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Is It Time to Adjust Your Email Frequency?

by Karen Talavera

08 26, 2010 | Posted in Digital Marketing, Email Marketing | 0 comments

GaugesHow often and what to send are top questions facing any email marketer today.  Yet all too often, frequency for the sake of frequency alone trumps relevancy in this channel.  It’s a classic catch-22: email works so well it runs the risk of undermining its own potential.

Email programs tend to start with slow and cautious frequency, produce easy ROI, and become stars.  Management assumes if some email is good, more must be even better.  Yet as with all good things (wine, chocolate and pizza come to mind) increased consumption eventually leads to a point of diminishing returns.  The correlation between cost and benefit is neither linear nor constant.

In email, frequency increases can generate higher revenue or ROI to a point.  Pass that point, and you run the risk of crashing into the wall of damaged reputation, poor deliverability and list attrition.

Rather than either testing to find optimal frequency (from a cost/benefit standpoint) or articulating a rationale for frequency prior to setting it, many email marketers arbitrarily establish an email frequency and then attempt to justify its existence after the fact.  No wonder subscribers complain emails are irrelevant, boring, and poorly targeted.

In my opinion, the industry has officially reached the tipping point of diminishing returns.  Today when it comes to email frequency, less can definitely be more.Yet the questions need to go beyond finding the right quantity and instead focus on quality.  It’s time, once again, to email smarter rather than simply harder.

With so many email marketers, especially retailers, erring on the side of repetitive, poorly segmented sending, we’re challenged with discovering more intelligent ways of establishing meaningful, productive email frequency.  Here are a few approaches to help steer your email marketing program in a “smarter rather than harder” direction:

  1. Create a Consideration Path Map
    Putting yourself in the shoes of your customers and subscribers means genuinely understanding the consideration path they go down when deciding whether or not to engage with or purchase from you.  There are short and long, simple and complicated consideration paths and they vary depending upon both product/service price points and complexity.  Knowing what encourages as well as what discourages progress down a path is critical to unveiling opportunistic junctures for email communication.The lesson: Use email to communicate with target audience members at natural points of interest – when they expect, need or want to hear from you – rather than just when you have something to say.  You’ll only know what those points are if you’ve walked in their shoes, mapping their decision and consideration paths.
  2. Synchronize opt-in and opt-out choices with one another and within your preferences center
    Email marketing programs often begin as simple, one-dimensional communications and diversify over time.  Starwood comes to mind as a diverse brand with equally diverse email marketing programs.  With several well-known hotel names (Westin, Sheraton, W, St. Regis, Loft and more) under its umbrella, Starwood sends email from the umbrella brand as well as from each distinct hotel label.  Yet Starwood also has a vacation ownership (timeshare) line of business.  Customers of multiple brands and products can easily be flooded with too much email were it not for Starwood’s robust frequency and content choices.

    The lesson
    : As your email marketing program grows, make sure opt-in and opt-out choices keep pace with the communication options available.  Also, establish an upper limit on total email volume for customers of multiple products.
  3. Provide both a frequency reduction option and a brief survey upon unsubscribe
    Kudos to Bath & Body Works for including a frequency reduction option in addition to the general opt-out on their unsubscribe page.  Yes, Bath & Body Works subscribers can permanently stop the flow of email, but are simultaneously presented with a choice to reduce the flow instead: they can adjust frequency to no more than one email per week or not more than two to three messages a month.  Although Bath & Body Works doesn’t do so, I’ve routinely seen other brands (such as Hallmark) survey unsubscribers on the opt-out page to understand why people leave the list.The lesson: Do both! Many people unsubscribe because email comes too often, so offer frequency reduction choices as a means of keeping them on your list.  But if they want off, ask them why as you let them go.
  4. Test! Finally, if you can, conduct a head-to-head test of old vs. new frequency before making a permanent change to the entire list.  You simply can’t afford to increase – or sometimes to decrease – frequency without possibly alienating and damaging your list.The lesson: A head-to-head test of different frequencies over a specified test period will tell you if sending more often reaps greater rewards, or greater punishment.

As a final case in frequency adjustment I love the discipline with which Wine Express.com (of Wine Enthusiast) evolved their discounted “Wine of the Week” program to “Wine of the Day”.  How did they get away with a 400% increase in email volume?

  • They surveyed their list first and found the majority of list members were okay with receiving more email provided it delivered a commensurate increase in value.  Since their list members are wine lovers, they were eager for more than one special deal a week.
  • They scaled back other email programs so the overall weekly volume would not be overwhelming, resulting in decreased sending of featured wine specials and seasonal offers.
  • They created offer exclusivity.  Each “Wine of the Day”offer is good for only 24 hours.

This wine marketer increased a weekly email promotion to a daily promotion without upsetting their list because they did their homework first.  Revenue generated through email has since increased 69%, and is now over 50% of total revenue.  However, had the move from weekly to daily email backfired, they wouldn’t have continued the new frequency.

There is no “one-size-fits-all” email frequency either across or within vertical industries.  Moreover, there should be no sacred cows when it comes to email frequency.  The right frequency is the one which resonates with your audience.  And keep in mind, different frequencies will resonate differently with unique segments of your own list, so there is also no “one-size-fits-all” frequency even for your own list.

If you can’t gauge or provide a means for obtaining individual subscriber frequency choices, the right frequency is the one you can justify by continually meeting these five objectives: 1) list segmentation, 2) offer relevancy, 3)content variety 4) content freshness, and 5) consistently solid response.

For sustainable success, your program must deliver messages with meaningful or interesting content sent at relevant yet non-intrusive intervals.  Every message should answer the ever-present question in the minds of your subscribers – WIIFM? (what’s in it for me?).  If a message does not clearly articulate the WIIFM (and especially if you can’t answer that question yourself) don’t send it.  Head back to the drawing board or dial-back the frequency instead.

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