Consumers complain about marketing-oriented e-mails — yet they still read them.

e-mail ambivalenceFace it, there are always going to be complaints about marketing-oriented e-mails. Just as in the “bad-old-days” of junk postal mail, consumers are conditioned to pass negative judgment on the volume of promotional-oriented e-mails that flood their inboxes.

True to form, according to a new study by global business, technology and marketing advisory firm Forrester Research, consumer attitudes about e-mail marketing are pretty negative.

Here’s what a sampling of U.S. respondents age 18 or older reported on the “minus” side of the ledger:

  • I delete most e-mail advertising without reading it: ~42% of respondents reported
  • I receive too many e-mail offers and promotions: ~39%
  • There’s nothing of interest: ~38%
  • I have unsubscribe from unsolicited lists: ~37%
  • I wonder how companies get my e-mail address: ~29%
  • It’s difficult to unsubscribe from e-lists: ~24%

There’s far less to show on the “plus” side:

  • It’s a great way to discover new products and promotions: ~24% of respondents reported
  • I read e-mails “just in case”: ~19%
  • I forward marketing e-mails to friends sometimes: ~12%
  • I purchase items advertised through e-mail: ~7%

I wasn’t surprised at all by these finds.

What’s interesting, however, is that the attitudes of consumers are actually trending a bit better than they were in previous Forrester field studies.

Specifically, respondents exhibited improved attitudes in the following areas:

  • Fewer respondents are deleting most marketing-oriented e-mail promos without reading them (~42% vs. ~44% in 2012 and ~59% in 2010).
  • Fewer respondents report that marketing e-mails offer “nothing of interest” (~38% vs. ~41% in 2012).

The percentages are also slightly better for the consumers today who consider e-mails as a good way to discover new products and promotions.  Additionally, the percentages are lower on complaints about receiving too many e-mail offers.

The bottom line on these results:  It looks as if consumers have come to terms with the pluses and minuses of e-mail marketing. As they once did with postal mail, they recognize the negative attributes as a fact of life — something that just “comes with the territory” for anyone who is online.

Click here to view summary highlights from the Forrester study, or here to purchase the full report.

What types of word terms perform best in social media?

Words that sell in social mediaEver since the rise of social media platforms, marketers have wondered if the terms and phrases that generate the best response in direct marketing also perform as well in the social arena.

One reason why:  There have been plenty of experts emphasizing how consumers don’t wish to be “sold” in their social interactions, but instead prefer to develop a relationship of give-and-take with brands.

Dan Zarrella, Social Media Scientist at HubSpot

Dan Zarrella, Social Media Scientist at HubSpot

Now we have some empirical analysis to guide us, conducted by Dan Zarrella, a social media scientist at SaaS inbound marketing firm HubSpot based on reviewing ~200,000 links containing tweets.

Mr. Zarrella found that the tweets that contain more verbs and adverbs experience higher clickthrough rates than noun- and adjective-heavy tweets.

Zarrella’s research also found that when social media posts ask for an explicit action on the part of the recipient, that tends to increase clicks and engagement.

For instance, retweets are three times more likely to happen when people are specifically requested to do so.

Interestingly, the most “retweetable” words in the HubSpot analysis turn out to be the same terms that do well in e-mail marketing and other forms of direct marketing:

  • You
  • Please
  • Post
  • Blog / Blog Post
  • Free
  • Media
  • Help
  • Great
  • How To
  • Top
  • Check Out

In a parallel research endeavor, a recent evaluation of blog posts by writer and software analytics specialist Iris Shoor reveals how much a post’s title impacts on the volume of “opens.”

In her analysis, Ms. Shoor studied posts on 100 separate blogs, using an evaluation technique that rank-sorted blog posts from the most read to the least shared.

What were the words that resulted in the most opens?  Shoor calls them the “blood in the water” terms:

  • bleeds leadsKill
  • Fear
  • Dark
  • Bleeding
  • War
  • Dead
  • Fantasy

Translation?  Negative terms are more powerful for shares than more ordinary terms (e.g., positive ones).

It’s very much like the old adage in the newspaper world:  “If it bleeds, it leads.”

That’s another takeaway from the most recent research:  What’s worked in the offline world over the years appears to be working very much the same way in the online space today.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose …

Sometimes “permission slips” aren’t enough when it comes to e-mail deliverability.

Bounced-emails-undelivered-emailsIn case you’ve been wondering how much marketing e-mail actually reaches its intended targets, a recently released benchmark report from e-mail scoring and certification services provider Return Path has some answers. It finds that only about 75% of “permissioned” e-mails are actually making their way through.

That means one in every four e-mails are either hitting a spam or junk folder, or are being blocked by ISP-level filtering.

The report was based on analysis of data from Return Path’s Mailbox Monitor service, which tracks the delivery, filtering and blocking rates for more than 600,000 e-mail campaigns.

Interestingly, the delivery stats for business-to-business marketing e-mail aren’t much lower than for business-to-consumer e-mail. This was considered somewhat surprising because of company-level filtering systems like Postini, MessageLabs and Symantec that are installed at many large corporations. Presumably, they do a more thorough job of filtering e-correspondence.

The Return Path report also included a few cautionary notes for marketers:

 Many e-mailers believe that whatever gets deployed and doesn’t bounce must be reaching inboxes. But senders are notified only when the e-mail is a hard bounce – not if it has ended up in a spam or junk folder.

 Relying on rented e-mail files in the B-to-B world can be dangerous, as those files can be riddled with spam traps. Commercial entities are always on the search for new prospects and leads … but merging a good in-house list with a few of these bad boy rental lists can result in compromising the entire database.

 In the consumer sector, many marketers aren’t paying close enough attention to inbox placement rates. For example, data about Gmail shows that while many marketers are ostensibly achieving a 90%+ deliverability rate, fewer than one in five of those emails are actually being directed to the “priority” inboxes within Gmail as designated by the recipients. And you can bet that precious few of the other ~80% are getting any sort of attention at all from consumers.

More details about the Return Path report can be found here – well-worth checking out.

Personalized e-mail campaigns? Nothing personal … but it’s not that important.

e-mail personalizationIt’s been a nagging question about direct marketing for years now: To what degree does personalizing a mass marketing program improve audience engagement and action?

Back in the old days, personalization was difficult to pull off, because the limitations of printing meant that the way people’s names were inserted into letters looked awkward and even jarring – different typeface, different ink concentration, etc.

Instead of creating a positive impact that suggested a personal relationship with the recipient, the effect was often just the opposite: the ill-fitting interpolations screaming “mass mailer.”

Today, with so many marketers targeting consumers electronically versus via postal mail, personalization has become a common technique used for the same purpose: to draw the reader’s attention by making the e-communiqué “unique” to him or her. Plus, it’s much easier to accomplish.

But how is this working out in the digital age? The latest e-mail marketing metrics report from email marketing and newsletter services provider MailerMailer, LLC, issued in July 2011, uses data compiled from more than 977 million opt-in e-mail newsletters in a sampling of over 1,600 customers. It found that adding the recipient’s first or last name to the subject line of an e-mail often generates negative, not positive results.

On the other hand, personalization within the message portion of the e-mail makes it a tad more likely to lead the recipient to interact with the message.

Here are the open rates MailerMailer found based on the degree of personalization:

 Subject line personalized: 4.1% open rate
 Both subject line and message personalized: 4.6% open rate
 Message personalized: 12.6% open rate
 No personalization at all: 11.4% open rate

[MailerMailer claims that personalized subject lines perform less favorably because this has been such a common tactic used by spammers in recent years. I claims the method has been so overused, recipients now associate all such e-mails as spam.]

And what about clickthrough rates — the more important metric? MailerMailer’s findings track neatly with the open rate trends, as follows:

 Subject line personalized: 0.8% clickthrough rate
 Both subject line and message personalized: 1.1% clickthrough rate
 Message personalized: 3.0% clickthrough rate
 No personalization at all: 3.0% clickthrough rate

So another thing the MailerMailer report is telling us is that the effort to personalize e-mails may not be worth it in the end. It’s true that a slightly higher open rate may occur with personalized message content … but the clickthrough rate, which is the more important metric, doesn’t budge at all with personalization versus without it.

So it would seem that personalizing e-mails isn’t something that’s going to “make or break” your direct marketing campaign’s success rate. Better to focus on the other classic success factors: the message, the offer, and the target recipients list. You know … just like always.

Third-Party e-Mail Lists: Clicks to Nowhere?

Clickthrough fraudOf the various issues that are on every marketing manager’s plate, concern about the quality of third-party e-mail lists is surely one of them. It’s a common view that the effectiveness of a purchased e-mail data file is worse than a carefully crafted in-house list based on input from the sales team plus opt-in requests from customers.

Part of the reason is that there’s less likelihood for recipients to be interested in the products and services of the company, which only makes intuitive sense. But there may be other, more nefarious reasons at work as well.

Ever heard of a click-o-meter? It’s the way some e-mail lists are made to look more effective than they actually are. In its basic form, this is nothing more than people paid to open e-mails with no other interest or intention of further engagement. The more technical way is to have an automated click setting, usually done through a rotation of IP addresses.

To the casual observer, this gives the impression of recipients who are interested in a company’s offer, but the final analysis will show something quite different: near-zero purchases or other relevant actions. The problem is that for many campaigns, ROI will be slow at first, so the grim reality that the company has been punked comes later.

The growth of the autobot click-o-meter phenomenon tracks with the growing interest in purchasing third-party lists based on cost-per-click (CPC) performance rather than on the traditional cost-per-thousand (CPM) basis. Not surprisingly, when list vendors started being asked to sell lists based on a CPC versus CPM basis, for some of them the temptation to “juice the numbers” was too great. And since many of the databases come from other sources and are private-labeled, the problem is perpetrated throughout the system.

Many purchasers have wised up to this issue by settling on one or two list brokers that they know and trust, by asking about the data source, and by asking for client references for the lists in question. If an e-mail database has suddenly changed in pricing from a CPM to a CPC basis, that may be another cause for concern.

Another option is to hire a third-party traffic monitoring service to assist with back-end analyses of e-mail campaigns to see what’s working or not working in specific campaigns and nip any problems in the bud before they do too much damage to a marketing effort.

But like anything else, self-education is critical. Most companies who are victims of fraudulent e-mail practices become so because their staff members are unaware of the potential problems. But the information is out there for the asking, and that knowledge will soon become “intuition” – usually the best predictor of ROI!

Changing the Subject (Line)

One of the reasons e-mail marketing has become so huge is because it’s so darned cheap. Compared to postal mail, e-mail costs just pennies. That means most marketers can achieve a better ROI for just a mediocre e-mail campaign compared to even the most successful direct mail effort.

However, a common complaint about e-mail versus postal mail is visibility. Since most viewers choose not to have their preview pane feature turned on, they must physically open an e-mail before they can view any of its contents.

This “one-step removed” dynamic means that many people never get to see and read a marketing message that would otherwise stand out if it showed up in someone’s postal mail delivery as a postcard or self-mailer promo piece.

In this scenario, the e-mail subject line becomes a huge “gatekeeper” element. What the subject says and how it’s said can make a difference in e-mail open and clickthrough rates. But just how much?

A new E-mail Marketing Metrics Report from MailerMailer, a firm providing e-mail marketing and newsletter services, provides some interesting clues. MailerMailer has been producing these reports since 2003. This report, the tenth one issued, was developed by analyzing a sampling of ~900 million e-mail messages sent through MailerMailer throughout the year 2009.

Among the elements tracked were the words used in e-mail subject lines. MailerMailer found that the most popular terms contained in the subject lines were:

 Coupons
 Daily
 Free
 News
 Newsletter
 Report
 Today
 Update
 Week (weekly)
 Year

Notice how each of these terms conveys a sense of WIIFM (“what’s in it for me?”) and/or a sense of time sensitivity. Interestingly, despite a prevailing concern that using the word “free” in the subject line risks more spam filtering, MailerMailer found that this term was one of the ten most popular terms used in subject lines during 2009.

And what about subject line length? The report found that shorter subject lines (containing less than 35 characters) outperformed longer ones. That’s generally just four or five words along with the corresponding spaces between them.

And the difference MailerMailer observed was significant: E-mails with shorter subject lines experienced an average open rate of ~17.5%, while those with longer subject lines had an open rate of only ~11.5%.

The same differential was found with clickthrough rates. For the e-mails with shorter subject lines the average clickthrough rate was ~2.7% … versus ~1.6% for e-mails with longer subject lines.

The MailerMailer report concludes that while composing shorter subject lines may be difficult to do (well), going through that exercise is well worth the extra effort. The results from ~900 million e-mails prove it.

How the B-to-B Sales Process is Changing

In my 20+ years in industrial, commercial and other non-consumer marketing communications, I’ve witnessed more than a few “big trends” affecting the nature of the selling process in the business realm.

One of the biggest of these is the approach that customers take when evaluating products and services they might be interested in purchasing. Recent research findings about these behaviors has been published that sheds more interesting light on where things are at the moment.

A survey of ~300 B-to-B managers was conducted in late 2009 by e-Research for Marketing (E-RM) for Colman Brohan Davis, a Chicago-based marketing organization. This survey, which was limited to respondents age 35 or younger, found that only a few of the 13 tools used to research products and services represented “traditional media” – print-based resources, trade shows, or consulting with industry colleagues by phone or in person.

Furthermore, the study found that even these four tactics are losing their importance compared to the use of online social networks, which were exploding in usage.

These survey results reminded me of a comment made by Adam Needles, director of B-to-B field marketing at Silverpop, an e-mail marketing company based in Atlanta. “Somewhere around age 30 to 35, you can draw a line in the sand between people who are used to calling around to get everything and [where it's been] all about relationships face-to-face.”

In contrast, Needles has this to say about younger staffers who conduct a great deal of the buying cycle online: “You have people whose expectation is that companies should put everything on their web sites; they should be getting real-time feeds and information, and companies should be totally integrated into … the blogosphere.”

Younger staffers tend to be influencers more than decision-makers. But this is not to diminish their importance, as they are the ones charged with conducting the research and drafting investigative report summaries and preliminary recommendations. Ferreting out information through resources like webinars and social platforms such as Twitter and blog posts, while it may seem exotic and less consequential to older colleagues, is not at all foreign to these staffers.

And we shouldn’t forget that today’s “influencer” at a company is very likely tomorrow’s “decision-maker.”

Which gets us back to the ER-M study. One big takeaway from that research was that customers are looking into all the corners of offine and online communications to find the information they feel they need to make risk-averse and “CYA” decisions that are also the successful ones that pay off well – hence building their reputations inside their company.

Tactics like direct mail marketing may seem old-hat or even quaint, but they can still be quite effective, while e-mail marketing, while fast and cheap, elicits resistance from some because they feel inundated with marketing materials that are irrelevant to their needs.

I guess it’s yet more challenging news for already-fractured marketing communications program tactics that continue to be under tight budget constraints.

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