Relevance Defined: The Four Key Ingredients

Expectations are steadily rising in the inbox. Having permission only gets you so far nowadays. Irrelevant and unwanted email is the new spam in the eyes of both consumers and ISPs. Everyone agrees that “relevance” is the solution, but it’s often discussed in vague, mystical terms.

While relevance is indeed in the eye of the beholder, that doesn’t mean it’s indescribable. Relevance comes down to a mix for four factors: emails being (1) desired, (2) user-friendly, (3) valuable, and (4) open.

Desired. Emails are desired when they arrive when expected, when requested, and when subscribers are in the market -- and at a frequency that isn’t excessive. Setting expectations during the sign-up process and in your welcome emails is a critical first step. Varying your email frequency according to key selling periods (like the holiday season for most retailers) is appropriate, and creating an array of triggered emails means that messages arrive at times when individuals will be most receptive. Using frequency caps and allowing subscribers to opt-down rather than just opt-out also help ensure emails are desired.



User-Friendly. Emails are user-friendly when they are easy to scan, read and navigate across all major platforms, a goal that is complicated by the growing number of email-reading devices, particularly mobile ones. Email text that is difficult to read on smartphones and calls-to-action that can’t be accurately clicked with a finger only serve to frustrate subscribers, who are no longer triaging their inbox via mobile and reopening emails later on their laptops. Emails that are coded poorly so images and grids are broken are also irritating and brand-damaging. Landing pages should flow seamlessly from the email experience to avoid lowering conversion rates. Regularly A/B testing your email designs is also critical to being user-friendly, as there’s no way to know what your subscribers respond to best without testing.

Valuable. Emails are valuable when they provide subscribers with content that they find compelling, worthwhile and interesting. Beyond simply delivering what you promised them when they signed up, you discover what individual subscribers value by collecting demographic information, preferences, purchase history, behavioral data and social data. And then you use that information to power segmented messages, dynamic content and triggered emails.

Open. Emails are open when they include content from other channels and the voices of customers, staffers, brand advocates and outside experts. In addition to including product ratings and reviews from your website, emails can highlight staff picks, advice from celebrities, testimonials from magazines, and products with the most likes, tweets or pins. Emails can leverage cross-channel content like videos and social media exchanges. Emails can also ask subscribers to guide business decisions about everything from where to direct charity efforts to which products to carry. This kind of content openness creates context for products, helps build brand image and express brand values, and provides engagement opportunities when subscribers are not in the market to buy.

Of course, because brands and their subscriber bases vary so widely, there’s always a significant element of “it depends” when it comes to acting on any of these four factors to increase relevance. But any time spent experimenting with improving any of them will be time well spent.

3 comments about "Relevance Defined: The Four Key Ingredients".
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  1. Liz Cohen from ActivePath, July 18, 2012 at 3:39 a.m.

    Just want to stand in solidarity on the user-friendly part.

    Aside from being easily consumed on smartphone, avoiding too much text and of course, not being code-broken, there's also an element of keeping up with design and layout trends. As user interfaces in general are becoming more app-like, light, and flexible, we should be adapting our emails for that new user expectation.

    I think it's time to look into new ways of embedding media, displaying products, and allowing the recipients to interact with our messages. An email should be an engaging live experience.

    So, yes, user-friendly!

  2. Dave Hendricks from LiveIntent, July 20, 2012 at 10:45 a.m.

    Agree with Liz Cohen!

    Relevance has a lot to do with timing. What you decided was hot last week, might not be hot (or even on sale) when I open your email.

    Make the open the trigger for what is shown, not the send.

  3. john kottcamp from Tahzoo, July 20, 2012 at 3:17 p.m.

    I couldn't agree with the article more. There are a couple of points that I think are critical for achieving relevancy.

    First, the content has to be relevant to the customer. Too often, emails are all about the product or the brand and little attention is paid to what the customer really is interested in. If the the content doesn't match the interest, it will not be viewed as relevant.

    The other area of consideration is understanding the context when delivering mobile communications. People not only have a shortened attention span when mobile, but they usually have a different point of reference as well. Typically mobile users are more "in the moment" and so if an offer does not match what they are doing or thinking about and does not offer something that can be immediately acted upon or consumed it has a much lower chance of being considered relevant.

    When we work with our clients on mobile experiences, regardless of its email, web visits or apps, we stress that you have to understand the context of the experience and plan for it to be most effective.

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