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Email marketing success through expectation management

Author's avatar By Mark Brownlow 21 Mar, 2013
Essential Essential topic

The value of setting, meeting and changing subscriber expectations

If at first you don't succeed, lower your expectations... It's the secret to a happy life.

And one of the (seemingly hundreds) of secrets to email marketing success is guiding and accounting for subscriber expectations.

A problem here is that marketers and customers are not always on the same page.

A recent survey by RegReady, for example, found that 80% of consumers felt very strongly that making a purchase does not constitute permission to market to them via email. Yet 47% of marketers were sending emails to purchasers without this permission.

Marketers and consumers are "digitally different". Research by ExactTarget discovered, for example, that 61% of marketers follow at least one brand on Twitter, but only 12% of consumers do so.

We live in a different world and our understanding of consumers is often clouded by our own experiences. Which is why we worry massively about commercial email overload, while many consumers simply aren't getting that much email from brands.

Here are five examples where setting, meeting and changing subscriber expectations plays a crucial practical role in email marketing success:


Personalization is a term that covers everything from just using "Dear FIRSTNAME" to fully-customized content based on an individual's browsing history.

Here you have to take care that you don't raise expectations inappropriately. Phrases like "just for you" in subject lines can lead to an increase in opens. But if the content is clearly not "just for you", then the long-term effect can be diminishing trust in (and response to) your future subject lines.

I'm reminded of research back in 2008 which found that use of personal data in a commercial email can have a negative impact where there is no clear justification for it.

Sign-up forms

Unless you have an extremely strong brand or implicit value proposition, the days when people would sign-up for your email without knowing what they're actually getting are long gone.

If sign-up forms and pages don't include some indication of what to expect, you take two risks:

  1. Some (many?) people simply won't sign-up.
  2. Those that do will base their decision on their own expectations. If these match the reality, great. If not, disappointment and possibly spam reports are the result.

Equally, don't paint yourself into a corner when selling the value and contents of your email list to prospective subscribers. Leave enough flexibility for those new email approaches you were thinking of launching in a few months.

Landing pages and CTAs

A prime goal of most emails is to shift people along a chain of actions, commonly from a view in the inbox to a conversion at the website. Part of that is avoiding disconnects along the chain: the transition should appear seamless.

Disconnects often occur between the CTA in the email and the destination web page. If the CTA says "more information" then that's what the subscriber expects, not a repeat of what you already said in the mail.

If you have a "buy now" next to a product offer, it should link to an appropriate product page. Not to the homepage, leaving people to find their own way to the desired product (a way many will abandon).

Email confirmations

Many organizations use email to confirm or respond to online actions. Think of welcome emails sent after a sign-up, order confirmation mails sent after placing an order, shipping mails sent when a product has...well, you get the idea.

After a few weeks online, most people expect such messages to arrive near instantaneously.

How long do you wait for the order confirmation email before you assume something has gone wrong? Minutes? Seconds?

When you send such emails later, you disappoint and invite customer service inquiries that cost time and money.

A special case here is the unsubscribe process. When people unsubscribe, they care very little how long the law allows you to actually process ("respond to") the request. In the USA, it's ten business days. For consumers, once they hit the unsubscribe button they expect to be unsubscribed. Immediately.

So if it takes you longer, it might be worth noting this on the unsubscribe confirmation page to avoid unpleasantness. I've had conversations with subscribers who thought they had unsubscribed then got another email (and learned a whole host of new swearwords).

Reactivation campaigns

The theory behind many reactivation campaigns is that people aren't opening or clicking on our emails, so we'll send them another email to reactivate them.

Given people aren't responding to your emails (ignoring arguments about what constitutes a response for now), does this mean that their expectations are such that they're essentially trained to ignore your email?

Which would make sending another email unlikely to be effective, which might be why so many reactivation campaigns have low digit success rates.

Would it make sense to do something different to break through this habituation problem? An unusual (for you) subject line? A different preview pane design? A plain text message instead of an all-singing, all-dancing HTML one?

It certainly seems worth a test or two. As Charles Dickens wrote in (appropriately) Great Expectations: "Take nothing on its looks; take everything on evidence. There's no better rule."


Image credit: Great Expectations IMDB

Author's avatar

By Mark Brownlow

Mark Brownlow is a former email copywriter and publisher of the retired Email Marketing Reports site. He now works as a lecturer and writer. Connect with him via Lost Opinions.

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