How much is too much e-mail?

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A couple of months ago, I joined the opt-in e-mail list of a semi-obscure entertainer whose CDs I enjoy. By mid-afternoon of that day, I had received three e-mail marketing messages from him.When a fourth e-mail arrived around 5 p.m., I hollered "enough!" - and promptly unsubscribed from his list.

That got me thinking about a question: How much e-mail is too much?

Say you publish a free monthly online newsletter for your prospects and customers. In addition to the monthly e-zine, which they requested, will they welcome - or even tolerate - additional e-mail messages from you? If so, how many? To find out, I asked several Internet marketers and users.

"Three e-mails a day seems just pathetic and desperate to me, no matter how relevant the message," said Sheri Cyprus.

"As an e-mail consumer, three to five e-mails a day is definitely too many," said Jodi Kaplan.

Ms. Kaplan worked for a marketing association with several different departments, each promoting a full schedule of events.

"No matter how much we tried to coordinate our mailings and segment our list, we still got complaints that we were sending too many e-mails," she said.

"I'm fine with weekly e-newsletters that also send me one weekly promo message," said marketing consultant Tom Varjan. "Some Internet 'experts' are the greatest sinners by sending out multiple daily messages. I've finally unsubscribed [from] many of them."

Consultant Joel Heffner said that his tolerance for e-mail marketing messages depends on the quality of the content in the online newsletter itself. If the online newsletter content isn't that important, even one extra e-mail marketing message a month can cause him to unsubscribe.

A useful tool for determining the frequency of e-mail marketing messages to your list is to monitor the opt-out rate - the number of readers who unsubscribe each time you send an e-mail marketing message to your list.

Ideally, the opt-out rate per e-mail blast should be 0.1 percent or lower. So if your list has 10,000 subscribers, no more than 10 should unsubscribe after each e-mail distribution.

Amy Africa, president of Eight By Eight, said that the maximum unsubscribe rate per e-mail marketing blast should be 2 percent.

Let's say you publish a monthly online newsletter with 10,000 subscribers. In addition to the e-zine, which you distribute on the first of the month, you send an e-mail marketing message in the middle of the month.

When you send your e-mail marketing message, enough subscribers buy the product you are promoting to make it fairly profitable - and 25 unsubscribe from your list. You'd like to make more money from your subscriber list. So you decide to go from twice a month to weekly.

When you do, you notice that your opt-out rate spikes: Instead of losing 25 subscribers, you lose 100. Your subscribers are telling you that you're e-mailing them too frequently, and to prevent your list from evaporating, you cut back to twice a month.

Sarah Stambler, president of E-Tactics, an online media buying agency, said the solution is to segment your e-list.

"On the sign-up page, they have to check one box to get just the e-newsletter, and a second box indicating they are willing to accept your e-mail marketing messages," Ms. Stambler said.

She said that a major publisher who did this found that only 50 percent of subscribers agreed to take the promotional messages along with the free newsletter.

"We follow the 80/20 rule," said Kim Mateus, publisher of Mequoda Group. "For every four editorial e-mails we send, we also send one promotional e-mail."

Another way to e-mail more frequently to your house list without irritating subscribers or increasing opt-outs is to write your marketing e-mails in an editorial style.

You can do this either by telling an amusing story, with a lesson embedded within it. Or, you can be educational: Presenting to the reader a useful tip or new idea within the body of the e-mail marketing message itself.

"I prefer marketing offers at the end of relevant information," said marketing consultant Jim Logan. "I don't like getting a pure pitch. The exception is an offer arriving alone that's tied to a theme the author has been addressing in a series of e-mails."

"I think if e-mail marketers would just follow basic communication etiquette, we would have much less e-mail," said Sean Woodruff. "Why is it that someone wouldn't phone a person three times a day with an offer but will not think twice about e-mail?"

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