The Last 'Best Time to Send?' Article

Just when I thought the email-marketing industry had put the "What is the best time to send email?" question behind us, I noticed a couple more blog posts on the topic this past week.

Like similar questions such as "What is the average open rate," either these questions are fundamentally unanswerable, or pursuing the answer does not lead you to a meaningful conclusion or action.

Further, I believe that a question like "What is the best time to send?" is simply the wrong question to ask. More on that later. First, let's look at five factors that make the "ideal send time" question so complex:

1. Artificial rules don't hold up. Don't mail on Fridays. Never send B2B emails over the weekend. Send B2B emails on Sunday. Don't mail to moms in the morning. Tuesday at 10 a.m. works best (in which time zone, by the way?).

You've heard them all. Even if you believe one of those scenarios worked best at the aggregate level, have you really tested all scenarios to know for sure?

Years ago, I worked with a motorcycle accessories site and was convinced that its normal Sunday broadcast mailing times were not optimal. We tested several different scenarios, but Sundays did in fact perform best.

In hindsight, Sundays seemed logical to reach people who rode their dirt or touring bikes over the weekend. But I also believe that years of Sunday mailings probably trained recipients to expect messages then.

Rules are meant to be broken. A rule that works for one marketer might not hold true for your entire customer base, let alone your individual subscribers.

2. Mobile changes everything. Did you see the recent Nielsen study reporting that social media and games were the most popular online activities, with email falling to third? You might have missed a finding in the same study that showed email is far and away the No.1 activity on mobile devices.

With many consumers' smartphones literally or figuratively attached to their sides, the idea that there is a single best time to reach them seems rather dubious now.

See all those people walking around and staring at their smartphones? Checking email regularly is clearly part of what they are doing, which complicates the theory that many consumers check their email at regular times throughout the day.

3. "In the inbox" isn't the same as "ready to buy." The "best time" issue assumes either that individuals will immediately act on your messages when they open them or that there is at least a correlation between inbox receipt and conversion.

However, people who check their personal email frequently at work or on their mobile devices might not act on them until later at home. So, when is the best time?

In theory, then, a more accurate picture would be to correlate historical purchase/conversion time with time of email engagement. But at minimum, an "ideal" send time would have to incorporate testing dozens of scenarios and be tied to revenue or conversion, not opens or clicks.

4. Behavior determines/triggers timing. The "best time to send" question is really one reserved for broadcast messages. Lifecycle and behavior-triggered messages eliminate the question because the consumer's actions or profile -- such as cart or browse abandonment, a purchase, posting of a review, birthday, purchase anniversary, etc. -- determine send time.

The difference, or shift in thinking, is to move more of your email program to one where the consumer or recipient's behavior in essence tells you when to send the email.

5. Better emails lessen the timing factor. As I wrote in an earlier column, the best time to send email is different for each of your recipients. Features like our own Send Time Optimization will get you close to that goal by increasing the likelihood that an email is at the top of a recipient's inbox.

In addition to all of the variables and approaches outlined above, the final step is to simply create more valuable and relevant emails. You may find that there are some less-than optimum send times for the majority of your subscribers, such as Sunday in the middle of the night. Outside of that, however, if you have the right combination of cadence and value, truly engaged subscribers will likely dig your email out of their inboxes wherever it lies.

The Better Question: "How Do We Create Value?"

At its core, the "send time" question is really asking "How do we increase the likelihood that someone will act or convert as a result of our email program?"

So, consider a more fundamental and strategic question for your program, such as:

"How do we create email programs that add value to the customer relationship and maximize conversions and revenue?"

This customer-centric perspective emphasizes message relevance over campaign schedule. The right time question cannot be separated from the other half of the equation: the "right message."

OK, I'm sure this won't be the last article I-- let alone my peers --write on the " best time to send" topic. But hey, I can dream.

What would Stefan say?  Until next time, take it up a notch.

Have you had different experiences, or do you have a different theory on this question? Please share in the comments section.

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8 comments about "The Last 'Best Time to Send?' Article".
  1. Chris Munz from Fishbowl, Inc. , August 12, 2010 at 1:42 p.m.

    I think the send time is irrelevant because of the mobile factor that you pointed out from the research. I think this was missed in all the re-tweets and re-posts. What we should be concerned with is conversion, it is the key metric that we should be looking at to judge if we are sending the right messages.

    I think to take it to the next level, knowing who your members are and how they like to be messaged to will help. By creating a re-engagement program that focus on asking strategic questions will yield the data you are looking for. This will help you make decisions about what you are sending out. You might have to go outside the box a little bit but the reward will be better conversion. If you help them they will help you.

  2. Loren Mcdonald from Silverpop , August 12, 2010 at 3:21 p.m.

    Chris - Thanks for the comments. Ya, my real problem with marketers seeking to find "send-time nirvana" is that it can mask focusing on more strategic aspects of your program - including the most critical aspect, delivering the right message. That said, behavior is really the key to finding the right time.

    Cheers.

  3. Kurt Johansen from Johansen International , August 12, 2010 at 6:24 p.m.

    Chris, when to send out messages is irrelevant these days. What is important is the relationship and the offer being made. A well crafted offer to a list which expects and accepts your emails will be much more advantageous. Personalise your emails, write the email as if it is being sent to one person - that is the key. Many large companies simply put flyers out and call that email marketing. That's marketing by email - which is DIFFERENT. Cheers Kurt Johansen www.kurtjohansen.com Australia's Email Marketing Strategist

  4. Peg Samuel from Social Diva , August 12, 2010 at 10:56 p.m.

    This is a great article! Yes, content is key.

  5. Thorsten Linz from FCB Chicago , August 13, 2010 at 2:50 a.m.

    Thanks for the article. Great piece! If communication is relevant and expected people will always open and read your emails!

  6. William Prettyman from Studio Center , August 13, 2010 at 12:35 p.m.

    I definitely think there are "Best Times". They obviously vary by Business Category and Audience. They way we arrived at our "times" was through simple trial and error combined with Multi Variant and A/B Testing. We then monitored the "Opens', "Clicks", and "Conversions" along with Monetary Results. Our Sample Size is over 1,000 so we have acquired a decent body of data.

  7. Loren Mcdonald from Silverpop , August 13, 2010 at 3:56 p.m.

    Thanks everyone for the comments.

    William, well there certainly are times that are either better or worse times to send on aggregate, that can be learned through testing, etc. - some of my points were:
    1) There is no rule that works for everyone
    2) Best time is a compromise and means that the best time for 60% of your list might also mean the worst time for the other 40%
    3) The best time is simply different for each subscriber
    4) Emails triggered by behavior trump aggregate best times
    5) The right message has to be part of the right time equation - great, relevant and wanted content will most likely trump the question of Tues at 10 versus Wed at 2.

  8. Kelly Lorenz , August 16, 2010 at 2:43 p.m.

    Loren: Great post and reminder. I have bookmarked to share with clients as I inevitably will get this question.

    Kurt: While I agree that the relationship and the offer are absolutely key or it doesn't matter when you send the email, I have to disagree that when you send is irrelevant. As a consumer myself, Monday morning is the absolute worst time for a marketer to hit my work email address. Mondays are when my finger hovers over the delete button no matter how good or relevant the offer. That's why timing is always key to the conversion equation. If you're not hitting consumers when they're ready to convert, as Loren points out, you're missing the boat and the point.

    -Kelly Lorenz