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The prime time to audit your opt-in process

The prime time to audit your opt-in process Wendy Roth

The holiday shopping season is the most fruitful time of the year to collect new email addresses for your database. A well-executed opt-in process will help you convert these motivated browsers or first-time buyers into steady customers.

Hundreds or thousands of new customers will be coming to your site over the next three to four months. Some will find you through paid or organic search. Others will read reviews of your products or services or click on links their friends shared in social networks. Shopping portals, such as Ebates or Shop.com, or your affiliate network will funnel browsers to your site too.

Get connected. Want to meet up with the companies that are leading email into the future? Check out the exhibit hall at ad:tech New York, Nov. 3-4. Learn more.

Are you ready to greet this influx of new customers and subscribers? Now's the time to test and tune up your opt-in and new-subscriber program:

1. Raise your visibility
Are you extending the invitation to join your email programs to everyone who comes in contact with you?

Add a benefit-driven invitation on almost any publicly accessible page on your site: every product page, campaign landing pages, your "about us" and privacy-policy pages, profile and preference pages, and checkout or information-request pages.

Don't stop there. Add an invitation to your transactional messages. Link to your newsletter content and opt-in page on your Twitter homepage, your company or brand Facebook page, and the home or info pages of any other social networks you participate in.

Go offline too. Print it on product packaging, in advertisements, on bag stuffers, on in-store signs. Incorporate it in your checkout or customer-service process, whether online, in a call center, or in a store. Just get the word out.

2. Base the invitation on the benefit
Do you know anybody who wants more email? No, they want better email -- email that fits their interests or solves their problems. Your invitation should reflect that.

"Join our email program" doesn't cut it. In a few choice words, tell prospects what's in your email program for them; for example, exclusive email-only news and offers or first notice on sales or new products.

3. Smooth out the opt-in barriers
Double opt-in is still the gold standard for collecting top-quality names, but if you're worried that you will lose too many potential subscribers, explain at opt-in what the subscriber must do to be added to your list.

How many other hoops must new subscribers jump through in order to be added to your list? An email address is really all you need to get started, especially if shoppers are pressed for time and have more to do.

However, once you collect that email address, use it to move your new subscribers into a welcome program, where you can elicit more information you can use to segment your list and send more relevant, targeted messages. (See No. 5 below.)

4. Be wary of quick fixes
List rental and email append are standard practices in print direct marketing, but email is a different beast. Even if a reputable list broker can vouch that everybody opted in to its list, the owners of those addresses didn't opt in for your specific messages.

Some try to mitigate the damage by having the list owner send from its own server, so spam complaints damage the reputation of the list owner's server, not the brand's. But increasingly, ISPs are making email reputation brand- and domain-specific, meaning aggressive marketers can run (to another server or email service provider) but they can't hide (if their emails annoy recipients).

I'll get a lot of comments from list brokers saying you as a marketer can do list rental, but just because you can do something doesn't mean you can do it in a way that is sustainable for your email marketing practice and your brand.

Email append is another tempting but problem-laced way to grow your mailing list. Better to contact your prospects through the channel for which you have the most reliable addresses and invite them to sign up for email (e.g., a note to your postal list or a verbal invitation from your call center or customer-support staff).

5. Warm up new subscribers slowly
Newcomers are the most engaged subscribers on your list, but they'll burn out fast if you drop them right into your hot-and-heavy holiday messaging stream.

Acknowledge the new subscriber immediately with a welcome message that thanks the person for subscribing, recaps what the subscriber just signed up to receive, redeems any incentive you offered to encourage opt-in, and invites the person back to your site to fill out a preference page or customer profile.

Consider segmenting your newcomers from your regular broadcast stream for a while and send messages that are designed more to bring them up to speed with your email program. Provide plenty of information about how to manage their subscriptions and promote selectively to those who haven't shown clicks and opens after an introductory period.

6. Increase frequency with highly targeted, limited-term newsletters
The holiday season can take a real toll on your longtime subscribers if you simply send more campaigns in order to boost revenue.

These special newsletters can do the heavy lifting for you during the holiday season. Focus them any way you want: a daily deal, shopping for specific products or audiences (electronics, clothing, food, kids, seniors), an all-holiday theme -- whatever will attract subscribers and help you achieve your business goals.

Cross-promote these lists in your regular email messages and on account-creation, profile/preference, and checkout pages. Or send a special, one-time message to your list. Be very clear about the focus and the expiration date, and don't send such messages to anyone who didn't expressly sign up.

Use these special-interest newsletters to promote your regular email program. Invite subscribers who aren't on your main list to opt in for these emails. Do not simply move them into your regular messaging stream once the newsletter expires, however; permission is not transferable.

The holidays can be a time when email marketers are tempted to throw caution to the winds. With a strong strategy, you won't suffer from a post-holiday hangover.

Wendy Roth is the senior manager of training services for Lyris Technologies.

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Wendy Roth is senior manager of training services for Lyris, Inc., a pioneer in email marketing and other online marketing solutions since 1994. She works closely with marketing and advertising professionals to help them understand how Lyris'...

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