Hidden Rot: Association Email Lists Are Filled With Decay

Associations are avid emailers. But their email lists are plagued with “hidden rot,” and they don’t even know it, according to a study from Bob & David James, an association marketing agency, conducted by the Association Research Board, a related company.  

“All e-mail lists are vulnerable to rot,” states David James, vice president of Bob & David James. “Business-to-consumer lists decay 30% a year, and business-to-business lists are even more foul — decaying 70% a year. But the survey shows many association executives don’t get that.”

Of the 97 association marketers surveyed, only 18% said they were aware of an increase in undeliverable addresses in the last year. Another 58% said they were unaware of any decline, and 26% were unsure. 

But this flies in the face of evidence that B2B lists are eroding overall. James cites a Return Path study showing that inbox rates fell from 87% to 85% during the same period.



And now that they were thinking about it, 57% of the association executives estimated their decay rates ranged from 10% to 20% per year, and 37% were unsure.

Worse, 54% had no idea whether their lists are cleaned by an outside service. A lesser number — 46% — believe their files are scrubbed at least once a year by a vendor.

One problem may be that there is no market pressure on associations to do better. Only 5% rent their email lists to third parties, meaning that 95% never hear complaints about poor quality.

And their own targeting isn’t very good — only 29% segment their lists only to promote their annual conference to a portion of their contacts. 

“People have started to think that their organizations are immune to the fact you have to clean lists,” James says. “We know it in postal, but they’re ignoring it in B2B email.” 

He adds that associations often think that "people cancel their lives and open their emails.” 

As proof of the volatility of B2B email lists, James cites a Biznology survey on business cards. Of 1,200 respondents, 65.8% changed their title or function in the same firm, 42% altered their business address or company, 42% had a new phone number and 37.3% a new email address.

“That’s a pretty good indicator,” James says.

He also mentions an Oracle study showing that “the quality of data is the third greatest concern to marketers.” 

Associations are avid mailers, however. Of those surveyed, 27% sent emails to their lists between one and five times per week. Another 28% sent emails weekly, and 25% sent them at least monthly.

In an earlier survey this year, Bob & David James found that 62% of respondents use email compared to 27% for direct mail and 12% for telemarketing.

And a study released this week by Edge Research and Community Brands shows that email is the channel of choice for professional association members.  

Of 1,025 members surveyed, 56% selected email as the medium that is easiest to consume and understand.

James wryly says that this could be because emails are easy to delete. 

Commenting on his company’s earlier survey, James says that over-reliance on email is hurting associations.

They are plagued by “low inbox rates, dismal email response, and over-digitalized members,” he argued in May.  

So what can associations do to clean up their act? Regular cleanings. "It's like going to the dentist a couple of times a year," James says. 

He argues that “routine list cleaning isn’t only a best practice, it’s a survival tactic for associations. Think about it: if you allow the hidden rot in your e-list to go untreated, the whole thing can become useless in just 18 months.”

He adds, “Be sure you date-tag old addresses, and keep a close eye on open rates for them. Any decline in opens should tell you you’re overdue for a cleaning.”

Of the executives polled in this Q3 2017 survey, 77% lead professional associations and 23%, trade associations.



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