Email marketing continues to be the most cost-effective strategy for building and maintaining relationships with customers. According to the Direct Marketing Association, email returned $45.06 for every dollar spent on it in 2008. ROI is undoubtedly an important consideration, but dialing up the frequency of emails may be the wrong way to go if your objective is to retain subscribers and optimize deliverability and effectiveness. Targeting too broad an audience with irrelevant content and incessant emails can quickly lead to email fatigue.
After a record amount of email sent out from businesses during the 2008 holiday season (according to a Retail Email Index report), email marketers are going to need to work even harder to capture the attention of their customers in 2009. As such, what can email marketers do to keep their recipients interested and engaged?
First and foremost, let's diagnose the problem
Email fatigue is the result of two things: mailing irrelevant content and mailing at too frequent a cadence. Put yourself in your customers' shoes for a moment: You've ordered from a company a few times during the course of a year, and now that you are on their general subscriber list, you are receiving weekly, or even daily, emails from them. In the beginning, you open each one, but since most of the emails aren't of interest to you, and they come so frequently, you start to ignore them. Whether or not you are still interested in their products, you are becoming disengaged with the brand because of the irrelevance and frequency of their messaging -- not the quality or usefulness of their products, necessarily. After a while, you have to delete a chunk of email from this company whenever you check your inbox. And eventually, you decide that the time has come to unsubscribe or hit the spam button and take care of the problem permanently.
Unfortunately, many marketers fail to recognize the symptoms of email fatigue until they've already lost a considerable number of subscribers. In truth, many marketers reason that email is terribly easy and cheap -- and so they'll send blast emails as long as they are generating enough response to justify their efforts. But if email is not used carefully, the initial cost and ease will backfire in the form of lost value for the brand. If the customer tires of the communication and opts to find another provider, the opportunity cost may be far higher -- after all, anyone may be able to afford mass emails, but can you really afford to fatigue your brand?
Permission is no quick fix for email fatigue
Many marketers wrongly believe permission is permanent, when that's simply not the case. Permission is not evergreen, nor is capturing it adequate for all purposes. A customer may express interest in receiving communications from you, but it is important to note that these preferences may change over time. To avoid losing potential revenue, marketers should continually refresh permission in order to keep pace with the ever-evolving needs and preferences of the customer. The best way to do this is to build in an interactive component into your mailings in which you prompt a response from the customer to continually solicit and eventually fine-tune your messaging just for them.
Signs and symptoms
So, how can marketers detect email fatigue before it sets in? Simply put, look no further than the results of any particular campaign. The metrics are available -- email affords the unique ability to look at deliverability rates, click-throughs, and actual sales. Pay special attention to these metrics and act upon them instantly. In truly effective email marketing, upfront cost should not be the main factor. Rather, email should be viewed as a valuable channel that can help build a long-term, brand-loyal relationship with your customer.
That said, how can email marketers use metrics to determine fatigue? It's important to remember that email fatigue is relative to what's normal for your particular company and product category. So the first step is to determine your benchmark based on your average click rates over time. Be mindful that marketing messages to different audiences, and in different types of email communications (newsletter, product sell, transactional), will have different rates. A steadily declining average click rate is a sure indicator that your content, offer, and/or mail frequency needs close scrutiny. A sudden drop-off suggests something went particularly wrong and warrants immediate investigation. Perhaps, the wrong content or list was used.
In addition to examining aggregate trends, email marketers should look at the performance of specific segments, particularly their most high-value and most loyal customers. As click activity slows or stops, those customers should be targeted for specific re-engagement messages and offers. Of course, what you say to formerly brand-loyal customers would be different from those with more limited relationships. But in both cases, your objective should be to solicit feedback on their needs and preferences so you can adjust messaging to prompt renewed engagement.
What specific rates might signal a rise in email fatigue? Taking into account seasonality and your own benchmarks, a drop-off of 10 percent or more would suggest the onset of email fatigue. You should be specifically concerned about customers who have not opened or clicked after three to six mailings. The longer mail cadence -- monthly versus bi-weekly, for example -- the more concerned you should be about their inactivity.
If your re-engagement efforts fail to prompt a response after several attempts, you should consider removing inactive customers from your list. Studies have repeatedly shown a direct correlation between the level of engagement and the propensity to hit the spam button -- and too many spam complaints could jeopardize delivery of your email even to those who are still actively engaged with your brand.
Treating email fatigue
Given this, there are instant actions marketers can take to alleviate this problem. First, segment your list based on name source and level of engagement. The biggest mistake email marketers make is sending the same message at the same frequency to everyone. Names acquired through email appends, list rental, and/or co-registration aren't likely to see the same value in your brand as those customers who have been buying from you all along. So don't treat them the same.
Similarly, customers who once exhibited high open and click activity but now don't shouldn't be sent the same messages at the same frequency as others. Find out what's changed with their needs and/or preferences. Not doing so is tempting a total disengagement from your brand.
Secondly, continually survey your customers and find other ways to prompt interaction. The key to avoiding email fatigue is to recognize that permission isn't eternal, preferences aren't static, and customer needs aren't set in stone. Build mechanisms into all of your communications for customers to tell you about their current needs and how your content can be made more relevant to them. And, of course, act on what your customers tell you.
In order to be truly successful at their email marketing efforts, marketers need to think beyond the immediate email campaign and put themselves in their customers' shoes. By making a dedicated effort to be attuned to their customer needs and by leveraging the right technology solutions, marketers can avoid the pitfalls of email and brand fatigue in their campaigns. They can deliver against their revenue objectives while building brand loyal customer relationships for the long term.