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Email marketing: ring a bell, get a food pellet


Email marketing can be tough. Your strategy and execution doesn’t have to be that bad for it to shut down communication with customers. Here’s how:

Every time you send an email to a customer, they can:

  1. Open, read and respond to it;
  2. Open and read it;
  3. Delete it without reading it;
  4. Unsubscribe from it; or
  5. Flag it as spam.

You’d imagine that the consumer judges each new unread email from you independently of previous emails. But you’d be wrong.

The hidden gotcha with email marketing is the cumulative effect of response. A Pavlovian (or perhaps more accurately, Skinner-ian) effect in which customers will begin repeating the same response they had to your previous emails.

Send a few emails to someone that they delete without reading, and the odds begin to increase that they will delete the next email from you, no matter what’s in the email itself. They are increasingly likely to repeatedly delete emails over time, even if those emails now include a generous reward targeted exactly at them. The odds also increase that they may unsubscribe on the next email, or flag your email as spam, moving ‘down’ the list of options above.

In short, customers will behave like Skinner’s pidgeons, and instead of ringing the bell in return for a food pellet, they will be increasingly likely to ignore email communication from you.

That cumulative response pattern can go either way — upwards toward response or downwards towards unsubscribing and flagging you as spam.

You’d like to think most reasonable people would try unsubscribing but a large percentage of any random sample will go straight from deleting to flagging as spam. In my observations, as much as 20-25 percent of users will skip straight from (3) Delete Without Reading to (5) Flag It As Spam.

So if all your email communication is either improving or damaging your customer relationships, how do you make sure you’re trending up the list from the first email and not down towards losing the opportunity to communicate with a customer?

The biggest single influence I’ve observed is the content of the email subject field. Write a great subject line, and you will get an open. Write a subject line that does nothing but prompts the decision to open the email, and response is more likely to follow.

Recently I signed up for a new service and their email newsletter subject began “[Company Name] News Vol. X” and I had to wonder what they were thinking.

The original purpose of putting a volume number on a publication was for print periodicals that had to be referred to by volume number for archiving and recall. You might feel that this heritage feel might be comforting or add character, but it has no place in the email marketing world. You just wasted a few precious characters you could have used to deliver an engaging subject line and you wasted a tiny fraction of your customer’s time with something that you care about but the customer doesn’t. You’re off on the wrong foot, trending down towards ‘delete without reading’ before you’ve even told them anything.

If you must put a unique ID on your emails for your own reference, put that somewhere in the HTML or below the footer so it doesn’t interrupt the reader.

Meanwhile, reserve the subject line of your emails for the most exciting news you have to share with the customer. And remember that by “exciting” I mean “exciting for the customer” not “exciting for your business.”

Finally, here’s my most important rule of email marketing:

If you don’t have something engaging to say, don’t say anything at all.

Some marketing folks get all caught up in the idea that a regular schedule of email communication deepens the relationship with the customer. I’m calling bollocks on that one: does receiving a bill on the same day of the month make you feel any closer to the phone company? No, it does not. In our busy modern lives, extra reading for the sake of extra reading does not make us feel wanted, or loved, or appreciated. It makes us feel like this business does not understand our needs, that it treats all of its customers the same, and that it has nothing interesting to say.

Worse, it trains us to ignore future emails. Or, worst of all, to flag them as spam.

Now, I’ve written my blog post, where’s my food pellet?

Alan Jones is Chief Hindsight Officer at Doing Words. Since 1995, he has consulted to early-stage companies and new product development teams, helping with online strategy for communications, product development and marketing. He also has hands-on experience founding and co-founding web and mobile startups, as well as senior management experience in larger companies including Yahoo!, News Digital Media and Microsoft.

Photo: Pasotraspaso