The Quick and the Dead: Sending That First Email

Currently nearly one-third of the major online retailers that were included in our Retail Email Subscription Benchmark Study didn't deliver their first regular email within two weeks of the subscription date. Moreover, nearly one-fifth took more than a month to deliver their first regular email or failed to deliver at all. That stands in sharp contrast to the 18% that delivered their first regular email within three days.

Because of the CAN-SPAM Act, it's illegal for marketers to take longer than 10 business days to unsubscribe someone from their email program -- and there continues to be talk of lowering that requirement down to just three days. Given that expectation and requirement, I think it's fair that marketers should also guarantee that new subscribers receive their first regular email within 10 business days of signing up. Call it a self-imposed CAN-SEND Act.

Some retailers are already acknowledging that a 10-business-day subscribe rule makes sense by pledging to their new subscribers that they will fulfill during that timeframe. For instance, Foot Locker said in its welcome email, "Your subscription will be processed within 10 business days." And Cabela's said in its welcome email, "Your first issue should arrive within the next 10 days." In both cases, the retailers kept their promises.



There are several opportunity costs associated with the delay of sending that first email promptly:

1. The more time that passes between sign-up and that first regular delivery, the greater the chance that subscribers will forget that they subscribed and will flag the email as spam.

2. Those customers who actively sought out your newsletter and subscribed may become annoyed at not receiving email within a week or two, and may feel like they have to take the time to resubscribe. The delayed or failed delivery will hurt the customer's impression of your brand and cast doubt on the reliability of your Web site and IT systems.

3. Perhaps most important, you're missing out on possible sales. I haven't seen any research on this, but I'd also bet that subscribers who start receiving emails earlier are more likely to make a purchase earlier, because they were already in the mode of shopping or interacting with the retailer.

For those retailers that took longer than two weeks to deliver or failed to deliver, there were a couple of discernible patterns. First, all of the retailers using a double opt-in sign-up process had problems with delays or non-deliveries, which is unfortunate. I hope this doesn't taint anyone's opinion of the value of double opt-in, which creates cleaner lists.

And second, many of the retailers that were slow or failed to deliver were in the same boat when I initially proposed the CAN-SEND Act last year. Two-time offenders included, American Eagle Outfitters, QVS, Lowe's, Best Buy, Sam's Club, Sony and Staples.

Beyond that there were no patterns. The mega-retailers were just as likely as smaller retailers to have these delays and failures. And disturbingly, more than 55% of those that took more than 14 days to begin sending regular email sent welcome emails. So a quickly delivered welcome email was no guarantee of a quickly delivered regular email.

Take this as your wake-up call to check your subscription processes to make sure that they not only work, but work in a timely fashion. Because if you're not fulfilling your subscriptions quickly, you're missing out on revenue opportunities and hurting the customer experience.

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