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What to send, and how often, are the top questions facing any email-marketing-program manager today. Yet, all too often, frequency for the sake of frequency trumps relevancy in this channel. It's a classic catch-22: Email works so well that it runs the risk of undermining its own potential.

Email programs tend to start with slow and cautious frequency, produce easy return on investment (ROI), and become stars. Management assumes that if some email is good, more must be even better.

As with all good things (wine, chocolate, and pizza come to mind), increased consumption eventually leads to a point of diminishing returns. The correlation between cost and benefit is neither linear nor constant.

In email, frequency increases can generate higher revenue or ROI to a point. Pass that point, and you run the risk of crashing into the wall of damaged reputation, poor deliverability, and list attrition.

Rather than either testing to find optimal frequency (from a cost/benefit standpoint) or articulating a rationale for frequency prior to setting it, many email marketers arbitrarily establish an email frequency and after the fact attempt to justify its existence. No wonder subscribers complain emails are irrelevant, boring, and poorly targeted.

The industry has officially reached the tipping point of diminishing returns. With email frequency, less can definitely be more. Yet the questions need to go beyond finding the right quantity and instead focus on quality. It's time, once again, to email smarter rather than just harder.

With so many email marketers, especially retailers, erring on the side of repetitive, poorly segmented sending, the challenge is discovering more intelligent ways of establishing meaningful, productive email frequency. Here are a few approaches to help steer your email-marketing program in a "smarter rather than harder" direction:

Draw up a consideration-path map

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image of Karen Talavera

Karen Talavera is the founder of Synchronicity Marketing, a company specializing in digital marketing training, coaching, and education.