A good opt-in procedure lays the foundation for a strong email program, but a well-thought-out series of welcome emails will help turn your newcomer into a long-term subscriber.

Oh, and the automated "confirmation" email your system generates as soon as somebody confirms the subscription request? The one that says "Subscription Confirmed"? That doesn't count.

A true welcome program is an automated series of emails that launches right after confirmation. It actually does double duty:

  • It makes your reader feel welcome with your email program and speeds up engagement.
  • It helps reduce list churn because you reach out to your new subscribers and establish inbox recognition while the opt-in is still fresh in their minds.

Why List Churn Hurts Your Email Program

If you wait too long to send your first email, subscribers can forget that they gave you permission or no longer care about your email. Either way, they lose interest rapidly.

That leads to unsubscribes, spam complaints, or inactivity. Including hard bounces, you'll typically lose about one-third of your list each year. On top of that, about one-fourth to one-half of the typical list's members will have gone inactive.

Research studies also show that interest, as measured by open rates, starts to disintegrate two weeks after opt-in. Within two months, the open rate can fall 20-25 percent.

The Welcome Message: Three Key Elements

  1. A transparent opt-in procedure. On your subscription page you explain clearly what kind of email to expect, how often, and in which format. Also, explain how to whitelist your sending email address. The double opt-in confirmation email you send is not a welcome message, but it can explain that a special message welcoming the new subscriber will come next.
  2. A multipurpose welcome message. More than just saying "welcome" and "thanks for subscribing," the welcome email confirms subscription details, affirms your email or company value proposition, redeems any opt-in incentives you offered, and invites recipients back to your site to take an action, such as to make a purchase or complete their profiles.
  3. Welcome series/follow-on emails. Following the initial welcome email, these additional emails form a series of "drip" emails designed to bring new subscribers into the relationship step by step and minimize early subscriber inattention and attrition.

Also, if new subscribers don't act on any of the emails in your welcome series messages, that inactivity can trigger a new track of emails that offer help, advice, or surveys to uncover problems.

Can't I Post This Info on My Site Instead?

Yes, and no. You should always deliver information about a channel in that channel. You can post much or all of the information on the double opt-in confirmation link's landing page, but don't count on people's paying much attention to it.

The information will live longer in an email message, which recipients can read or file as they wish. Optimize each message to avoid spam-filtering or rendering issues (see below). The email itself is a key part of the welcome process by training the new subscriber about what to expect from the relationship with your company, brand, and emails.

Create a Memorable Welcome Message

The following are content elements that you might consider incorporating in your welcome message:

  • Personalize with the sender's first name.
  • Use the same sender or "from" name and email address as the one you will use to send your other messages, and a subject line that says something like "Welcome to Brand XYZ Email Deals—Save 10% on your first order"—or whatever is appropriate.
  • Include contact information (editor, info or tech-support email addresses, plus postal and telephone data, etc.).
  • Explain that follow-on emails are coming (if appropriate) in the welcome series, so that subscribers know what to expect.
  • Link to important or relevant content on your site, such as current offers, resources, past issues or information, or return and shipping policies.
  • Link to a past or current issue or promotion.
  • Reflect your Web site, brand, or other email messages in the message design; but to ensure maximum deliverability and rendering, minimize reliance on images.
  • Write clearly and simply, using white space to break up text and make it easier to read.
  • Include an unsubscribe link and instructions, in case a subscriber changes his mind.

Eight Steps to Optimize Your Welcome Program

  1. Coordinate your welcome emails with your regular emails or initiatives. Time them to avoid conflict or inbox overload.
  2. Generally, the longer your buying or publishing cycle, the longer your welcome program should last.
  3. Preview the next welcome-series email in the current one. Don't get too specific, because you might change copy or offers at some point. Just hint: e.g., "Next up: Our readers' favorite articles."
  4. Use the subject line to differentiate your welcome emails from your regular program or transactional emails.
  5. Don't wait to get started until after you develop a world-class end-to-end welcome program. Start with baby steps, with an improved initial welcome message, and add more messages as appropriate.
  6. Pre-test each message and optimize to avoid spam filters and to render well no matter where (PC, Mac, mobile) or how (preview pane, full message, images on or off) someone might read it.
  7. Test, test, test. Conduct A/B split tests on subject lines, layouts, use of images, incentives, and other content and design factors. There is no single best approach for everyone. Testing and measurement will reveal what works best with your subscribers.
  8. Monitor email performance during the welcome process and its impact on conversion and revenue, spam-complaint rates, and unsubscribes months following the initial opt-in period. If possible, compare the effect of your welcome program on newer subscribers with your previous approach to measure its true impact on ROI.

Are You in the 'Bottom 28?'

Getting new subscribers excited about and engaged in your email program and reducing list churn are two good reasons to launch a welcome series. Here's another: Your competition may already be doing a much better job than you are.

The Email Experience Council found in a 2007 study that 72 percent of major online retailers sent welcome messages. Moreover, 99 percent linked back to the Web site, 32 percent include a discount, reward, or incentive; 62 percent gave whitelisting instructions; and 53 percent linked to their privacy policies.

No more excuses. It's time to put out the welcome mat.

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image of Loren McDonald

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 lmcdonald@silverpop.com.