Preference Centers: Time to Step Up Your Game?

Data is the foundation of a successful email-marketing program as collected through demographics, interests, email preferences, Web purchase behavior and more. Data helps you generate insights that enable more targeted, and therefore better performing, programs.

Although behavioral data - what consumers do, not what they say - is deemed more valuable, you likely will have to rely at least initially on self-reported data provided by opt-in preference centers, surveys and other sources.

That's a compelling reason for offering a preference center. It gives you a baseline that will support initial segmentation and targeting programs until you can leverage and layer behavior data over preferences.

Preference centers also allow subscribers to tailor your email offerings to their own interests, needs and wants, and to update preferences, contact information and other important information more easily.



This can increase engagement early in the relationship and reduce churn in the long run.

Adoption of Preference Centers

Although capturing customer data and enabling easy updates of preferences and profiles have clear benefits, many companies still have not invested time or money in the effort.

•         In a 2009 study of Internet Retailer's Top 500 ecommerce companies, only 28% asked for preferences, interests or messaging options at opt-in.

•         Similarly, only 28% offered any options when subscribers clicked the unsubscribe link.

•         In a 2010 study of retailers and ecommerce companies, only 17% reported sending birthday offers and promotions. Most of those who didn't deploy them said they simply hadn't asked subscribers for their birth dates.

This was despite the fact that birthday promotions are simple to deploy and highly effective. One company found birthday-offer emails delivered nearly 25 times the revenue of standard broadcast emails.

Why Preference Centers Matter Even More Now

With the principle that preference centers enable more relevant messaging and subscriber empowerment, below are some of the factors that now make adding or improving your preference centers more important than ever:

•         More Channel Options - Consumers have become 'channel-choosy' and now expect communication options beyond email, including SMS, social and direct mail.

•         Address changes - With the launch of Facebook Messages, AOL's Project Phoenix and general email service hopping, enabling easy change of address has never been more important.

•         Increased relevance expectations - Call it the "Amazon Effect." As some marketers' programs have gotten more sophisticated and personalized, consumers have raised expectations that your messaging should be more personalized to their individual needs.

•         Inbox placement - With ISP/Web mail providers incorporating recipient engagement in their filtering and inbox placement algorithms, relevance now helps determine whether your subscribers will even see your messages.

•         Centralization - As the number of divisions, departments, messaging channels and email streams increase, companies must provide a central point of control for subscribers.

Three Types of Preference Centers

There are three kinds of preference centers, based on the stage of the customer/subscriber relationship and their intent.

1.    Opt-in. The opt-in process is key. Ask for too much information or the wrong type too soon, and your form completion rate will go down. Get it right, and you'll be able to provide messages that provide more value to subscribers from the get-go.

2.    Updates. Subscribers' interests change. They might move or change their email addresses. Their children move from diapers to preschool, or switch from sleds to snowboards. Make it easy for subscribers to modify their profiles and preferences.

However, don't wait for them to come to you. Invite subscribers to provide additional interests and preferences with stand-alone surveys, cookie-activated "popover" surveys on your website, or triggered follow-ups to purchases, returns and other events.

Also, format a series of progressive web forms, which pose preference-style questions that change according to respondents' previous answers, helping you to build or update customer profiles.

3.    Opt-out. Subscribers generally opt out of your emails because you email too often, send irrelevant content, or both. Providing alternatives to unsubscribing can help you retain a decent percentage of these subscribers that are looking to leave -- 10-25% on average.

These "unsubscribe preference centers" usually include alternatives such as changing an email address, frequency or format, modifying interests or opting in or out of message streams.

One innovation allows subscribers to put their emails on hold for a period of time, what we call "Snooze."

Time to Get Into the Game

The preference center is your starting point for collecting the data you need to drive relevant messages, and to give your subscribers the sense of ownership that keeps them engaged with your email program.

Ultimately, you must deliver on what your data and your customer preferences are telling you. If not, why bother?

I'd like to know what you think about preference centers and data collection. Have you updated yours recently? What changes are you making?

Until next time, take it up a notch.
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