The Mutual Dependency of Marketing, Customer Service and ROI

You’ve conducted research, developed your strategy, identified the right audiences, shaped messaging and value proposition based on the audience’s motivations, and done a fine job of targeting. So what could go wrong? Answer: Your fulfillment mechanism was awful.

You’ve conducted research, developed your strategy, identified the right audiences, shaped messaging and value proposition based on the audience’s motivations, and done a fine job of targeting. So what could go wrong? Answer: Your fulfillment mechanism was awful.

Too often there is a gap between outbound marketing and how inbound inquiries are handled. This gap swallows up inquiries and undermines your credibility when the large numbers associated with online activities don’t translate to real life appointments. CRM-based approaches help with follow-up, but implementation and messaging can feel a little too commercial for the space. That’s one reason why marketing and customer service workflows need to integrated into your planning and, preferably, in your org chart.

This is not revolutionary stuff, but I fear we may be losing sight of its importance as we rush to update our marcom technology stacks with the latest and greatest. We live in a now-based society. Unless you can empower consumers with the ability to self-schedule for all service lines, the most important technology for conversion is a prompt, helpful, human response and ownership of an inquiry beyond the initial response stage. New school, meet old school.

Here are common break-downs in the pipeline from marketing to customer service and ultimately, real-world ROI:

Inquiries Are Routed to an Inbox That Only One Person can access

Single-person access can happen in small organizations or in large, decentralized organizations where responsibilities for responding vary based on site of care or geography. Ensure that more than one person has access to each inbox create a recurring scheduled reminder to ensure it is checked and responded to multiple times per day. If you can collaborate with a customer service team, work with them to route online inquiries to an electronic queue that agents integrate into their schedules. Remember, consumers expect an informed response to an email or contact form within an hour or two.

The Task of Responding to Inquiries Is Delegated to the Most Junior Person in the Department

No one likes sorting through junk mail, but legitimate inquiries are buried in there. Although delegating this task to a junior member may feel like a good decision for time management purposes, does that person have the customer interfacing skills necessary for success? Pick the response team based on their knowledge of how to navigate your system, their judgement in responding with courtesy, and their awareness of HIPAA-compliant communications.

Inquiries Are Passed Along to Other Departments for Handling, or the Response to the Consumer, Simply Gives Them yet Another Phone Number or Name to Contact.

A prospect is interested and fills out a contact form. You pass the inquiry along to another department or reply to the prospect they should call a specific phone number. Both scenarios decrease the likelihood of conversion. A better approach is to request the customer’s phone number as part of the submission form, respond by email to acknowledge receipt and that a live person will call within a certain time frame. The team designated to respond should be able to view and book appointments immediately or take the ownership of that request offline, work the issue across multiple sites of care, and recontact the prospect with options. This offline handling can be a time-intensive but necessary human layer to bridge legacy systems.

Inquiries Lack Ownership Once the Initial Response has Been Provided

Let’s say a prospect has asked about doctors who fit certain criteria. You provide that information and hear nothing back. You’ve fulfilled the request, but is the task complete? In many settings, this ‘ticket’ would be closed. However, following up with that person a few days letter to confirm receipt of the information, and offering assistance in scheduling can go a long way in making a positive brand impression and lift conversions.

These are a few of the common breakdowns that suppress conversions and ultimately ROI. The best way to assess your situation is to test response mechanisms for each service line, geographic area or operating unit. The results may surprise you.

The Inbox Doesn’t Know the World Is Falling Apart

Marketing is hard enough without the uncertainty of macro disruptions. But lately, the threat of a macro disruption seems to lurk behind every corner. Natural disasters, terrorism, the possibility of nuclear war, a tweeter-in-chief who can send the stock market in one direction and the media echo chamber in another with 140 characters or less.

Marketing is hard enough without the uncertainty of macro disruptions. But lately, the threat of a macro disruption seems to lurk behind every corner. Natural disasters, terrorism, the possibility of nuclear war, a tweeter-in-chief who can send the stock market in one direction and the media echo chamber in another with 140 characters or less. Each day, we wake up, check the internet, and wonder what new tidal wave of chaos will wash over us. But for retailers, what we really want to know is how to prepare for a holiday season where chaos threatens commerce?

The good news is that people are more resilient to macro events than we think. You may have heard that gun sales, for example, went up after the 2008 election. That’s true, gun sales really did surge after Obama won the presidency, but a deeper dive into the data reveals that guns and ammunition sales always go up after Democrats win national elections, just as alcohol sales spike whenever Republicans win. In other words, no matter how dire an election looks to one side or the other, we tend to revert to predictable shopping patterns in the immediate aftermath of even the most contentious elections. Retailers can leverage that resiliency by turning to their most resilient channel — email. Not only does email have unparalleled economies of scale, it offers retailers value beyond mere promotion, particularly if they’ve built messaging portfolios that are flexible enough to adapt to changing macro conditions.

Consider a 2012 JetBlue campaign that promised to send more than 1,000 customers to the international destination of their choice, if their candidate lost the election. Obviously, JetBlue found a clever, bipartisan way to tap into a common sentiment — if the other candidate wins, I’m leaving this country! But the real genius of the campaign is the flexibility; it would’ve worked regardless of the outcome. Even in a Bush vs. Gore scenario, JetBlue could have spent the ensuing 37 days of legal wrangling emailing participants cheeky messages about their uncertain travel plans. So how might retailers use JetBlue as a template for making sure that their holiday plans are resistant to macro disruptions?

Start by making a list of the disruptions. Don’t leave anything off because you think it’s unlikely; in fact, if you can think it up, assume it can happen. Then work up responses to add to your messaging portfolio. For U.S. retailers, Mexico is a gold mine. However, given the public cracks in America’s relationship with its neighbor, a retail messaging portfolio is incomplete without something to say in response to a possible change in cross-border commerce. Likewise, every retailer knows that the fight over an online sales tax has been reopened. Retailers have machine learning tools that can generate new offers under a new tax regime, but that’s all the more reason retailers need to be prepared to deploy messaging on the fly should such a scenario present itself. Along the same lines, retailers must also prepare for an even bigger shift if net neutrality goes away. One possible scenario is that retailers might want to drive consumers to visit the store again because the physical experience will look a lot better compared to a potentially slower, less efficient and costlier online shopping experience.

Recently, some brands demonstrated their communication resilience. Ahead of Hurricane Irma, Verizon and AT&T notified customers that they would add more data to existing plans or simply not charge for text or data overuse for the next week. Airbnb tackled an even greater challenge by reaching out to hosts who might be willing to donate housing to evacuees, and then connecting those strangers in the chaos of a hurricane. Like everyone else, AT&T, Verizon and Airbnb certainly were planning something else the week that Hurricane Irma struck, but they were nevertheless prepared to meet the chaos of a macro disruption because they had built resilience into their communications portfolios.

There’s an old bit of wisdom about resilience that says, “humans make plans and God laughs.” The lesson isn’t to forsake planning, but rather to be humble enough to stay flexible so that you can change your plans as the facts on the ground change. This is good life advice, but it’s also good advice for retailers, especially as we approach the holiday season. Something big may very well disrupt your plans, but if you’ve built resilience into your email messaging portfolio, you’ll be ready to respond no matter what.

Bah Humbug on Black Friday Emails

Congratulations if you survived another Thanksgiving with family. It can be a wonderful time of year, or contentious, depending on the circumstances. Also congrats if your inbox survived Black Friday. I’m still cleaning mine up, which is not easy with all the Cyber Monday emails hitting me left and right.

Congratulations if you survived another Thanksgiving with family without some sort of verbal fist fight breaking out over politics or the proper way to carve a turkey. It can be a wonderful time of year, or contentious, depending.

Also congrats if your inbox survived Black Friday. I’m still cleaning mine up, which is not easy with all the Cyber Monday emails hitting me left and right.

Because I’m a nerd for numbers, I applied some search parameters to see what really DID end up in my inbox. Then I made a chart. Stop laughing at me.

Melissa's Black Friday InboxBetween Nov. 1 and Nov. 27, I received 127 emails with “Black Friday in the subject line. The chart above breaks it down by percentage received by date (and yes, I clumped Nov. 1-Nov. 14 together, since most of those days I received maybe 1-2 Black Friday emails tops).

Amazon emailed me the most, taking up 13.4 percent of my Black Friday inbox overall (from Nov. 1-27, and 10.3 percent of my Black Friday inbox on the actual day (Nov. 25). NewEgg came in second, and JCPenney third (Fun fact: I probably haven’t ordered anything from JCPenney since 2013).

Now, as I look at these numbers, everything seems fairly reasonable. But here’s the thing: Over the holiday while visiting my family for 4 days, I felt like this every time I picked up my phone:

Too Many EmailsOkay, maybe that’s a bit hyperbolic, but I think at one point it got up to 36 unread emails. And what did I do? I cleared them all out, sometimes opening a message to see if there was a good deal, and usually not finding much beyond 20 percent off … which, c’mon! That’s a typical discount.

But maybe it’s just me. According to the National Retail Federation, 44 percent of consumers shopped online for Black Friday (while 40 percent trekked out to stores), and Millennials — my generation — helped to drive the increase in Black Friday sales. And according to information from an Adobe report, Black Friday online sales grew 17.7 percent over 2015, hitting $5.27 billion.

Black Friday Sales MemeLook, I can be sassy about this because it’s me. Again, I realize the days between Black Friday and Cyber Monday are huge for retailers … but as I mentioned, the Black Friday “preview” emails started Nov. 1 for me.

I really don’t need 28 days worth of “Ooh look! Online deals! Buy them now!” emails. And having my inbox hammered for almost an entire month made me numb to most emails … I swiped left so many times to archive things I almost accidentally swiped my aunt’s email right out of my inbox.

Maybe I’m jaded because I’m familiar with how this all works. Maybe I’m burned out on unimaginative email copy and the same old bland offers. Either way, I say Bah Humbug to Black Friday. Give me #GivingTuesday … at least then the money I drop can go do some good in the world.

Swiping Left on Early Morning Emails

I confess … I have a bit of a problem. See, my iPhone is also my alarm clock. And what do I do after I turn the alarm off every morning? Glance at my home screen to see if there are email notifications I can clear out as quickly as possible.

I confess … I have a bit of a problem. See, my iPhone is my alarm clock, which means it’s the first thing I grab in the morning, often before I grab my glasses (and I am near-sighted with an astigmatism, so this is kind of a problem).

And what do I do after I turn the alarm off? Glance at my home screen to see if there are email notifications I can clear out, because seeing something like this will make me break out into hives:

Notification Badges

This reminds me of a cute little stat card from Emma that I picked up at a conference. Titled, “18 Email Stats to Know, Love, and Quote at Parties,” it had the following stat from online marketing firm Ezanga:

“58% of adults check email first thing in the morning.”

Following the stat was this tip: “Try sending your emails early in the day — you might see an uptick in opens.”

But here’s the twist: I’m swiping left on about 90 percent of the new messages in my inbox after giving each sender and subject line a few seconds of attention between 6:30-7:00 am.

Yuck Swipe Left

The remaining 10 percent are left to be read at a later time, also known as “after my first cup of coffee.”

Now, perhaps I’m an anomaly and marketers can all breathe a collective sigh of relief. Or maybe I’m not. I wake up to anywhere from 6-20 emails in my inbox each morning, and I know that if I don’t weed out of the inbox early, those numbers are going to climb between feeding my cat breakfast at 6:45 am and walking into the office at 8:00 am.

By that point, I’m also dealing with my work inbox, which can have anywhere from 12-30 new emails each day (more on a Monday following the weekend), and at that point I’m ready to plunk my phone into the office coffee pot, sever the power plug for my computer, and find a small cabin in the Adirondack Mountains to spend the rest of my days.

One Does Not Simply Read Their Email

According to the Email Marketing Report 2015, produced by Who’s Mailing What! and Direct Marketing IQ, the morning hours are intensely popular.

Email Volume by Time of Day

But look at the evening hours: The inbox is less crowded between 6:00-11:00 pm. And for me, that’s the best time for me to spend a few extra minutes on reading emails.

So if you want to reach people like me — who tend to feel the strangle of email notifications — think about sending after dark. There’s a better chance I’ll tap once to read more instead of swiping you left into the archive folder.

Email Creative That Demands an “I Do”

So my big sister is getting married in July! I’m the maid of honor, which means somewhere along the way I signed up for one wedding planner website or another. Obviously, this means my personal inbox has been overflowing for the last six months with everything from florist promotions to caterers to personalized cufflinks.

So my big sister is getting married in July! I’m the maid of honor, which means somewhere along the way I signed up for one wedding planner website or another. Obviously, this means my personal inbox has been overflowing for the last six months with everything from florist promotions to caterers to personalized cufflinks.

Promotions for pretty much any object or service you could ever even vaguely imagine at a wedding have made their way into my inbox. Half the time I’m too lazy to unsubscribe from all these lists, but it turned out for the best because now I get to focus a blog entry on it!

Thought I’d just give you a little taste of a few bridal-centric emails I thought really caught the bouquet. In the spirit of wedding themes, I’m using an age-old nuptials adage as a guide. To be honest it’s probably going to take a little creative fudging to fit my choices into these categories. Work with me here, planning a wedding is stressful.

SOMETHING OLD
From:
MyGatsby.com
Subj.:
10 Days Only: Enjoy 40% OFF Wedding Invitations
Why it’s an “I Do”: Subject line cuts to the chase and gives a clear time frame to act within. 40% is an appealing offer for anyone shopping around for invitations which, like all things matrimonial, can lighten your purse quite a bit. The email itself has a nice, clean, elegant look as well.

SOMETHING NEW
From:
J. Crew
Subj.:
Exciting wedding news…
Why it’s an “I Do”: Big fan of the ellipsis in subject lines, I fall for them regularly, just can’t handle the suspense. Beautiful HTML design that makes it easy to quickly find your fashions—the full email had a section for the groom and groomsmen too.

SOMETHING BORROWED
From:
www.BellaPictures.com (From line: Nicole Reilly)
Subj.: Touching base about your wedding
Why it’s an “I Do”: First off, this one’s a Something Borrowed because apparently I’ve borrowed my sister’s name and her role in the wedding. News to me! So they get a few points docked for not looking at the “I am the __________ in this wedding” response on whichever form got me added to this list. That said, the subject line, text-based copy, and conversational tone were all on point. It really does feel like this is someone you’ve already chatted with, making their studio more appealing. The casual question about venue in the beginning is a nice personal touch.

SOMETHING BLUE
From:
David’s Bridal
Subj.: Bridesmaids, Get Your Lace On!
Why it’s an “I Do”: When it comes to fashion, sometimes it’s best to let the image do the talking, such is the case here. The few lines of text above and below are just brief and easy-breezy enough to give the extra nudge—plus, of course, a free shipping offer. Not to get all color-psychological on you, but maybe worth noting that pale blue like the shade they chose for this email is by and large considered to be pleasing and calming to the human eye.

Actually, that last one gives me an idea for testing the same copy and creative with varying color schemes. Look out for that in a future post, maybe. As always, feel free to comment if you have more to add about these picks, or if something landed in your inbox you’d like to share.

In the meantime, I’m knee-deep in shower planning and the wedding isn’t until July but I’m already having nightmares about writing my speech. I’m not sure any amount of email marketing analysis can help me there. Wish me luck!

Astonishing: The One Email That Made It Through

An astounding email hit my inbox this week that perfectly illustrates the value of triggered messaging, or email sent as the result of some sort of action or inaction by the recipient.

An astounding email hit my inbox this week that perfectly illustrates the value of triggered messaging, or email sent as the result of some sort of action or inaction by the recipient.

The email itself wasn’t particularly astounding. It was pretty run of the mill.

What was astounding was that it made it into my inbox when every other email sent by this particular merchant over the course of the last year has been diverted to my spam folder.

Gmail had correctly identified the message as the sole email I would open from that sender all year long.

Wow.

Here’s the story: I run a fantasy football league for email marketing service providers under the brand of my newsletter The Magill Report.

The winner of The Magill Report Fantasy Football Championship gets a tasty, regulation-sized football-shaped sweet bologna sausage from Dietrich’s Meats in Krumsville, PA [Mmm. Mmm.] and a lead crystal championship trophy with the winning company’s name inscribed on it.

I bought last year’s trophy from Crown Awards. I will buy this year’s trophy from Crown Awards. Their stuff is reasonably priced and high quality. The service is great.

Here’s where it gets interesting from an email marketing standpoint: Crown has been emailing me with offers I’m not interested in on a regular basis ever since the first purchase. I don’t mind. I simply don’t have any reason to do business with Crown accept once a year.

Gmail’s spam filtering system apparently figured this out. Every single message from Crown has been diverted to my spam folder without me having done anything indicating I’m not interested in the messages.

Until this week, that is.

On Monday, an email from Crown arrived in my inbox with the subject line: “Crown Awards – Time to Order.”

The body of the message contained a copy of last year’s championship-trophy order and a call to action asking me to re-order, which I most certainly will.

Think about that for a moment: Gmail’s anti-spam team has developed technology that identified the one message I would want among dozens from the same sender over the course of a year.

There are a number of possible explanations: The re-order email wasn’t part of the regular blasts. It was personalized and people are probably much more engaged with Crown’s re-order messages than its broadcast campaigns.

Inbox providers see this engagement as an indication their subscribers want the messages so they deliver them to their inboxes.

And here’s where the Crown example fits into the bigger picture: Responsys recently wrapped up a study of 100 retailers in which the email service provider found close to a third of the merchants were sending regular email to addresses that had been inactive for three-and-a-half years, and another 23 percent were sending the inactive addresses messages, but at a reduced frequency.

The study also found that marketers who have large lists in which 50 percent of the addresses have been inactive for a year or more are at serious risk of getting all their mail filtered into recipients’ spam folders.

But many of these mailers won’t even know their broadcast messages are getting filtered as spam. After all, they’re not bouncing. They’re simply being pushed into recipients’ spam folders.

As email inbox providers increasingly rely on engagement metrics—such as opens and clicks, or lack thereof—to separate wanted from unwanted email, the Crown example above points to what should be the increasing attractiveness of triggered email programs.

I moderated a webinar for this publisher recently in which online marketing guru Amy Africa discussed triggered emails. Here, in part, is what she had to say:

“The thing about triggers … is you get a higher response rate, better deliverability by far and improved lifetime profit,” she said. “The great thing about them is you design them once, tweak them a little and they last for years. I have clients who have been mailing the same thing since 1998.”

An average triggered email should outperform a marketer’s best broadcast email by four to six times, she added.

So which triggered emails work best?

According to Africa, abandoned-cart, -search, -site and -lead-form messages are all top performers. The success of abandoned-shopping cart emails has been well documented. The same tactic can be employed to reach people who, say, begin filling out a form to download a white paper or attend a webinar, but stop for some reason.

Confirmation emails are also top performers, said Africa. “Anything you can confirm works really well,” she said.

Emails based on past purchases are also workhorse messages, she said.

“They take a little time to get your formula right, but after that they’re golden,” Africa said.

Indeed. Just ask the folks at Crown.

Four Email Marketers, My Gmail Account, and Why They Matter to You

Let me tell you the story of four marketers’ emails and their placement in my Gmail account. Trust me. Their story matters to you. I gave none of the four marketers permission to send me email. Yet, two are making it into my inbox. Two are being shunted off into my spam folder.

Let me tell you the story of four marketers’ emails and their placement in my Gmail account. Trust me. Their story matters to you.

I gave none of the four marketers permission to send me email. Yet, two are making it into my inbox. Two are being shunted off into my spam folder.

The four merchants are Walmart’s PictureMe Portrait Studios, Kmart, Cigar Auctioneer and Weber-Stephens Products.

The two marketers getting shunted off to my spam folder are PictureMe Portrait Studios and Kmart.

PictureMe Portrait Studios began sending me email after I had a mug shot taken for my website at MagillReport.com.

Somehow, Gmail recognized PictureMe Portrait Studios’ messages immediately as spam. I can only guess, but PictureMe Portrait Studios’ emails were probably being delivered to people’s spam folders long before they started spamming me.

Regular offers on having portraits taken sent without permission is probably prompting people to hit the spam button. How often does the average person want their portrait taken, after all?

Kmart started sending me email after I gave my address during a big-dollar purchase to Sears, its sister company under the Sears Holdings Corp. umbrella

Astoundingly, while Kmart’s email is being delivered into my spam folder, Sears’s email is being delivered to my inbox.

Why is that astounding? Because I gave permission to one of Sears Holdings’ brands and not the other to send email. Gmail has apparently somehow discerned this and is treating their email accordingly and they are the same company.

Meanwhile, Cigar Auctioneer and Weber-Stephens are getting delivered into my inbox. Weber-Stephens began sending me email after I bought a grill refurbishing kit from its online store. Cigar Auctioneer began sending me email after I did business with its parent, Famous Smoke Shop.

Neither had permission to send me email. Yet both their messages are marked as priority emails in my inbox.

Why? Because I open every single message I get from them. Weber-Stephens sends a recipe-of-the-week email every Friday. I look forward to them. I open them and I cook about half the recipes in them.

And because of Cigar Auctioneer, I haven’t paid retail prices for my hand-rolled smokes in months. I don’t always get my favorite brands, but boy do I save money.

And here is why my inbox experience matters to you: Email inbox providers are reportedly increasingly eying how individuals interact with their email to determine whether or not it’s spam. As a result, email is increasingly becoming more about engagement.

Translation: You can get a little fast and loose with your permission practices with customers as long as you send email they want and interact with.

Conversely, you can exercise the gold standard in permission practices-fully confirmed opt in where people must respond to a confirmation message in order to be added to your file-but if you send a bunch of unwanted crap, your messages will be treated as such.

Email inbox providers’ spam filters are designed to deliver email people want and filter out email people don’t want.

Send messages people want and you’ll be fine. It’s really that simple. Or not, depending upon what it is you’re selling.

Cigar Auctioneer and Weber-Stephens have fairly obvious advantages over other marketers. Their messages invoke thoughts of highly self-indulgent experiences. As a result, they stand a better chance of being welcomed than email from marketers whose products and services don’t invoke similar pleasurable thoughts.

So Cigar Auctioneer and Weber-Stephens can afford to be a little loosey goosey with their permission practices while Kmart and PictureMe Portrait Studios apparently cannot.

The lesson: Make an honest assessment of your product or service and what it represents to customers and prospects. Then make an honest assessment of the email program you’ve set up around it.

Can you honestly say people are likely to want your messages? If not, go back at it. Something needs to be changed.

Stephanie Miller’s Engagement Matters: Why Good Email Gets Blocked as Bad

Our first step in email marketing return on investment is to reach the inbox. Sounds pretty straightforward, right? Yet, I’m always amazed at how many email marketers either don’t appreciate the negative impact of blocked messages or don’t know what they don’t know.

Our first step in email marketing return on investment is to reach the inbox. Sounds pretty straightforward, right? Yet, I’m always amazed at how many email marketers either don’t appreciate the negative impact of blocked messages or don’t know what they don’t know.

There’s no shame here. Every email marketer gets blocked occasionally, even if you have permission or generally follow best practices. The best defense is good offense: Be knowledgeable on the root causes of blocking, respect subscribers and measure inbox deliverability.

This is no tree in the proverbial forest. If your messages don’t reach the inbox, they won’t earn a response. It’s not something that happens to “that other guy.” In fact, about 20 percent of legitimate, permission-based email marketing messages and newsletters never make it to the inbox, according to a study by Return Path earlier this year. (Full disclosure, I work for Return Path).

Any lift in inbox placement goes right to the bottom line. All your metrics (e.g., opens, clicks, page views, conversions, ad revenues, etc.) will rise concurrently. The good news is that marketers can absolutely impact how messages are treated by ISPs like Hotmail, Yahoo and Gmail, and corporate system administrators.

Do not delegate inbox deliverability — a very important step to ROI — even if you delegate delivery. Your email broadcast vendor or ESP can’t do this for you. It’s a shared responsibility. A good broadcast vendor will operate an efficient delivery system, give you full reporting that includes actual inbox placement (Note: this is NOT your bounce rate) and help you follow best practices. However, no vendor can control your message content, frequency and acquisition practices. The buck stops with the marketer or sender.

You need the following four things to reach the inbox consistently and earn a response:

1. A solid infrastructure. For either an in-house system or a vendor, check frequently to be sure you know that your infrastructure is sound (e.g., proper reverse DNS, MX records, authentication and volume throttling) and your bounces are managed properly. Make sure you fully understand the metrics used in reporting as well.

2. Low complaints. There’s a penalty for irrelevancy in email marketing that doesn’t exist in other channels. It’s called “complaints.” A complaint is registered every time a subscriber clicks the “Report Spam” button. It only takes a few complaints to get all your messages blocked at Yahoo, Gmail or corporations (which use many of the same data sources). Subscribers complain when they’re not happy or interested in your messages, even if they’re customers and gave you permission. They complain even when they claim to love your brand.

Yikes! Imagine what would happen if Yahoo or another major ISP blocked all your messages for the next 30 days (the length of time many deliverability failures take to correct). Revenue would drop like a brick and you’d be under the spotlight to explain why your mailing practices earned such a wallop.

Relevant messages have low complaint scores. It’s the single most powerful factor in a good sender reputation, which dictates if your messages reach the inbox and earn a high response. It’s up to marketers and publishers to engage subscribers with every message rather than assume an opt-in gives you license to send whatever you want whenever you want.

Increase relevancy by developing a subscriber-focused content strategy. Address the editorial needs, buying cycles and life stages of your subscribers. New subscribers may welcome more email than long-time subscribers — or the opposite may be true. Tailor messages for subscribers who are up for product or service renewal, have recently purchased, visited a particular section of your website, abandoned their shopping cart, clicked but didn’t convert, downloaded a whitepaper, or haven’t opened or clicked in the last quarter.

3. A clean file. Keep a clean list by doing the following:

  • Be sure everyone on your email marketing file really wants to be there. Offer choices and make it easy to unsubscribe and change preferences.
  • Try to win back fatigued subscribers who are ignoring you early in the relationship. If you see a customer hasn’t opened or clicked in the past 90 days, you may have an opportunity to re-engage.
  • If someone hasn’t opened or clicked in 12 months, take them off your file.
  • Only accept subscribers from legitimate sources — e.g., your own website, partners you vet carefully and publishers with high sender reputations. It may be nice to have a large file, but it’s always better to have a file that’s more responsive and engaged.

4. Good reporting. You can’t manage or optimize what you don’t know. Track complaint data by signing up for all ISP feedback loops, and quickly remove those subscribers who complain. (Detailed instructions can be found here.) Be sure you actually know your inbox deliverability rate, by campaign and message type. This is not your bounce rate (typically 1 percent to 5 percent), but the actual number of messages that reach the inbox. You must seed your campaigns to get this data. If your email broadcast system or vendor isn’t reporting this to you, ask them for it.

What are you doing to better manage inbox placement as part of your response metrics? Let me know what you think by sharing any ideas or comments below.

Nurture Your Subscribers to Higher ROI in 2010

Email subscribers want only one thing from us: help. They want to be more informed, more beautiful, given raises, be heroes to their kids and make better business decisions. Given the amount of poorly targeted messages in my inbox, however, it seems many of us have forgotten this central tenet. Generic is boring; custom is compelling. Response goes up when messages engage and nurture subscribers.

Email subscribers want only one thing from us: help. They want to be more informed, more beautiful, given raises, be heroes to their kids and make better business decisions. Given the amount of poorly targeted messages in my inbox, however, it seems many of us have forgotten this central tenet. Generic is boring; custom is compelling. Response goes up when messages engage and nurture subscribers.

The inbox is essential in 2010, but it’s also fiercely competitive. Social networks drive their businesses through the inbox, and more and more marketers are sending more and more promotions. Your message must stand out amid this noise.

Sending the same message to everyone is the opposite of nurture — it’s numbing. It has the opposite effect, driving disengagement and dissatisfaction. Too much email in short time periods will not only depress response, it’ll increase complaints (counted by ISPs like Yahoo and Gmail) every time someone clicks the “Report Spam” button. Even a small number of complaints will prevent your messages from reaching subscriber inboxes — all your subscribers, not just those who complained.

It’s painful enough imagining the slow death of your email response rates when subscribers are bored week after week. Even worse, imagine the drop in revenue if all your messages are blocked by Yahoo due to high complaints. Ouch! It’s worth taking the time to nurture instead.

The ideal is to offer subscribers what they need before they realize they need it. Luckily, you can get pretty far even without deep resources. Test a few of the following “baby step” ideas now; then integrate the hardest-working into your ongoing calendar this year. Since not all subscribers have the same value, focus on those with the highest potential.

1. Educate prospects. Many marketers have both prospects and customers on their house lists, each receiving the same promotions. Probably neither are inspired by something watered down for the masses. Never assume prospects know anything about your content, editorial personalities, products or benefits. Consider a series of messages or offers that move prospects through the sales pipeline.

2. Treat customers better. Email is a great way to treat your best customers special. Certainly VIPs are easy to find and celebrate, but also take that same approach down the line. Identify your cusp customers, and invite them to participate at higher levels while showing them the benefit of doing so. Every once in a while, just thank your customers. You’ll be surprised at the response you get.

3. Listen. Let subscribers tell you what they need through their actions. Even if you can’t overlay behavior and demographic data, use the data you have. Customize transactional emails based on purchase. After a click, trigger a context-specific email with content recommendations — which could be sponsored advertorial — or premium services. Replace static landing pages with deeper microsites focused on particular topics to capture more page views or present more detailed offers when prospects are “in market.”

4. Test subject lines. Many campaigns go out without any optimization testing. Yet even simple A/B testing of subject lines can improve response by 5 percent or more.

5. Customize by age. Watch response by vintage (the length of time the subscriber has been on the file), and determine when subscribers go “inactive” — defined as no open, click or conversion/response activity in the past three months.

Quickly send out a “win-back” campaign to those who may be on the verge of going inactive. Don’t wait two years to send a win-back. Once subscribers start ignoring your emails, it’s difficult to re-engage them.

Audit your past 90 days for a “nurture appeal.” Are you blasting or engaging? Broadcasting or customizing? Talking or listening? You’ll likely find a number of points of vulnerability where you’re not optimizing your nurture potential. The payoff is real: Satisfied customers click more, buy more, and engage frequently with advertising and offers.

Let me know what you think; please share any ideas or comments below.