A few days later I was comparing the email metrics from a small startup that is growing organically, to some of the larger lists of clients who have been around a long time. One B-to-B client has been relying on email as its principal communications channel for five or six years, and has about 100K subscribers. Its newsletters command a 20% open rate pretty regularly, and promotional emails are usually plus or minus 5%. They supplement email with social channels and a little direct mail, but rely pretty heavily on the inbox for most of their messaging. Social channels are a tiny fraction of the subscription list size -- no more than 5% depending on the channel.
The startup, by comparison, launched a year ago and promoted its email list, Facebook fan page and Twitter account simultaneously from the outset. It has fewer than 1,000 subscribers, but its social channels are almost exactly the same size as its subscription list. When it posts to its blog, the number of people who read it is almost the same exact number of people who subscribe to email, follow on Twitter or fan on Facebook. Its email open rates are typically 60%, with click-throughs commonly above 20%. For this company, "subscribers" and "audience" are in fact synonyms, but for the larger B-to-B company, its actual audience is far smaller than its subscriber list.
What accounts for the delta that some companies see between the people whose email addresses they have, and the people whose attention they have? Here are some thoughts -- based on, though not limited to, the two examples of clients I've mentioned:
Tenure: The longer an email program has been around, the older some of the subscription records are. Inevitably, customers' needs or in-market status change with time, so their attention wanes. A few weeks ago Loren McDonald wrote one of the best articles on inactive subscribers I've read, so the best advice I can give in a paragraph's space is for you to read what Loren recommends.
Personalityization: No, that's not a typo for personalization. Some companies just communicate better, which makes it easier to hold onto the attention of their audience. Strong and compelling communication is not the effect of an engaging email program, but the cause of it. These same companies never stop talking directly with their customers -- on the website, a blog, social channels, and wherever else they have contact.
Empathy: At its best, email is not mere broadcasting; it is communication. That is not to say that email needs to be two-ways, but the more email is based on knowledge of what its subscribers want -- instead of what the emailing company's agenda du jour is -- the better it holds the attention it has earned. The best example I can give of this is my wife, who rules the cocktail party in ways I simply cannot. She is engaging and inquisitive, and is more interested in learning about other people than she is about talking about herself. (I'm a total narcissist bore, with staggering conversational unsubscribe rates.) Empathy begets attention, and some email programs have it in abundance.
Tonnage: The startup clearly has the attention advantage, not because its newness makes it more interesting, but because its smaller scope naturally allows for tighter content targeting. Compare a blog about the Washington Redskins to ESPN, for example. If you're a Redskins fan, you may follow both. But the narrow little blog has your rapt attention, which ESPN can only rival when it runs a story on your beloved ‘Skins. Fortunately for ESPN, they also have a fraction of the attention of every other fan of every other team in every other sport in the country. Like the B-to-B client above, each communication they issue only has to carry a small part of the organization's workload.
The challenge for the startup will be to continue to earn its audience's attention as its subscriber base grows, balanced against the pull to broaden its perspective in order to appeal to a wider audience. The B-to-B client, for its part, is looking towards niche content strategies and targeting to recapture some of the narrowness and intimacy central to attention. The grass isn't necessarily greener on the other side. It's just a different strain, which, when mixed, creates a verdant and drought-resistant hybrid.