Don't Let Village Wisdom Make You The Village Idiot

Email marketing blogs and mailing lists are full of best practices born of many years of experience by many smart, hard-working email marketing practitioners.

While these best practices can be extremely useful, in some cases advice is given without a lot of serious analysis. By looking at actual data, we’ve found that one thing becomes clear: Best practices aren’t always right.  Let me give you two examples.

1. Village wisdom: Subscriber-level, engagement-based filtering at mailbox providers means that you should mail more.

At a recent Email Evolution Conference, a panel of mailbox providers indicated that they use data on the quality of engagement (messages read, deleted without opening, etc.,) in their determination of inbox placement at the subscriber level. This wasn’t news, but for several voices in the email ecosystem this became a “Eureka” moment. Some said that these new rules of deliverability meant that marketers should send more mail. The logic: If the only subscribers that don’t receive mail are the ones who don’t read your messages anyway, you should just send more. It’s not going to hurt the response from your campaign.



What the data says: There is an optimal point for frequency that varies by sender. In many cases, mailing more will destroy value.

For example, when we took a look at the data for apparel retailers, we found:

  • Read rates fall pretty dramatically with each additional weekly message sent per subscriber. At some point the lower batting average (read rate) that comes with sending more mail overwhelms having more at bat. At that point, mailing more can mean that fewer people read your mail and fewer messages are read in aggregate.
  • Complaints increase with each additional weekly message. As frequency approaches once per day, the effect is non-linear, with exponential growth in complaints. This has two effects: You lose the lifetime value of an active subscriber (only the active ones bother to complain) and you increase the probability of deliverability issues, especially as complaint rates near 1%.
  • Inbox Placement Rates decrease with the frequency of mailing to inactive mailboxes. We found a definite correlation between sending to more unengaged subscribers and failing to reach engaged subscribers’ inboxes.

When modeling this out for clients, we found the optimal send frequency depends on many factors: how much you are currently mailing, conversion rates, customer “churn” rates, and average order values, to name a few. For many, following “village wisdom” results in over-mailing, which clearly hurts marketing performance.

2. Village wisdom: Offering incentives in welcome messages is a best practice that should work for everyone.

At several conferences, I’ve heard people say that by offering incentives during welcome campaigns you can drive new subscribers to interact with your messaging, building more engagement over their lifetime.

What the data says: Your mileage may vary.

Broadly, across the entire representative sample we studied, we found that offering incentives didn’t change welcome message read rates. Some brands offered incentives and saw high read rates, but for others -- most, in fact – this tactic very much didn’t work.

What does this mean for email marketers?  I would suggest three things:

  • Challenge assumptions: Just because something is a best practice doesn’t make it true for you. In fact, a common-sense recommendation may be actively hurting your marketing performance.
  • Use available data on what works for others:  Competitive intelligence products that show the performance of other marketers’ campaigns can give you a feel for what might work for you.
  • Test with a control: Find the 1-2 levers (frequency, program mix, etc.) that can really make a difference, and try something new to see what works for you.
3 comments about "Don't Let Village Wisdom Make You The Village Idiot".
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  1. Bill Kaplan from FreshAddress, Inc., April 8, 2015 at 1:13 p.m.

    While I generally agree with most of George's insightful columns, this one begs the question "Don't trust everything you read on the Internet."  :)  

    With regard to sending frequency, Dela Quist of Alchemy Works has done extensive research on this with the bottom line being that most marketers don't email enough. Of course, as George points out, there are costs to overmailing - namely fatigue, spam complaints, and opt-outs - so marketers and nonprofits need to understand their customers/donors and watch their analytics to find the optimal balance of too much email versus not enough. If you're a daily deal site and you're messaging once/week, you're undermailing. If you sell homeowner's insurance, an annual purchase, and you're emailing every day, you're overmailing.

    With regard to offering incentives included in a subject line, based on our experience working with 25% of the Fortune 100 companies and over 1,000 leading marketers, our clients realize a lift of 25% to 100+% in open and clickthrough rates. Even putting the data aside, this makes intuitive sense. If I see a 15% coupon good for Home Depot this weekend and there's some hardware item or appliance I've been meaning to purchase, I'm much more likely to open this email and click on the coupon link than if I receive a standard Home Depot email.

    So, as much as I believe that thinking out of the box is the best way to enhance your performance, oftentimes conventional wisdom really is right....and you don't always have to reinvent the wheel.

  2. Pete Austin from Fresh Relevance, April 9, 2015 at 5:44 a.m.

    This mostly comes down to checking afterwards to see if following advice is working for you. If it's not, or if the gain is tiny, then stop. 

    Or in math speak: always ask whether the alleged correlation continued after marketers took action based on it - did a further increase in A cause a further increase in B?

  3. John Bollinger from Into The Inbox Consulting replied, November 4, 2015 at 1:12 p.m.

    @Bill Kaplan - I don't think Geaorge was referring to incentives in general, but incentives in the initial Welcome letter.  Also, I think the takeaway from his post is that "your mileage may vary" - Test, test, test.  Best practices and all intended good advice may not apply to every marketer.


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