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Email marketers' most embarrassing questions

Email marketers' most embarrassing questions Chris Marriott

As we head into the holiday season, which in the world of email marketing starts in September, one of the most important keys to a successful holiday program is the health of one's email subscriber list. Over the course of any given year there are several factors that can lead to a decrease in your subscriber base. Subscribers change email address and are lost. Or they stop responding to your emails and "silently" unsubscribe from your list. Or they actively unsubscribe. Regardless of the cause, these all add up to a shrinking number of engaged subscribers over the course of time unless you are actively adding new subscribers to your list.

According to Michael Fisher, president of Yes Lifecycle Marketing, the mailable subscriber rate (the percent of subscribers in the database who are opted in, not unsubscribed, not hard bounced out) has been basically flat over the last year with Q2 2015 at 77.97 percent and Q2 2016 at 78.94 percent.
"This means that in general, list growth compensated just enough to be ahead of the attrition experienced through unsubs and bounces," Fisher says, adding, "List fatigue and unsubscribes/in-activity are changing dramatically from what has been seen in the past with some marketers moving names to inactive lists after six months of no activity regardless of seasonality."

Reflecting the churn that occurs naturally in email lists, a January 2016 study from Campaigner indicated that earning new subscribers was one of the biggest email marketing challenges among U.S. email marketers, cited by 44 percent of respondents to a survey. But it's not just quantity of subscribers that counts for today's email marketers. Quality of subscriber is also critical. Another report from early 2016 by Acsend2 found that almost 40 percent of email marketers cited poor email subscriber quality as a major problem for their email marketing efforts.

A wise email marketer once said you know your unsubscribe rate is too high when it's higher than your rate of new subscribers being added to your list. And that's as good a place as any to get started. While it's not a subject that email marketers like to discuss in polite company, it's something most are doing behind closed doors. And today we're going to bring the discussion out into the open and answer many of the questions to which email marketers need to know the answer.

It is OK to acquire new email subscribers through means other than website or POS sign-up?
Not only is it OK to do so, but based upon the statistics we've already discussed, it's an imperative for most email marketers. Most marketers simply cannot replace lost subscribers quickly enough if they only rely on their website and POS to get new email subscribers. Email marketers need to find other sources of new subscribers; sources that are safe and cost-effective. What's not OK is buying a list. That's a sure fire way of ending up in the email doghouse. Even renting a list is fraught with risk. The best way to proceed is to work with lead-gen partners who generate new sign-ups for your list through co-registration and other tools.

What's more important -- quality or quantity of new subscribers?
In an ideal world you wouldn't have to make this choice, but most of us don't live in an ideal world. In truth, a lot of email marketers measure acquisition success based on the total number of new subscribers they obtain and the CPA to get there. In this scenario, the lower the CPA required to achieve the target number of new subscribers, the better. The problem with this formula is that it ignores the fact that bad new subscribers are worse than no new subscribers. When you are using CPA as your key measurement you are always going to get a mix of some good email addresses and a lot of bad ones. Because that's how your lead-gen partners keep the CPAs low. In truth, you should care a lot more about the quality of email subscribers you are adding to your list, and if they cost more, that's OK. The real way to measure success if the increase in revenue per email you achieve across the board with your new subscribers versus the cost to acquire them. As long as the former is greater than the latter, you're winning. And on top of that, you're not negatively impacting the overall delivery rate of your list by inserting bad addresses into the mix.

Why should I care about acquiring new customers at all if my primary job responsibility is customer retention?
Neil Rosen, CEO of CertainSource says it best when he states that, in regards to email subscribers, "acquisition is the new retention." So what does he mean by that? If you could identify those sources of new email subscribers who were most likely to become long-term customers of your company, wouldn't those sources be the ones you would want to use the most for signing up new email subscribers? If you are measured on customer retention, should you really care about a "one and done" new subscriber? You want those subscribers who are going to make repeat orders from you. And who are going to stay customers of your brand. The more of those types of new email subscribers you add to your list, the better your retention numbers look to the boss. So it makes sense to start your acquisition efforts at those sources that have the best retention track records.

Will my ESP still respect me in the morning?
It all depends. Speaking from my own experience, ESPs in general hate the idea of introducing new email subscribers into your database regardless of where you've sourced them unless they signed up on your website or POS. So they will give you every reason under the sun as to why you shouldn't do it. In their defense, they've seen how poorly managed acquisition programs have blown up in a client's face. In fact, if you want to see what it's like to get the email marketer equivalent of the "Scarlet Letter," go to any panel at an email marketing conference featuring the delivery folks from various ESPs, like the Email Innovations Summit, and in the Q&A tell the panel how big a fan you are of subscriber acquisition -- and then remember to duck. But you are the client, and done correctly there's no harm to your ESP or your own sender reputation by adding in new subscribers to your list. In fact, you could see your reputation improve. (I guarantee you there are deliverability folks at ESPs whose heads just exploded reading that).

So there you have it -- four of the most frequently thought of -- but rarely asked -- questions about email subscriber acquisition. You still have time to make a difference in your holiday email marketing programs. Acquisition programs can be up and running very quickly, ensuring that you've got a healthy and growing list of engaged subscribers receiving your emails through the holiday season and into the new year. Because when it comes right down to it, your subscriber list is either growing or shrinking. And no one's ever said, "I had great holiday sales despite a much smaller subscriber list than the year before!" Make sure yours is moving in the right direction!

Chris is the President and Founder of Marketing Democracy, LLC. Marketing Democracy provides email marketers with a range of consulting services around vendor selection (RFPs), vendor migration, and email marketing optimization.  Clients...

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