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Ken Magill

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Ask an Expert: Determining Optimal Email Frequency

5/10/11

The week’s Ask-an-Expert question is: How do I determine optimal email frequency? For example, is there a benchmark opt-out rate I should be keeping an eye on if I decide to increase frequency? Or when do I know it's time to decrease frequency?

Once again, we turn to the experts on the Only Influencers discussion list, an invitation-only forum for digital marketing experts.

Bill Kaplan, CEO, FreshAddress:

To properly determine your optimal frequency, you first need to establish the goals of your email marketing program. Are you simply interested in driving the most revenues through your email marketing program and, if so, are you looking to maximize these over the long-term? OR are you willing to sacrifice some long-term value and dollars for a short-term gain?

If revenues are not your end goal, then what is - deeper relationships with your customers or constituents, providing education and training to the most people possible (e.g. a “stop smoking” campaign), rebuilding your reputation and company brand (e.g. Toyota after the recalls), etc.?
 
Once you’ve determined your goals, then the analysis necessary to optimize your email frequency will fall more easily into place.

The next step in the process is to determine the lifetime value of an email relationship. Without this, it’s impossible to know whether it’s better, for example, to gain 10 percent more in revenues while experiencing a 1 percent opt-out rate or to gain 5 percent more in revenues while experiencing a 2 percent opt-out rate.

Of course, revenue gains and opt-out rates will vary over time so one can’t assume these will remain constant. Furthermore, if the people opting out are your least valuable customers, then absorbing a higher opt-out rate is easier than if you find that your increased mailing frequency is alienating your most desirable customers.
 
After taking these considerations into account, your final analysis comes down to the gain from increased mailing versus the costs (e.g. opt-outs, disenfranchised customers).
 
Like most things in life, there is no one size fits all and the proper email frequency will vary within and across industries as well as depend on other financial criteria such as profit margins, fixed versus variable costs, etc.
 
Another desirable approach is to build an email preference center and allow your customers to tell you how often they want to hear from you. Be sure to make it easy for them to switch back and forth easily between desired frequencies. In the end, this will go a long way toward reducing your opt-out rate while giving your customers what they want when they want, which is what it’s all about.

Tom Sather, director, professional services, Return Path:

Ultimately, your subscribers will let you know what the optimal frequency is. Look at your subscribers’ tolerance levels for frequency rates by monitoring complaints, opens, clicks, unsubscribes, replies and conversions.

If negative feedback (complaints, unsubs, and negative replies) is increasing and positive feedback (engagement and conversions) is decreasing, then decrease your frequency.

In rare cases, email marketers send too little email which causes subscribers to forget who you are and complain, so you'll need to keep this in mind if you only send one email every quarter for example. If negative feedback is high with low frequency (assuming content is relevant and engaging), experiment by increasing the frequency.

There are some exceptions to the rule. Subscribers are generally more tolerant of higher frequency rates if they are in the market for what you're selling, such as retailers sending an increase in emails during back-to-school season or Christmas. Some marketers, like Zappos, handle this beautifully by warning subscribers of an increase in email frequency during the Christmas season and allowing subscribers to keep their frequency unchanged if they wish.

If you're still unsure what frequency to use after looking at all this data, go ahead and ask your subscribers. Some marketers ask during the sign-up process, while others ask during the unsubscribe process. The key is using the data at your disposal or just going out and asking.

 

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