Community Challenge: Week 5

This week’s email best practice is: Send More Relevant Messages

Creating the kind of relevancy that improves response and retention is pretty straightforward. All you have to do is offer choice, segment your file, tailor the creative and listen to your subscribers.

The problem is that creating relevancy under a broadcast email marketing approach is completely inconsistent. Broadcast email -the old batch and blast approach – is relevant to only a small portion of the file at any given time. There is a trifecta of penalties against any marketer using a broadcast approach.

1. The Recession. To beat down marketing costs, more marketers are sending more and more email messages. The clutter is overwhelming. And both consumer and professional buyers have less to spend overall and are making decisions to buy more slowly.
2. Social Media. Subscribers are spending less time in their inboxes and more time in other online, social communities.
3. The Cost of Fatigue. In email, there is a strict penalty for not being relevant: it’s the “miss” behind your response rates and tracked via complaint rate, unsubscribe requests and (sometimes worse) your inactive rate. Each of these rises in direct proportion to how relevant your messages are.

You simply cannot afford NOT to be relevant. In the old days, and frankly, in a lot of other direct marketing channels like postal mail and online advertising, being only mildly relevant to a small portion of the file works. You can make your number and earn acceptable ROI. However, in email marketing, you must be very relevant to most of your file, most of the time – or else most of your subscribers will complain, unsubscribe or just ignore you forever. You’ve then lost them and lost the opportunity to optimize the channel.

Think about the cost of losing those subscribers. On a file of one million, if you have a half a percent complaint rate, a 2 percent unsubscribe rate and a 7 percent clickthrough rate, you might think you are doing pretty well. And then let’s say that of the 93% that didn’t click, a half a percent of them are so tired of irrelevant messages that they have emotionally unsubscribed and will never click again. Still, you think, that’s not so bad, right? However, consider that you now have to replace at least 3,000 subscribers (500 complainers and 2,000 unsubscribers, plus the 500 people who go permanently inactive) every time you send an email, just to stay even. If it costs you just one dollar to acquire a new subscriber, that’s $3,000 for each campaign sent. If you mail even 10 times a month, that’s $30,000 in acquisition replacement cost every 30 days. This means you are spending $360,000 a year and you aren’t even growing your list!

Consider too the cost of not being able to send email to Yahoo! for 30 days, while you repair a bad sender reputation built from too many complaints or too long usage of inactive files. In our example here, if 30% of the file is using Yahoo!, and you earn just fifty cents from every subscriber every mailing, it will cost you $150,000 in lost revenue that month… and some additional cost of trying to regain the trust of subscribers who haven’t seen any email from you in a while.

I’m using pretty conservative numbers and not even factoring in things like lost loyalty and brand degradation and lower satisfaction and pass along rates. Being irrelevant in email means lower revenue, plain and simple.

Stop doing anything that does not create relevancy, and free up time to improve your subscriber experience. This is the only way you will earn higher revenue from email. End of story.

So here’s the challenge: Dare to be relevant! It’s not simple, but it is straightforward. I know it’s hard. Don’t be discouraged. Instead, aim for balance. If you can’t send truly 1:1 messages, improve the ratio. Make sure that every subscriber gets at least three to five messages a month that are truly custom and relevant.

Adopt some of these strategies to improve the relevance of your program.

Prove that you know me. Determine the top three behaviors (more if you can) that drive your business: purchase, browsing, session length, number of subscription, downloads, renewal date, etc. Track those behaviors and trigger the right message, tone and frequency of messages after each. When sending these behavior messages, stop sending generic promotions, so that your customers are focused during this time of important decision. The automation technology of most email broadcast vendors makes this simple today. Set it up once, and let it run.

Listen to your subscribers. Ask for feedback, certainly. But listen to the actions as well as the words of your subscribers. Are they actually clicking on your messages? Do they buy only once a year? Build a preference center so they can tell you their choices. Adjust frequency so that your cadence matches their buying cycles.

Tell to sell. A little bit of content really does go a long way. Add tips to your promotional messages. Add a humorous story or quote to your template. Include testimonials. Produce a buyers’ guide from your customer product reviews each season.

Better subject lines improve relevancy. If you can do nothing else to customize the message, segment your file and improve the subject line by adding product names, city, gender or past purchase date. “25% Off Everything” can be improved by “Stop Shivering, Detroit. 25% All Extreme Weather Gear”

Thank your customers. There has got to be something you are grateful to your customers for every quarter. Let them know. You don’t have to include a discount or offer. Just be sincere.

Treat customers and prospects differently. Most house files have both customers and prospects on them. If you do no other segmentation, distinguish these from each other. Treat customers special. And educate prospects by moving them through an appropriate sales cycle.

Let the medium fit the message. Use text or SMS messaging when the news is urgent or you know your audience is in transit. That could be early morning commute, lunch hour, if they are in the store or at a public event. Set up a different Twitter account for service than for marketing. Use your Facebook or LinkedIn page to promote your loyalty program. Support all of these efforts with strategically timed email – and collect new email addresses in every promotion.

Take the challenge and try out one or two relevant messages this quarter, then one more next quarter. You have time or can get resources to improve revenue, even if it takes a bit of investment now. Improving relevancy on some of your messages will improve your response and retention rate across all subscribers. Measure it that way, and you will soon see that sending less is actually a way of earning more.

Sending email marketing messages are a privilege, not a right. Our email files are a fragile and perishable asset. When we treat them that way, it is easy to see how these relevancy strategies make sense, and are good for the business.

Get inspired! Check out this cool example of post-purchase segmentation from Barnes and Noble.

Have you missed the first four weeks of our Challenge? If so, get caught up now:
Week 1: Send a welcome message
Week 2: Keep your list clean
Week 3: Authenticate
Week 4: Get your infrastructure in order

Also, if you haven’t officially signed up for the Challenge, do so now. It’s the only way to get our Challenge Wrap-Up Report with all the great best practice advice you need for a prosperous 2009.

Start talking about this week’s best practice:

  • Have you had success with a truly relevant email? Tell us about it.
  • What is your biggest obstacle to creating customized content for you subscribers?
  • Have any examples where you sent fewer messages and earned higher response from a segment of your file?
  • minute read

    Popular stories



    BriteVerify email verification ensures that an email address actually exists in real-time


    The #1 global data quality tool used by thousands of Salesforce admins


    Insights and deliverability guidance from the only all-in-one email marketing solution

    GridBuddy Cloud

    Transform how you interact with your data through the versatility of grids.

    Return Path

    World-class deliverability applications to optimize email marketing programs

    Trust Assessments

    A revolutionary new solution for assessing Salesforce data quality


    Validity for Email

    Increase inbox placement and maximize subscriber reach with clean and actionable data

    Validity for Data Management

    Simplify data management with solutions that improve data quality and increase CRM adoption

    Validity for Sales Productivity

    Give your sales team back hours per day with tools designed to increase productivity and mitigate pipeline risks in real-time