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Four marketing lessons from consumer inbox behavior

Author's avatar By Mark Brownlow 12 Oct, 2011
Essential Essential topic

UK DMA's survey reveals key insights for email marketers

One of the challenges for email marketers is to stop thinking like email marketers.

A lot of assumptions about best practices are based on our collective view of just what's going on inside consumer inboxes. But this view is biased by what's going on inside our own inboxes.

If you're an email marketer, you're probably an online regular with a heavy duty email account or accounts. The same can't be said of the proverbial man and woman in the street: the people who typically get the actual emails.

Our email experience is not their email experience.

Or is it?

Truth is we don't really know.

Surveys of end users can, however, help correct our misconceptions. They provide important insight into how we might adapt our email campaigns to the reality of end-user inboxes...to the benefit of the email bottom line.

The UK DMA, fast.MAP and Alchemy Worx recently released the 2011 edition of the Email Tracker Report, which surveyed 1,800 UK consumers on their inbox activity and habits, responses and attitudes to commercial email, use of mobile email, and their social sharing behavior.

The numbers include a few surprises. For example, it turns out most people do not use email during their working day.

The report commentary (disclaimer: I wrote it) draws out dozens of lessons for email marketers, and here are four of them...

Lesson 1: The wider relationship is important

Survey result: Over 60% of respondents are signed up to 10 or fewer senders.

People enter relatively few email relationships when you consider the total number of brands (i.e. potential senders) they interact with.

Many email marketers conceive campaigns on the assumption that the recipient's inbox is flooded with great deals from their many competitors. This may not be the case, offering more scope for alternatives to the ever-increasing-discount wars, including content-oriented, loyalty and branding messages.

Senders face a challenge to crack what Merkle have long called the "inner circle" of senders (they say the average email user subscribes to email from just over 11 companies). The key here may be to exploit the wider, existing (hopefully positive) relationship with the recipient to capture the opt-in. For example by placing sign-up CTAs at key points of contact (like the point of sale in stores) or promoting the email list in transactional communications.

Loren McDonald has a good list building overview, where he emphasizes the need to exploit heightened interest caused by the forthcoming holiday season. It's a similar principle: exploit the existing brand relationship to get the opt-in.

Lesson 2: Email drives many out-of-email responses

Survey result: When asked what they might do on receiving an interesting email from a trusted brand, 22% would visit the sender's website without clicking on an email link, and 45% would "bear the information in mind for later use"

Alchemy Worx's Dela Quist sums up nicely in the report's introduction:

"Email makes things happen in other channels and at other times too. Many consumers hold on to email to refer to for later use, which is vital for attribution and a valuable growing trend: a consumer who returns a week later to retrieve a commercial email demonstrates very high purchase propensity, for instance."

Perhaps inevitably, email marketers focus on immediate direct response results: the 24 hour "open - click - buy/download/register/donate" chain of action. This fails to recognize the true extent of email response.

The recognition that emails are having a significant impact on attitudes and responses outside of the actual email itself changes everything, as I've written before. To summarize:

  • it tells us we need to reassess how we measure email success, so our investment in email reflects it's true value
  • it encourages us to create specific campaigns to exploit the out-of-email response, driving action now through other channels or driving action in the future through branding and awareness impacts.
  • it invites us to reassess how we define an inactive subscriber for our reactivation campaigns or list cleaning efforts. Just because someone isn't clicking doesn't mean they're not responding. As Andrew Kordek puts it:

"Organizations need to do a better job at defining an inactive"

Lesson 3: You might be able to send more emails after all

Survey result: 94% of respondents are signed up to email from trusted brands, but over half are getting less than 3 such emails a day total.

Most inboxes are not overflowing with commercial email from trusted brands. This is confirmed by benchmark reports which show UK email frequencies at long-term lows.

Email marketers have long been wary of increasing email frequency for fear of triggering excessive spam complaints. Sending "too much" email is bad...but nor do you want to miss out on responses by sending "too little".

Just under 1 in 10 respondents cited "too many emails" as the primary reason for marking a message as spam. So it's still an issue, but many senders may be well under the threshold for what constitutes "too many".

My conclusions:

1. Consider carefully testing broad-brush increases in frequency

2. Explore ways to deliver more value, which lifts both responses and upper thresholds for acceptable frequency

3. Treat frequency changes as another option for specific segments or individuals. Your list is not an amorphous blob: some subscribers might resent more email, some will welcome it. The challenge is identifying the subscriber preferences, characteristics and/or behavior that lets you know who falls into each category

Lessons 4: Social sharing is not a global panacea

Survey result: 33% of respondents use no social network at all. Only 12% of respondents said they shared commercial email content into their social networks.

There is much interest in exploiting the interaction between social networks and email to the benefit of both.

That interest is justified, but needs to be tempered by realism: content and CTAs involving social networks are not relevant to many (most?) subscribers.

Rather than clutter up emails with "share with your network" links as a matter of course, marketers may benefit from using social CTAs more selectively. One option is to target by social network use, placing stronger focus on social calls to action with subscribers identified as potential sharers and influencers.

A second option is to reserve sharing efforts for specific contexts. Gretchen Scheiman, for example, recommends three reasons to keep (or not) sharing links in emails:

  • When the email content is newsworthy
  • When sharing is central to the message
  • When sharing is the way you increase your audience

We shouldn't forget, of course, that what consumers say and what they do are not necessarily the same. Yet this kind of research does alert us to the key differences between our biased perceptions and inbox reality.

If you want to find out more about the way the email consumer thinks, as well as the DMA study, you might also want to check out surveys by e-Dialog, ContactLab, ExactTarget, Merkle. Or have you conducted your own study recently? What did you learn?

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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