Implied Vs. Expressed Preferences

Dear E-mail Diva,

I am a long-standing [Specialty Retailer] customer and received this e-mail from them seeking e-mail preferences. I was (at first glance) impressed, but guess what two questions they asked? 1) Gender and 2) Areas of Interest (women's, men's, apartment, or sale). How lame... they couldn't tell (by my name) that I'm a female? It's not like my name is Deryn. And, they couldn't pull my past purchase history/behavior to know that 99% of the time I purchase women's apparel and participate in end of season sales? I love [Specialty Retailer] but this appears to be a major letdown/missed opportunity for them. Diva, what am I missing?

Kathleen Bagley Formidoni

blast! PR

Dear Kathleen,

I love blast! PR, but I'm afraid I have to defend Specialty Retailer.

You're saying that they could have predicted your preferences from your behavior. While that's true to a certain extent, it's not foolproof. They can tell from your name that you're female, but, as you point out, there are Deryns (and Pats and Chrisses) in the world. There is a program called a "personator" that predicts the likelihood of a person's gender, but only certain names can be predicted with certainty. If you want to address someone's gender directly, e.g., "Just between us girls, Kathleen," you'd better get it 100% right, and these programs can't do that.



Just because you shop for women's clothing doesn't mean that you might not have (or acquire) a significant other and be interested in apparel for him, or see a great idea for your apartment. Or perhaps you are male but have a daughter or girlfriend and previously have shopped only for her. Even though you tend to buy clothing on sale, it doesn't mean you may not be interested in the introduction of a new clothing line or store opening.

It gets down to expressed versus implied preferences. As these examples show, your implied preferences aren't 100% reliable and can limit the options this retailer presents to you. A major catalog company tried sending customers mini-catalogs, based on their category purchases, and found that while they saved on production costs, it reduced net revenue considerably. Do you ever walk out of a great store like Target with just the one item you came in for?

Specialty Retailer wants to serve you, so they put you in control, not the data gurus. If you tell them you want to receive e-mail only when there's a sale, they will honor your request, even though they have much more to offer. We receive a ridiculous number of marketing messages each day and our reaction is to take control, hence DVRs, satellite radio and overzealous use of the "this is spam" button. If marketers give us control over our e-mail content, I say they're on the right track.

Here are some other things Specialty Retailer did well:

  • 2 step signup. For first-time opt-ins, Specialty Retailer first captures the impulse to sign up for e-mail (enter e-mail address >> submit), then asks for more information on an optional second page.

  • Incentive for previous opt-ins. Specialty Retailer sent an e-mail to subscribers to update their profiles and included an incentive. It had a brilliant subject line: "Who are you? And do you like free shipping?"

  • Actionable information. Companies tend to go overboard when asking for customer data. The rule should be: don't ask for any information that can't be used to improve your marketing program. If you want to do research, or have a "that would be interesting" type of question, save it. Don't overwhelm the consumer and create what Flint McGlaughlin of Marketing Experiments calls "friction" that discourages the opt-in.

    There are two things Specialty Retailer should consider. One is to ask for a frequency preference--how often customers would like to hear from them. The E-mail Diva did a survey of one client's customers and found that half preferred to receive e-mail monthly or semi-monthly, and the other half preferred e-mail weekly or even more frequently. It requires better planning--you have to have a firm editorial calendar and create decision trees to integrate content and frequency preferences, but there's technology available to do this.

    Specialty Retailer may also want to consider sending an e-mail in response to an abandoned shopping cart or deep session in a particular product area. This allows the retailer to respond to what you're interested in today, rather than what you've purchased in the past. As Elaine O'Gorman at Silverpop warns, however, don't send a special offer every time a consumer bails, or you can create a "discount only" buyer.

    With the holidays closing in, I wish you and Specialty Retailer happy shopping and...

    Good Luck!

    The E-mail Diva

    Send your questions or submit your e-mail for critique to Melinda Krueger, the E-mail Diva, at All submissions may be published; please indicate if you would like your name or company name withheld.

  • Next story loading loading..