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Less is More: How to Convince Senior Leadership to Send Only to the Most Engaged Subscribers

Tricia Babischkin | April 30, 2020 

This is part 1 in a multi-part series in deliverability and email engagement. Please enjoy the whole series as they are released.

Every email marketer I know has told the same story at a networking event for some conference. The story may have minor nuisances, but the gist is always:

We are experiencing low open rates, so we don’t think we are making it into the inbox; but whenever I suggest cutting back the send volume senior leadership screams about potential lost sales. But at the same time, they are pushing on me to increase open rates and conversion. I can’t do all of that at the same time!!

Well, I’m here to tell you, I’ve been there and I feel your pain.  So, let’s break down what’s going on and how to convince leadership to follow an engagement improving plan.

We all know that best practice for your non-triggered/ad hoc messaging is to only send to the most engaged subscribers on your email list. We know that this is the single best thing a marketer can do to achieve inbox placement – keep your active subscribers list clean and avoid sending to spam traps, honey pots, etc. Truthfully, it is the most efficient use of your ad hoc email marketing budget. (We will discuss rules of engagement for triggers and how to get engagement from the first welcome email in future blog posts.)

But how do we balance the best practice of sending to the most engaged while also meeting the push from senior leadership to increase sales by sending to an ever-expanding list because they firmly believe that the more you send the more money you make? How do you go about finding the tipping point between great inbox placement and added sales?

Let’s back-up and look at the effects of sending to less engaged subscribers at the same rate you send to your engaged subscribers.

Immediate effects:

  1. Your open rates will drop. This is basic math – open rate is a fraction where the numerator (top of the fraction) is the number of people who open and the denominator (bottom of the fraction) is the number of people you mailed. If you increase the bottom number without increasing the top number, at the same or greater rate, you will reduce the overall open rate. That said, you will likely increase the number of people who see your email too – which can have its benefits, but let’s see how to do that effectively in a bit.
  2. Your opt-out numbers will increase. Again, this tends to be math again. Often the % of opt-outs won’t change, but since you increased the send count the net number of people who opt-out of your email program will be higher. If you analyze where these opt-outs come from, you ought to see that the majority are from those newly gained opens, who have opened just to opt-out.
  3. While revenue might jump a bit, that magic metric ($/email) that started the push to send more emails will also drop. Back to math – in all my years of email marketing, I’ve never seen revenue jump at the same rate as increasing send count using a deep dive into unengaged subscribers. The result is the $/email will fall, because your dominator will grow much faster than the revenue in your numerator. 

Long-term effects:

  1. You will likely begin to erode your inbox placement. Consistently mailing to the less engaged, will see a drop in inbox placement because you are diluting the pool of truly engaged subscribers. The problem is that since there is no metric that is actually measuring reaching  the inbox (no, panel and proxy data will only get you an idea – and sometimes it isn’t accurate), this is a hard argument to win with leadership when they only want to see hard numbers, or worse they focus on delivered rate without understanding that is not a measure of inbox placement. What I can assure you is that every major Mailbox Provider has stated without hesitation that they use engagement as a measure to place your emails in the inbox. Why would they lie? From their perspective, the value they provide to their customers (who aren’t companies trying to send marketing emails) is to help people find and react to the most important things coming into their inboxes.
  2. Your total opens and revenue will begin to flatten out. While you will likely see short term positive gains, over time these numbers will become flat as you continue to send at a higher cadence to the unengaged. This will tend to lead leadership to begin to increase the total number of emails sent to everyone – which leads us to the most dangerous outcome.

As your open rates decline, you risk inbox placement even among your traditionally engaged subscribers who can miss your message – not open – not click – not purchase…and the cycle slowly spirals in a downward direction. All while the CMO is asking you to continue to send greater and greater numbers to combat the spiral.  What is most scary about this outcome is that it can be masked by looking at the aggregate KPIs and not drilling down by engagement segment to understand what is really going on.

So, before you either storm into the CMO’s office and demand an immediate reduction in the email send counts or you quit, know that there is hope and support for you to build a solid case.

First, gather your facts for your business. There is no better piece of advice I can give you than to baseline your own business. Know your numbers, so that as you pick them apart, you can see what the true results are for sending changes. So, what research is key:

  1. Pull your opens, clicks, and revenue by buckets of email recency. This is an eye-opening exercise and will lead you to want to stop mailing everyone but those in your most recent bucket. I suggest that you start in 30-day buckets. You ought to see that those email addresses who have opened an email in the last 30 days are MOST likely to open another email in the next 30 days. The likelihood of opening will decrease with every 30-day bucket throughout your list.
  2. Review your opens, clicks, and opt-outs to find the true number of people who are only opening your email in order to opt-out. Then compare them to the engagement bucket they fall into. This will give you a clue as to how to define your most engaged – active subscriber – list. What you are looking for is where the people who “open to opt-out” group begins to spike while the “open to purchase” group is declining.
  3. If you are using SFMC, you need to ensure that Einstein Engagement Scoping is enabled in your account. Once the 90 days of data collection is done, this powerful tool will automatically segment your list into engagement buckets. This step saves time and energy trying to figure it out on your own.

Next, define a solid send plan that addresses all the needs of the business. Let’s get real, I can’t advise you to only send those people who are opening your emails yesterday or even in the past week. I can promise you that if you do that you will have amazing inbox placement (provided you are following all the other best practices), but sadly, you will be leaving money on the table and no one, except your competition, wants you to do that. We need to find that delicate balance of sending deep enough to maximize revenue, but shallow enough to maintain (or improve) inbox placement and continue to keep your engaged subscribers opening and clicking your emails.

So, what’s a reasonable plan? 

At its core, it is sending the most to those who are engaged the most. However, send ever decreasing quantities to those who are increasingly unengaged. This is the concept I call “keep the lights on.” This plan allows you to leverage your great inbox placement and touch those less engaged to remind them that you are there when they are ready to react. Basically, you take groups of your unengaged list, break them up and mail to them less and less often until you decide they are no longer valuable to you. This would be an excellent spot to reach out to your Salesforce Marketing Cloud partner to help define your strategic plan, talk about leveraging the power of Einstein (also in an upcoming post) and build the automations or journeys to flow your subscribers through this process.

And finally, how do you sell this to your leadership? 

I believe that the secret to email marketing success is playing the long game. There’s no quick win here, and the truth is that sometimes things that look like quick wins today (suddenly emailing your whole emailable list) can bite you tomorrow (or even a month from now), with spam complaints, high unsubscribes, or worse – blocks.  

So, when I sit down with my CMOs and talk about the fact that we have to cut back the sends, I explain that I’m not suggesting we NEVER mail those who haven’t opened recently, but that we take the approach that they have effectively opted-down and we should treat them as such.  This tends to stop the fear that we are cutting lists in half – which almost always sounds like cutting revenue in half.

Next thing I do is pull out my chart that I created in my research stage which shows the KPIs for each of those 30-day buckets. You want to look for groups of buckets that have similar KPIs to group together. This is a common breakdown:

Finally, I walk through the true risk of not sending to those who aren’t engaged, is there an opportunity lost here or not? This may seem counterintuitive, but since there is no true “inbox placement” metric (we can only proxy it based on panel or proxy data and benchmark our own open rates); I prefer to focus on what are real factual numbers. When you show that based on the research, you aren’t actually walking away from real dollars – and honestly, those few who purchase after not opening any emails for more than 4 months will purchase from any email, they get without seeing all the emails piling up unopened in their inboxes.  So, I focus on the sheer fact that using this methodology, you will not be ‘leaving money on the table’ – nope, not even in the long tail.

And one last thing – let’s talk about those people who haven’t opened your emails in 36 months. They are a serious risk to your deliverability and should not be contacted at all, I strongly suggest that you opt them out completely, so that should they decide to come back into your email program, via another channel, they can and will begin again as if new to file.

Stay tuned for the next in this series on how to prevent un-engagement and re-engage those who have lapsed called ‘Just Because you can Doesn’t Mean you Should’.

ListEngage’s team, of Salesforce and email deliverability experts, is here to assist you with effectively reaching your customers’ inbox. Contact us for a no-cost, no-obligation consultation.

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Tricia Babischkin

Tricia Babischkin | Strategic Consultant

Tricia Babischkin is a Strategic Consultant for ListEngage and recently named one of Salesforce's 2020 Marketing Champions. With over 20 years in marketing, most of that time in digital, specifically email marketing, she has helped hundreds of companies improve their conversations with their customers. At the end of the day, after she’s read the hundreds of marketing emails in her inbox, Tricia firmly believes and promotes that there is no more powerful digital marketing tool than email when used responsibility and properly. Contact her, if you would like to have her expertise enhance your email program at tbabischkin@listengage.com