Unpacking Subscriber Acquisition

Posted by Andrew Bennett on

Many believe the success or failure of a campaign, or even a whole email program can be determined by surface level metrics. Read rates, click-throughs, and conversions are often thrust into the spotlight while the most foundational elements of a program are left to play second fiddle. Often times, marketers look to engagement metrics as the be-all-end-all indicators of email program health and success. Trying to raise even a couple of these engagement metrics can a daunting task. When we work to understand the subscriber experience we can see the story behind the metrics and find specific area of improvement that drive better results.

In Return Path’s new Lifecycle Metrics Benchmark report, we highlight the four lifecycle stages that make up the first 12 months of a subscribers email relationship with a brand, focusing specifically on subscriber acquisition, onboarding, engagement, and retention. This post is the kickoff of a series of posts that dig deeper into the report and shines a light on key findings so marketers can glean additional insights into how subscriber relationships can be built on a healthy and stable foundation.

Marketing and design teams can dedicate large swaths of time and resources to getting just one email out the door that they think is going to drive exceptional engagement. Yet all of this effort can be for not if a brand doesn’t have a list of subscribers that have seen the benefit of subscribing and knowingly invited brands into their personal inbox.

Most marketers make the assumption that more is better. More emails lead to more revenue, right? Not really. In a recent blog post, Henry Gutierrez outlines how poor list acquisition practices may lead to higher list numbers, but that doesn’t translate to higher engagement or higher revenue.

Let’s take a closer look at the landscape of what subscriber acquisition looks like today, and explore some tactics that attract interested and informed subscribers to an email marketing list.

Subscriber Quality:
The first metric we look at is subscriber quality, which classifies the activity level of the email given at sign-up. Is this the account a subscriber uses every day (active account) or one that is rarely interacted with? If a prospective subscriber sees the momentary benefit of signing up to receive email, but is not convinced that being sent emails beyond that initial interaction is worthwhile, they may sign up with a non-active email address. Some examples of this may be a brand entering the subscriber into a sweepstakes after they sign up or offering an instantly redeemable discount after they opt in. This allows the subscriber to reap the benefits of signing up for an email program but leaves the brand high and dry.

Most marketers like to think that subscribers sign up with that active account, but when looking at data from the Lifecycle Metrics Benchmark report, that doesn’t seem to be the case. On average, less than half of the email accounts that get added to an email marketing list are regularly monitored and managed by users. Even the top-performing brands only saw just over 50 percent of new subscribers sign up with active accounts.

So the next question naturally is, how does a brand add more active subscribers? Offering an instantly redeemable offer for a subscriber to opt-in may lower the barrier of entry, but this can be somewhat short sided when working towards an extended subscriber lifecycle. This is the initiation of a relationship; one where brands want the best and most active subscribers, while subscribers want messages that are relevant and meaningful to them. The best thing any brand can do is to communicate value before asking for someone’s email address. This can differ for each brand, but make the value go beyond the momentary incentive that is being offered. Adding this evergreen value will help encourage subscribers to stay connected with a brand throughout their whole lifecycle.

Activated Subscribers:
Another telling metric related to subscriber acquisition is the percentage of activated subscribers. This measures whether a subscriber has engaged with any emails from the brand in the first 30 days after opting in. As email marketers, we know that not everyone is going to interact with all of the email sent to them, but those first few messages should resonate with the new subscriber. They just signed up to get messages from a brand, so shouldn’t they be primed to interact with those messages?

The benchmark report shows that less than half of new subscribers activate, with the lowest performing brands barely seeing a quarter of their new subscribers open a single message in the first 30 days.

This could be an indicator that there is a disconnect between what the subscriber signed up for and what they are seeing in the inbox. An email that doesn’t deliver what the subscriber saw as valuable at the forefront isn’t going to foster engagement. Using the from name, subject line, and preheader text to establish branding consistency and restate what convinced them to sign up in the first place greatly increases the chance of a subscriber engaging with those first emails.

Furthermore, being timely when sending a welcome email is also important when getting a subscriber to interact with a brand. Sending an email as soon as possible to the new subscriber creates more of a one to one connection with the brand. Messages sent the following day or later fail to leverage the momentum of subscribers’ initial engagement with the brand. They’re also more likely to blend in with day to day content sent to their inbox.

Complaint Rate:
The last metric evaluated within the benchmark report is complaint rate. This metric allows marketers to track the percentage of messages that are marked as spam or moved into the spam folder.  In our report, we took a look at the percentage of new subscribers that marked the first message that they received as spam. To provide some context, the average complaint rate for all messages is 0.17%. What is the average complaint rate on that initial message? I hope you are sitting down, because the average complaint rate on that first message is four percent. That is 27 times greater than the average. What could be going on here?

Without clearly communicated expectations from a brand, a subscriber will fill the gaps, creating their own expectations of what kinds of communications they should receive. When that first message lands in a subscriber’s inbox it is a guessing game whether a brand is meeting those unspoken subscriber expectations. It is imperative that subscribers are informed that they are first, signing up to get emails from a brand and second that they have realistic expectations in regards they mail they will start receiving.

Outlining the kind of content that is going to be sent is a great place to start. If a subscriber was expecting editorial insights and tips and they get bombarded with promotional messages, they’re more likely to mark mail as spam. Setting sufficient expectations goes for frequency as well. When a subscriber’s inbox is suddenly overwhelmed with emails when they expected periodic messages the spam button may be an appealing option to express their dissatisfaction.

Also, if you intend to send third party brands other then the one they signed up for, it is crucial that is clearly communicated. If a subscriber signs up for Company A’s emails the first email they receive is from Company B, that can throw up a red flag in their mind. Subscribers have been trained to flag anything they don’t recognize or mail that is unwanted as spam, not just messages they think are suspicious or malicious. Sadly, if the right expectations are not set, well intentioned emails are far more likely to be flagged as spam.

One other cause is the new subscribers that were opted in to a list didn’t sign up themselves and were added through a list purchase or rental. Though this tactic has been falling out of favor and organic list growth has a much greater focus, it is important to reiterate that not growing a list organically can not only have an impact on the complaint rate of messages, but can also have a substantial impact on deliverability as discussed in Sebastian Kluth’s blog post, List Acquisition and Email Validation Part 1 – Strategic Background.

To help you ensure you are adding informed and active subscribers, Return Path has an ebook outlining 50+ Ways to Grow Your Email List that covers the sign-up process, opt-ins and more. If you are interested in seeing how subscriber acquisition fits into the first year of a subscriber-brand relationship, download the full Lifecycle Metrics Benchmark report for more insights.

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About Andrew Bennett

Andrew is an Associate Email Strategist on the Return Path's Professional Services team. He sees the inbox as a privileged place for marketers to be invited to and is passionate about a subscribers inbox experience. Andrew has been able to blend his hands-on creation experience with his obsession with subscriber interaction and user accessibility to develop email marketing strategies that have both immediate and ongoing effects.

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