10 Tips for Inspiring Email Love and Long-Lasting Subscriber Devotion

With heart-shaped candy boxes and over-sized teddy bears taking over store shelves just as soon as the holiday decorations came down, the abundance of pink and red baked goods on display, a constant stream of jewellery and flower advertising flashing across multiple screens and free trials for online dating sites reaching a fever pitch, there’s no denying that cupid has his arrow poised to strike the wallets (if not the hearts) of consumers this Valentine’s Day.

If this is a crucial holiday for your email program’s performance, than you’ll likely be focused on the metrics that directly impact the bottom line, however, it’s worth taking a brief step back to consider the bigger picture. It’s not the picture in the frame surrounded by the paper doily; it’s the one in the silver frame with the cursive engraving. Ultimately, love has staying power while lust is ephemeral and when it comes to love and email, best practices for achieving results (i.e., long-term commitment) are surprisingly similar. Opens and clicks are merely flirtations when viewed in the context of long-term engagement, brand loyalty and multi-channel interaction. With love (and commerce) overwhelmingly in the air in the weeks leading up to Valentine’s Day, what better time to think about what you’re doing to inspire devotion and loyalty from your email subscribers. I now pronounce these 10 tips:

  1. Be there for them: What’s the email equivalent of showing up and being present in a relationship? Getting delivered to the inbox of course. If you’re not there, it’s a missed opportunity to engage, communicate and remind your subscribers of the value your brand has to offer them. There’s no excuse for not measuring inbox placement and getting a handle on the causes of poor delivery, whether it’s complaints, list hygiene or low engagement.
  2. Be reliable (but not predictable): When subscribers are familiar with your email creative, activity becomes second-nature because they know what to expect without having to search for it. This means using a templatized design format for each type of message that you’re sending, with variation for copy and creative changes and deviation for special occasions. It also means using a consistent and branded from address that can accept replies; having a footer with useful information links; testing a variety of informative subject lines; and featuring consistently placed website navigation links. While these are good rules of thumb, keep in mind that even the best email creative can become stale. If you find that your response rates are decreasing and you’re not experiencing any other related issues, such has declining inbox placement or new data from questionable sources, then consider a creative template refresh at least annually.
  3. Make them feel safe: It’s important that your subscribers trust your brand. A well-known quote from the movie “Moulin Rouge” says it all: “Without trust, there can be no love.” For email marketers, this means protecting their subscribers from fraudulent messaging in the form of phishing and spoofing attacks. The detrimental impact of these malicious mailings can’t be overstated. If subscribers download malware or have their personal and financial data compromised as a direct result of clicking on an email message that looked like it came from your brand, they will not only stop engaging with your email program, but will likely cease activity with your brand in other channels. Once bitten, twice shy.
  4. Don’t turn them off: Sending a barrage of generic, one-dimensional offers is just as unattractive as having bad breath. Sending “gray mail” that essentially looks and acts like spam is a guaranteed way to ensure subscribers ignore you, delete your messages without reading them, unsubscribe and complain about you. Similar turn-offs include pre-checked boxes or automatically signing up anyone who makes a purchase; adding unsuspecting subscribers to the mailing lists for your other brands without permission; not removing complainers; having a broken unsubscribe process (or one that isn’t compliant with CAN-SPAM); sending clickers to your home page instead of a customized landing page; and other offenses listed here.
  5. Show your best self: This is about accentuating your assets with your creative design and making sure that the purpose of your message can be quickly understood with images turned off (still the default setting for the major Mailbox Providers). Keep in mind that Gmail is now automatically enabling images, so make sure they’re working hard to drive an action and use valuable real estate in the preview pane to display calls-to-action. Just as important as how you show up is where you show up. With 51% of opens taking place on mobile devices during the 2013 holiday season, optimizing your messaging for mobile viewing is critical for subscriber engagement, campaign performance and driving revenue.
  6. Keep your promises: This tip ties directly back to building trust in your brand. Make sure that you’re setting clear expectations during the sign-up process about the content and frequency of your messaging and provide information about the policies you have in place to safeguard and make use of subscribers’ personal data. Then, do exactly what you said. Don’t increase frequency without asking for permission and don’t change your privacy policy without providing advanced notice. While being a fool for love is often celebrated societal behaviour, making fools of your email subscribers isn’t.
  7. Know how you measure up to the competition: Possessiveness can be toxic to any relationship, but a degree of jealousy is actually beneficial when it comes to your email subscribers. Your campaigns are one of many competing for mindshare in subscribers’ inboxes, so it’s important to know how you compare. This is less about creating performance anxiety and more about understanding what you can optimize to stand out from the competition. Given the email program levers you have at your disposal—content, offers, frequency, cadence, time of day, day of week—how can you make adjustments to set your campaigns apart? Benchmarking performance against your top competitors is a good starting point; however the most interesting insights to be gained come from analysis of the activity of your best and most active customers. What are other brands are they engaging with? In what channels? How can you capture a larger share of their wallets?
  8. Anticipate their needs: Show that you’re paying attention and that you care about making your brand’s products and services a relevant part of your subscribers’ lives. Do that and it’ll be pretty difficult for them not to fall—and stay—in love with you. Start by using your email subscriber and customer data to target your content and offers. This can often be set-up as part of triggered messaging to get in front of your subscribers when they’re primed to engage. Leverage the data you have to enhance the relationship going forward. Campaigns like reminders to reorder, inventory updates and abandoned shopping carts should also be balanced with content that provides useful information on topics your subscribers care most about, whether it’s the latest fashion trends, the big game coming up, a winter storm moving in or what to do this weekend.
  9. Leave them wanting more: Smothering puts out fires, it doesn’t feed them. When it comes to email (and love), displaying clingy behaviour can lead to decreased interest and the end a break-up. What signals the inevitable end of brand’s relationship with its email subscribers? Over-mailing. Many marketers send at such a high frequency that subscribers quickly become overwhelmed, exasperated, irritated and desperate to stop the barrage of messaging clogging their inboxes. Respect the subscriber experience by offering a choice of frequency through a preference center; options to pause email or opt-down (instead of out); decreasing frequency to less engaged subscribers; and tracking the saturation point for your various subscriber segments. Successful relationships are never one-sided.
  10. Don’t act like a stalker: Inevitably, not all of your subscribers will remain in love with your email program. Accepting it and working to address it is a far better plan than denying it’s happening and continuing to treat these less responsive subscribers like everyone else. Create a plan for winning them back and encourage them to reengage with you. Confront waning interest, but move on and remove them from your list when it’s time to let them go. There’s no point creating resentment that could prevent them from interacting with your brand in other channels. It’s a fact of life: love fades and email shouldn’t be forever.

The rewards for inspiring email love and long-lasting subscriber devotion are many, so cherish them: better inbox placement, cleaner lists, fewer complaints, less fingerprinting, increased engagement, higher response rates and more revenue. The phrase you often hear about long-term relationships is that it takes work, but you get back what you put in. That seems like advice email marketers can truly take to heart this Valentine’s Day. Want to learn more? Join Return Path at MarketingSherpa’s Email Summit in Las Vegas from February 17-20.