Incentives For Opting In: Proceed With Caution

Doesn't anyone have a question for the Email Diva? I look to my mailbox and all I find is SPAM. Since no one had a question this week, I will offer some unsolicited advice on a common problem.

The Acme Company has a small email list that the firm wants to grow as quickly as possible. Its strategists decide to bribe people to give up their email addresses by offering a sweepstakes or a free T-shirt or something else that many people, regardless of their interest in the Acme email program, would want.

It works, kind of. The company gets listed on a sweepstakes site, one that directs people to all the freebies and giveaways online. The entries pour in, thanks to a pre-checked opt-in box, and fueled by the great prize Acme is giving away.

There's only one problem. The people who are now opted-in for the email program have no interest whatsoever in regular contact from Acme Company. They just wanted the prize. If they are sweepstakes site junkies, they have entered so many programs that they have no idea what they signed up for, or when.



When Acme Company keeps popping up in the "From" field on incoming mail, the freebie seekers get increasingly annoyed. They hit the "Report as Spam" button more and more frequently. Acme starts having problems with delivery and showing up on blacklists used by corporations that don't have their own reputation management systems.

Email response is in rapid decline. Open and click rates are significantly lower than they were from the small, organically grown list of people who were not bribed to opt-in for email. Acme looks for the magic bullet: Is it the creative? Time of day? Color of the background? But the tests yield tepid results.

As we learned from the good old direct response industry, list is No. 1. It doesn't matter what you have to say, or how well you say it, if you're saying it to the wrong audience. That's like trying to sell ice to the Eskimos, as it were.

We also learned from direct response that after the list, the most important element of a campaign is the offer -- that little something extra that helps people overcome their natural tendency to procrastinate and do nothing. So why are incentives for email so often a terrible idea?

Email is a special kind of direct response effort: lead generation. At the point of opt-in, we are not trying to close a sale, but rather to get an indication of interest in our marketing messages. As any sales manager will tell you, the biggest hurdle for a lead generation program is getting QUALITY leads. A sales force will burn out quickly if it is chasing weak leads; people who tossed their cards in a fishbowl at the trade show to win a TV, for example, but who are not potential customers. The poor response from Acme's email program is a similar kind of burnout.

Are incentives to opt-in always a bad idea? Absolutely not. But they must be selected with care. Offer an incentive that is of interest only to your target audience, not the general public. An incentive that ties in closely with the content in your email program is ideal. If you are a retailer and your emails typically contain coupons and new product reviews, offer a coupon bonus package or the annual compilation of new product reviews. If you are a B-to-B offering business intelligence, offer an in-depth, special edition publication. If your program is all about pumping up your brand, offer wallpapers, screensavers, ringtones or other digital goodies that brand advocates want to have. Make your offer exclusive to opt-ins, not something anyone can get on your site.

With this approach, you won't get as many opt-ins as you would with a general-interest offer, but you will get quality opt-ins who are responsive to your message and don't report you as a spammer.

Good luck!

The Email Diva

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

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