What’s Your Frequency?
Now that the days of simply blanketing your customer database with e-mails are long past, optimizing your e-mail contact patterns is as much about understanding where your customers are in the purchasing cycle and optimal timing, as it is about how often you mail. Optimizing for the long term takes testing, planning and a good understanding of your customers’ behavior patterns. All these factors will help you formulate a contact strategy that’s relevant to your customers, ideally lifting response rates and keeping unsubscribe rates low.
A successful e-mail contact strategy depends on an analysis of customer preferences, as well as where those customers are in the buying cycle. “The more you can tie your messages to the activity level of the customer or the customer’s lifecycle, the more success you have,” says Elaine O’Gorman, vice president of strategy for Altanta-based e-mail marketing services provider Silverpop. Analysis of open and clickthrough rates will help identify those customers who are actively engaged with your brand and e-mail program. “Early in the buying process too many mails from a vendor may be seen as ‘you’re pushing me,’” notes Michael Wexler, vice president of strategy and analytics for Lexington, Mass.-based e-mail marketing solutions provider e-Dialog. “We can use Web site behavior or other types of metrics to understand where someone is in the buying cycle and modulate the message frequency based on that, often pulling [segments] out of the standard [contact plan] and sending them a specialized sequence that may send at a different frequency.”
Maybe even more importantly, analysis will identify those who are becoming inactive. “If you’re able to identify a group like that, then the marketer can: a) create a new strategy to re-engage those folks, and b) look at frequency, particularly for that group, to try to get them more engaged and involved,” says Reggie Brady, president of Norwalk, Conn.-based e-marketing consultancy Reggie Brady Marketing Solutions. “Maybe [mailing] every week is barraging that group too much and the better tactic is mailing them twice or once a month.” Mailing once a week is a basic good practice to follow, according to Brady. For those firms just starting up their e-mail marketing program, she suggests to start slow with a once-a-month schedule until you fine-tune your contact strategy and then step up frequency as needed. As a general rule, mailing less than once a month is inadvisable, however, since customers may forget that they signed up to receive communications, Brady says.
A once-a-week strategy is best practice for watch and accessories marketer Fossil Inc. “Measuring open rates and clickthrough rates by individual is our No. 1 strategy for whether we’re contacting someone too frequently or not frequently enough,” says John DeCaprio, vice president of e-commerce for the Richardson, Texas-based company. “Based on that information, we have several different skip patterns where we mail someone weekly, if they’re actively involved with us. That can roll back to biweekly or monthly, and even quarterly, depending on how often someone has interacted with us.” Along with open and clickthrough rate analysis, Fossil also looks to its opt-out rate to gauge contact frequency. A higher rate of opt outs may signal the marketer is contacting its customers too frequently. DeCaprio notes, however, that opt-out rates are no longer as good a measure of how satisfied or dissatisfied customers are with frequency as they used to be, since customers are just deleting unwanted messages, clicking the “this is spam” button, or ignoring e-mails outright. That’s why more in-depth analysis has become even more important.
Breaking the Rules
Whether a marketer should mail more than once a week is dependent on its category of product and customers’ engagement with its category. For instance, consumer electronics and travel categories tend to have highly engaged customer bases that are eager for frequent e-mail updates on new products or deals. In comparison, when it comes to the financial category, customers do not expect frequent communications, therefore biweekly and monthly communications typically are the norm. “The best frequency varies per segment and per goal of marketing communication,” says Wexler. “If you’re trying to keep people up to date on rapidly changing information, perhaps you might send every other day or every day. If you’re updating people on changes in an industry that doesn’t change very much, then once a month is fine.”
However, very few companies can get away with e-mailing customers every day. And those who choose to make exceptions, such as retailers and e-marketers with strong holiday sales seasons, need to decide whether they can accept the greater number of unsubscribes. “It’s a calculated risk,” says Brady. “You’re going to get a slightly larger amount of opt outs, but you have to capitalize on whatever your peak season is.”
Testing 1, 2, 3s
A successful testing technique will help you turn customer analysis findings into an actionable contact strategy. The basics of testing start with segmentation of your file, which means creating a control group along with medium- and high-frequency test groups. “You want people who all joined at about the same time period, or make sure that you have a really good cross-section of your file,” says Brady. “As a stake in the ground, I would say if you have a small-sized file, you’re going to need samples of at least 5,000 to 7,000 names in each cell. If you’ve got a much larger file, you may want to take at least 5 percent of your file and split it into those different cells.” It’s also essential that the only variable for each test cell is the frequency. The content and offer should remain consistent across all test groups. Wexler also advises e-marketers to set a reasonable upper frequency cap. “Increased frequency shouldn’t mean jumping between once a month and once a day,” he says.
It will take time to collect comprehensive results that you can use to plot your contact pattern. O’Gorman urges, “When you’re doing testing, especially frequency testing—depending on your frequency of contact with a typical customer and your buying cycle—you really need to take a good look at behavior for three to six months-worth of activity before you make a decision based on [frequency test results].”
However, don’t forget the most direct way to gather and understand customers’ preferences: Sometimes all you have to do is ask. Direct surveys are a good way to know precisely what your customers expect from you. Another good practice, notes Brady, is to implement a preference center to which customers can link from your e-mails, giving them the chance to specify content preferences, including how often they wish to be contacted.
Point of Content
Of course, how much your customers want to hear from you has everything to do with what you have to say to them. The more relevant and timely your content is to their needs, the more interested they will be to hear from you on a more frequent basis. “Optimizing the timing of your mailing based on actual customer actions is a wonderful way to increase relevance,” says O’Gorman. For instance, people are more interested in a product when they’ve purchased a related item, received a marketing call or searched the Web for that product.
Likewise, the more engaged people are with your brand, the higher interest and tolerance they will have for your messages. Rather than sending out your regular communications to newly opted-in customers, it may be more effective to create a welcome series that guides them through your products, says Brady.
It’s also key to optimize transaction and account-related e-mails—communications that are created by the relationship with the customer, rather than generated by a marketing timetable. Customers are expecting these communications, and they tend to have a higher action rate.
For instance, Fossil’s e-mail frequency modulates in response to customer-
initiated interaction. “If you’re buying something, you’re obviously going to get another e-mail, or a chain of e-mails,” says DeCaprio. The company also may send out additional e-mails to individual customers in response to non-sale actions, such as a reminder that they had clicked through on a product but did not complete a purchase. The main lesson is not to rely simply on unsubscribe rates. Rather, evaluate your customers’ behaviors so your e-mails will reach them when they are ready to view and click.