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Managing Email Frequency: Focus on the Subscriber

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In the holiday email season of 2008, retailers turned up the gas on their email campaigns, hoping to salvage what was predicted to be a flat or down consumer-spending season.

Chad White's Retail Email Index shows that retailers sent a record number of emails in early December. But, he also points out, this spurt followed a flattening of the index, perhaps caused when major retailers encountered deliverability problems.

It's not clear whether this email burst caused or influenced those deliverability woes, but I would not rule it out, because an increase in frequency typically leads to more unsubscribes and a higher spam-complaint rate, which in turn reduces deliverability.

That's one of the trade-offs you can expect when you raise frequency beyond your subscribers' tolerance level, and one of the reasons I always caution marketers to manage frequency expectations even before the subscriber relationship begins.

Finding and Managing the Balance

You need not restrict yourself to a meager diet of one email message a week. After all, your email program has to meet business objectives, usually by driving revenue. Also, emailing too infrequently will hurt your email program almost as much as pounding your list into oblivion.

So, you must strike a balance between sending out enough email to help you meet or exceed your budget numbers and sending so many emails that you trigger a mass revolt on your list via spam complaints or unsubscribes.

Increased frequency has real and hidden costs, too. In addition to the obvious budget resources you consume—staff time, content development, messaging software expenses—the less-obvious cost of list churn results when people turn against you: unsubscribes, spam complaints, and the silent enemy: inactivity.

Why Targeting Is Important

At a recent email conference, some marketers shrugged off the cautious approach to managing frequency. One said he doubled frequency at less cost and saw a huge increase in revenue.

But this marketer (in the entertainment industry) was sending emails to a highly engaged audience that had made previous purchases and was very likely to be interested in related offers. His program was not simply sending more of the same, but targeting emails based on customers' preferences and buying history.

Targeting increases relevance. With increased relevance, you can afford to send more—to increase frequency—because your chances are higher that your subscribers will welcome these emails that clearly reflect their interests, wants, or needs.

Still, it is critical that you think beyond email as simply sending out offers. Email gives you a vast array of message options that can let you boost frequency without sacrificing deliverability or the customer relationship. That leads to the next stage in the evolution of email marketing.

The Lifecycle Advantage

Don't ask yourself, "How often should I email?" Instead, ask, "What demographics, preferences and behaviors can I use to drive a continuous program that maximizes the lifetime value of my customers?"

It's more complicated to deploy such a program, but in the end it makes frequency almost irrelevant, because you're focusing on the customer's needs, not just your own. When you send email based on your customers' actions or their place in the product or program lifecycle, your messages arrive at logical times.

As a result, your messages are not only more relevant but also more easily automated in many cases, which reduces the amount of time spent on creating, testing, and tracking messages.

What are some of the message options that boost frequency without sacrificing the customer relationship? Here are a few:

  • Welcome messages
  • Special offers based on product purchases
  • Order follow-ups
  • Replenishment requests
  • Birthday/anniversary/product purchase anniversary
  • Cross-sell/up-sell messages
  • Customer surveys
  • Friend referrals
  • Abandoned-shopping-cart redemptions
  • Post-purchase product-usage tips

Manage Frequency at Opt-in and Opt-out

If this more sophisticated messaging model is out of your reach, you can manage frequency within your existing program at two points:

At opt-in: This is the most logical location to offer a frequency range, because it's at the start of your subscriber relationship. You also don't confine people to a set number, which can be too many for some but not enough for others.

This is a critical step for high-frequency emailers (i.e., three times or more per week). Consider offering a less-frequent digest of messages (offers, articles, announcements, etc.), such as a weekly send—if relevant for your content. Many online retailers will offer options such as twice monthly, weekly, or "as often as we have offers."

At opt-out: Some marketers argue that this is the best place to offer a frequency change. I still think that doing so during opt-in, on the preference center page, is best; but this is a viable option for marketers who need a flexible sending schedule for last-minute travel, hot Web deals, or seasonal increases.

In the language surrounding your unsubscribe link in your emails, include changing frequency as an option. Example: "Want to receive fewer emails or unsubscribe? Click this link." Then, on the unsubscribe page at your Web site, offer other frequency schedules.

Most Important: Honor the Preference

No matter when or how you offer it, though, stick to what you promised. Customers who get more email than they expected are the ones who complain or withdraw.

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Loren McDonald is vice-president of industry relations at Silverpop, an email service provider for B2C marketing initiatives and B2B lead-management processes. Reach him via

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