Engagement – Buzzword, or a rule to live by?

In the third part of this on-going series, Neil Schwartzman explores the current landscape of the email delivery world.

As regular readers may recall, in my early posting “You Get the Deliverability You Deserve” I made mention of a 2010 international consumer survey conducted by industry group MAAWG. It had some distressing results for senders of commercial email. Basically, end-users don’t place a whole lot of importance on marketing email; at best, they are lukewarm to the efforts.

In July 2010, Google announced a new facility to Gmail, the ‘Priority Inbox’. The service began allow users to separate mail into ‘important’ and ‘everything else’, based upon what their users actually read, and reply to. It allows users to assign graduated levels of importance to emails, and the analytics are cumulative, becoming more accurate over time.

On October 03, 2011 Hotmail launched their own volley in the War (their phrase) on Graymail, noting that half the email in the average inbox is marketing email, and only 14% email people actually want, at least according to MAAWG’s survey, namely, messages from friend and family.

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Hotmail deployed a new auto-categorization (‘newsletter’), and a single-click unsubscribe to help users dig themselves out of their email hole.

So what’s a poor marketer to do in this day and age? Send more mail? That’s the tactic Neiman Marcus takes, according to the recent article “Stores Smarten Up Amid Spam Flood” in the Wall Street Journal – they, incredibly, sent 534 emails to each of their subscribers last year, a 30% increase over 2007. They have begun to track of unsubscribe rates. Gee, really?

In light of the Hotmail and Gmail initiatives, it would seem that people are so inundated with email that they don’t bother to unsubscribe, certainly a portion of subscribers use the ‘This is Spam’ button as a way to make email go away. One wonders if Neiman Marcus are also looking at FBL reports, and unsubscribing complainants. They might want to put two and two together; provided one uses proper disclosure of content and frequency at sign-up, and garners proper Opt-in consent, Unsubs + FBL complaints = (a subset of ) un-engaged recipients.

So what is this new engagement thing everyone is talking about? George Bilbrey of Return Path called it “The New Frontier In Deliverability”, but that was back in 2009, and even then George made note that engagement wasn’t a new concept, receivers had long been tracking clicks and opens and making them part of the filtering matrix. They have just been given a bump up in importance, of late.

Smart marketers track how many users open and click through a given piece of email, but why stop there?

A truly savvy sender will record the electronic record of the entire lifecycle of a given subscriber, from start to end. This will help with analysis on how engaged a recipient is, and provide solid to refute accusations of spamming by a blacklist or a law enforcement agency.

Some data-points to consider as fundamental would be:
Retaining a screenshot of the signup page including disclosure language (if you are using co-registration ensure that the sign-up page makes explicit mention of your brand, and confirm those addresses with recipients!). This makes for handy reference should anyone ever question the validity of a sign-up!

Demographic info (age, wealth, location)
Also, date & time-stamps (with GMT offset), and the IP from which traffic is seen should be recorded for these activities:

Message opens (opens are notoriously misleading in that there are still a significant number of email clients that have a preview pane that downloads images when a user selects the message; they may look at it an immediately discard the mail; That isn’t an engaged user. 

The freemail providers have stated outright that engagement, the amount a recipient interacts with the messaging you send, is a determining factor if email is inboxed, deprioritized, or even bulked.

Downgrading of a group of recipients can eventually splay out to impacting the deliverability of others in your mail stream. If only a few of your recipients click through on your email for long periods of time, you can expect to see fewer and fewer ending up in the inbox, as receiver algorithms do their thing. Give them a reason to click – super discounts, contests, more enticing subject lines and content should all be considered a regular part of your mailings. Ask friends and family to review your work (and measure their engagement over time) – is it really that interesting or are you just too involved to realize that your mail stream is BORING?

By the way: Seed lists testing inbox placement might, or might not effectively measure lack of engagement; while they are still useful for more egregious issues with a campaign (badly designed content, a blacklisted domain) a sparse smattering of a dozen or two addresses in a list of tens of thousands may have deprecated accuracy as to the actual delivery of your mail, which may be better for those that do click on the mail, and worse for those that don’t for a long time.

Recipients have said they don’t place a high priority on marketing at the best of times. It is incumbent on senders to ensure that they get at least one open per quarter per recipient, and begin to cull those that aren’t engaged out of the main mailing list, to an ‘infrequent’ segment to which you mail only occasionally, if at all.

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