Relevance Is Overrated

Marketers, especially email marketers, are obsessed with the topic of relevance. Of course, there are good reasons for this obsession. Messages targeted to subscribers based on their interests yield higher response rates. Too many irrelevant messages increase the likelihood people will unsubscribe from future email messages.

In recent years, I have become obsessed with the question, "What companies do customers think do the best job marketing to them?" After considering the thousands of responses received through surveys, focus groups, and one-on-one interviews, something occurred to me: relevance is overrated.

While marketers talk about relevance as a mark of success, consumers use the word "relevant" in negative contexts. Consumers talk about their irritation with irrelevant messages (whether in email, banner ads, Facebook, etc.). They talk about how many of the messages they receive are "not relevant" to them.

The vocabulary used by consumers talking about the companies that do the best job marketing to them is totally different. Instead of relevant, they use words like "interesting," "helpful," "informative," and "awesome!" Most importantly, they talk about how these companies "care" about them.



Relevance should not be our goal. In the minds of consumers, "relevant" is the low water mark -- it's the criterion for not sucking. The goal should be demonstrating that your company cares about its customers.

When asked, "What companies do the best job marketing to you?" consumers tend to mention the same companies over and over again. However, the reasons they like these companies are varied:

·      Apple develops new and innovative products.

·      Costco will refund anything.

·      Oreo is fun.

·      Pampers helps new moms.

·      Zappos has great customer service.

·      Amazon makes good recommendations (admittedly, relevance!)

While all familiar examples, it pains me when these examples are shrugged off as "old case studies." They aren't. They are persistent examples of companies that do a good job. They are also the companies that we all compete with in the inbox.

According to a recent survey we conducted for a client, 47% of people say they unsubscribe from email because they "receive too many emails and needed to get off some companies' lists." In comparison, only 25% say they unsubscribe because "the content was irrelevant from the start." To me, this says we need to pay more, not less, attention to what highly rated marketers are doing.

Taken together, what do these brands teach us? What would be the difference if email marketers started focusing on demonstrating they "care" first and foremost?

1.    We'd study our customers regularly. We all have an idea of who our subscribers are, but we can't assume their desires, motivations and interests will stay the same over time. Doing so is like assuming your spouse won't change after you say, "I do." 49% of people unsubscribe because "content becomes repetitive or boring over time." Keeping content interesting means you need to study what will keep subscribers interested.

2.    We'd highlight customer service. Email marketers hide behind "no reply" email addresses. (Interestingly, encouraging people to reply would help companies improve their delivery. Ever notice how the emails that arrive in Gmail's Priority Inbox are the people you have sent email to?) While opening up your reply address may be too daunting, at least ensure you frequently highlight ways for subscribers to contact you and get help quickly. 

3.    We wouldn't share data. The single largest frustration voiced among consumers about email marketing is when companies they subscribe to share or sell their data. This includes sharing with sister companies. Any way you cut it, sharing is a big no-no in the minds of subscribers. And they don't care what your Terms and Conditions say, because they didn't read them in the first place.

4.    We'd be more creative. Automation is required to run large-scale and highly targeted email programs. A competing reality is that automation is the antithesis of creativity. Populating the same template week after week with similar-looking content gets boring. While impractical (and ill-advisable) to custom-create every email, breaking the mold, or changing the look every once in a while helps people stay interested. 

This is just a start toward where a "caring"-focused strategy might take you. Additions to this initial list are welcome. But all of these will make your program more relevant in the minds of subscribers. It is not an either/or. It is a matter of striving for something higher. If we strive to create programs that show subscribers we really care about them, we just might surpass the relevance mark in the process.

6 comments about "Relevance Is Overrated".
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  1. Mike Bloxham from Magid, April 27, 2011 at 12:01 p.m.

    To your point about subscribers receiving too many emails, by chance I saw this status update on Facebook from a Friend within the last hour:
    "I'm feeling in need of a little spring cleaning in my life. My world has started to feel cluttered, over-scheduled, stuffed. Since my closet is too big a hurdle this morning, time to work in my inbox. I need to unsub from about 20 different email marketing lists, seems like a good way to ease into the process."
    Perhaps unsurprisingly, the comments that followed echoed the sentiment, reinforcing the old maxim that it's not just about what the brand wants to say, when and how often, but what the customer wants to hear, when and how often. As you say, nothing remains constant so it's something to continually study.

  2. Chad White from Litmus, April 27, 2011 at 12:06 p.m.

    Great column as usual, Morgan, though I wonder if it's not that relevance is overrated, but that subscribers simply interpret relevance as "interesting," "helpful," informative" and--best of all--"awesome." Relevance isn't one-note; it's a range of different notes. Also, isn't "I receive too many emails" just a slightly softer way of saying that your emails weren't valuable enough? That's just relevance said another way.

  3. Anne Marsden from Marsden & Associates, April 27, 2011 at 12:19 p.m.

    Amen, Morgan, Chad and Mike. Even relevant content that isn't presented in ways that relate to the recipient becomes noise. (Note: I don't say consumer, I say recipient because this si as true form busy professionals as harried moms.) I have unsubscribed to many email lists that have content I actually need, but they require too much time, or hit me at the right emotional level.

    So, as you said, relevance is the starting point, the price of entry, but by no means the end goal.

  4. Morgan Stewart from Trendline Interactive, April 27, 2011 at 12:41 p.m.

    Thanks Anne & Mike.

    Chad, I agree with you. To a degree it is a matter of semantics, what we marketers call "relevant," consumers call "interesting," "helpful," informative," etc.

    Even so, I am a firm believer that semantics matter. Conversations about relevance are becoming stale. They have taken a turn toward the application and implementation of the "right" tactics -- focused on welcome streams, triggered messages, and the like.

    If we use the relationship metaphor, relevance is not romantic. Being relevant to my wife isn’t likely to make her feel appreciated or cared for. Being relevant is part of the equation, but it is not a noble aspiration. That’s the entire point.

  5. Liz Lynch from Demandware, April 28, 2011 at 4:57 p.m.

    Hi Morgan,
    I think the relevance drum has been beaten so long, marketers have tuned it out in terms of what it really means to their brand and to their customers. And that's too bad, because relevance still matters. Marketers need to think about creating the best possible customer experience no matter the channel, and that is done by knowing what the customer considers "valuable". It is a relationship, and having things in common (relevance) is what starts it, but from there, doing things that show you really know me and value me keeps the fires going, so to speak.

  6. Dela Quist from Alchemy Worx Ltd, May 12, 2011 at 1:25 p.m.

    Hi Morgan
    Like you I have long felt that it is time to STOP trying to be relevant.
    Instead of asking: "How can I be more relevant?" Ask how you can add more value to your email communications. You will then, by default become more relevant, and more importantly, you will be providing your subscribers with a reason to stay subscribed and interacting with your email program.

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