Stay Ahead of The Subscriber Saturation Point

What else are you doing while reading this article?  In our multimedia, multitasking world, the subscriber's attention span is nearing saturation. Gaining permission to opt-in for email is harder today than it was 10 years ago, when email was brand-spanking-new and inboxes were less crowded. 

A simple invitation will no longer do.  Subscriber expectations have changed through experience. Email is now familiar and entrenched.  Subscribers know from the first message or two if what you send will be valuable to them.  They can be quite sophisticated in managing their inbox experience, quickly sorting the welcome from the junk.   ISPs and corporate receivers use services to block marketing messages, which blocks spam, but also blocks anything we marketers send, permission or not, that is irrelevant or too frequent enough to be marked as spam. 

And the world has changed outside the inbox as well.  Social media has made the inbox a refuge for more intimate conversations that we don't want to blast to our entire network.  It's also made it nearly irrelevant for some forms of communication and sharing.



Some marketers have evolved along with subscriber expectation.  Others, well, not so much.

There are still lots of generic "Sign up for special offers" links on home pages.  (That has got to be the mostunappealing invitation, ever.  It's tantamount to "oh sure, just send me whatever the heck you want.")  Search landing pages are not optimized to capture email with custom invitations that match the keyword -- missing an opportunity to connect on a topic clearly of interest to the visitor.  Lots of Facebook fan pages do not include a link to email newsletter sign-up.  Many retailers hide the checkbox during checkout, or don't offer an opt-in option at all.  

List growth is top priority today because we are all eager to optimize revenue from the inexpensive and high ROI email channel.  Unfortunately, it seems for every really smart approach I see, there is an equal and opposite worst practice example.

Best Practice: Being bold on the home page.   The Obama campaign converted its entire home page into a data capture form, and then used the data wisely to engage and empower supporters. 

Worst Practice: Creating a "buzzworthy" site that doesn't include a way to engage. On the other hand, Skittles (LINK:, recently turned its entire home page into a Twitter feed.  Beyond the buzz the company got when it launched, this action seems to lack any real strategic advantage.  What Skittles now has is a home page that adds no value to the conversation - with no way to engage with the brand.  A compelling invite to join the email file and/or join a broader conversation on MySpace or Facebook would be a better use of this real estate.

Best Practice: Improving email signups on search landing pages.  Sierra Trading Post uses pay-per-click search to drive signups for their email newsletter, the DealFlyer.   "Many people want to sign up for a steady diet of coupons rather than just one today," said Wendy Croissant, email marketing manager, on a recent Marketing Profs webinar panel  with me (session still available for free, with registration).  Wendy also tailors the offer on her landing pages to match the source.  So visitors from see something different than those from She reports a significant rise in response on those pages, even when just the image and headline are unique to the audience.

Worst Practice: Sending email without permission. On the other hand, in a recent transactional email study, three well-respected brands sent messages from sister brands without express permission.  In one case, Crate and Barrel sent messages to a buyer from three brands even when there was no-opt in for any brand at checkout.  Talk about a lack of customization or subscriber value.  No wonder inboxes are overflowing.

Best Practice: Reactivating the almost lost. Many email marketers try to "win back" lost subscribers who have long been ignoring email messages. It can be very hard to re-engage through email with subscribers who have tuned out your email messages. Publishers Clearinghouse uses direct mail to reach out, but does so within 90 days of the last email action, so the subscriber is still relatively "warm." Sal Tripi, director of marketing, says he also uses postcards which pre-announce an online promotion - re-encouraging email as a way to stay "in the know" on winners and new sweepstakes. 

Worst Practice: Trying to reactivate the never had. On the other hand, we got a note the other day from Xlibris, an online publishing house, four years after we wrote the book we contacted them about originally.  The email politely asked us, "How is your book coming along?"  Wow.  Sounds like someone found an old list in the back of a desk drawer.  What a really bad idea, as older files have high unknown user rates and low engagement potential and can spike your complaint rates and kill your inbox deliverability.

The golden rules of email list growth are: prominence, prevalence and relevancy.  Come up with a great benefit statement, preferably segmented by audience, and put it up BIG, everywhere.  For more ideas, download the checklist we developed for our Marketing Profs session). Please send along any great examples you have, as well.



4 comments about "Stay Ahead of The Subscriber Saturation Point ".
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  1. Jason Baer from Convince & Convert, April 21, 2009 at 12:04 p.m.

    Fantastic post Stephanie. I completely agree, especially with the being bold on the home page.

    Listen, you gotta put your consumer hat on. Think to yourself "is what we're offering really exciting and interesting?" If it's not, go back and figure out something that is worthy of consumers providing their closely guarded data. If it is, then MAKE A BIG DEAL ABOUT IT.

    Way too many good email programs are hidden, and are supposed to drive business with a tiny link in a dusty corner of the home page.

  2. Joel Book from ExactTarget, Inc., April 21, 2009 at 12:27 p.m.

    Stephanie, as usual you are spot on regarding the absolute necessity for brands and organizations to give the consumer "a reason' to subscribe to their email.

    Unless the email subscription value proposition is compelling and based on providing information and offers that address a specific need or interest, the consumer will move on. None of us are looking for a reason to subscribe to receive more email. On the contrary, what we are looking for are companies that are committed to providing information that helps us make better purchase decisions.

    When it comes to email marketing, the big difference between the "pretenders and contenders" is a genuine commitment to serve the subscriber by honoring their content and frequency preferences. In my experience, the brands that do this -- like Scotts, Johnston & Murphy, and EMC -- have a huge competitive advantage of those that still feel comfortable using the term "email blast."

  3. Michael Schur, April 21, 2009 at 1:25 p.m.

    I'm not so sure Skittles is engaging in a "worst practice" by changing its homepage to a listing of Twitter search results. As a Twitter user, seeing the listing immediately caused me to consider tweeting about Skittles so I'd appear in the listing. If I tweeted, Skittles would have immediate exposure to all of my followers and any sites to which I push my tweets, such as Facebook.

    In my case, Skittles would have reached an audience of my 200+ social network friends. About 15% of that audience follows me on mobile devices, out where they could make an immediate purchase.

    Seems pretty effective to me... especially with Facebook becoming as clogged up as my inbox during the past several weeks (in part due to the single-quiz applications running rampant).

  4. Jeff Abraham from Rel-8 Marketing, April 21, 2009 at 1:59 p.m.

    A contextually placed hover window (aka pop-up) can generate significant email acquisition conversion rates. Triggering the hover window after several relevant page views assures that the user is engaged with the content and thus, much more likely to provide personal info such as an email. We are seeing CTR's of 2% to 10% depending on match of content with newsletter topic.

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