At least once a month, I look through the piles of new data around email marketing to be certain I am in sync with my industry peers. In the last few months, one trend continues to rise to the top of the listL the need for email marketing programs to increase subscriber engagement. This "need" for increased engagement stems from a trend we have been seeing for years: "ad-avoidance."
As brand content has become more self-service on websites and within communities, consumers (and even the highly valued email subscriber) have been turning up the dial on ad-avoidance and simply ignoring the communications that we as email marketers work so hard to execute. With more than 70% of email recipients not opening the mail, engagement seems like an excellent place to focus. How do we define engagement? Let's start there and then consider some strategies that help drive engagement up within the subscriber base.
Defining subscriber engagement was once a simple task. An engaged subscriber was one who opened, clicked or otherwise interacted with an email. Today, this is not a complete definition. Subscribers to your email program are not likely to be engaged with your business via a single channel. It is very possible that subsets of your subscribers are also members of your brand's community, have "liked" your brand on Facebook or follow you on Twitter. What's more, your subscribers may not be opening your email but may be visiting and shopping on your site. The point is that lack of email engagement does not, in itself, constitute an unengaged customer.
Today, data must be aggregated from multiple sources to get a grasp on true engagement at the subscriber level. Be sure to start there or risk treating some of your best customers as if you have no idea who they are.
Once engagement is defined, it is time to consider strategies to deal with the engagement problem. Below are a few ideas to get you and your team started.
Leverage a cause. Customers can only handle so many offers. At some point, offers become less impactful (or too costly) to use as a tool to drive engagement. Brands that recognize this often identify altruistic incentives to engage subscribers. For example, one brand allows the subscriber to pick a specific charity and direct 5% of their spend to that nonprofit. Cause marketing is becoming very popular and effective on the social web, and email marketers should be leveraging it to increase engagement.
Offer to communicate via alternate channels. Brands must be willing to put the subscriber in charge of the relationship. In some cases this may result in allowing email subscribers to opt to engage a brand in channels outside of email. As I explained above, a customer who is no longer engaged in email could be engaged with the brand in a number of other ways. In a recent email, one brand used a significant amount of email template "real estate" to promote the chance for subscribers to receive "deal of the day offers" on a mobile device. I think this is a great example of deepening engagement with consumers who prefer to communicate in new/emerging channels.
Integrating loyalty programs and rewards into email. Many brands are introducing loyalty benefits tied to engagement in email. Points can be earned for providing user-generated content or for simply opening and clicking within email communications. One brand recently launched an email soliciting opinions from a select group of customers. The program was interesting in that the request for opinions was positioned as "Invitation Only," making engagement more likely. In addition, participation was rewarded with Loyalty points. This serves two purposes. First, asking subscribers for feedback often provides unique insight into reasons for engagement (or lack thereof). Second, rewarding this participation ensures subscribers know the brand values their time and participation.
Regardless of the strategy you choose, engagement with your subscribers will be a critical metric for your business to track in 2011. In fact, with ISPs like Microsoft looking at factors like messages read and then deleted, messages deleted without being read, messages replied to, and even the frequency of receiving and reading a message from a sender to determine inbox placement, engagement is going to be a big driver in overall email delivery and program effectiveness.