It’s Alive! Six Ways to Create an Engaged Email List

Email is the zombie of marketing channels. 

Despite numerous claims that it’s dead, email continues to live on. And while the channel may be alive and well, the subscribers featured on marketers’ lists can sometimes show the same level of engagement as someone six feet under.

This lack of engagement is often caused by a lack of relevant messaging, which can be spurred by a focus on quantity over quality. “It’s about the number of emails you send, not the quality of emails you send,” Ryan Phelan, VP of marketing insights for Adestra, explained at the Direct Marketing Association’s &THEN conference in Boston. However, marketers can no longer take this approach.

“We have to recognize what the consumers are needing and we need to start respecting their choices,” said Dennis Dayman, chief privacy and security officer for Return Path.

To help marketers get inactive subscribers to rise from the dead, Phelan and Dayman shared their tips for growing an engaged email list. Here are six of their suggestions. 

1. Leverage the source of acquisition.

Consumers want contextual, relevant, and valuable emails, and email acquisition sources can help ensure this. Whether a consumer is filling out a lead generation form or downloading a whitepaper, marketers need to ask the right questions to obtain valuable data. For instance, although Phelan said he wouldn’t mind if clothing retailer Gap asked him for his gender and pants size, he would raise an eyebrow if automotive online resource asked him the same questions. 

Also, marketers should ensure that they don’t ask too many questions and risk losing the consumer altogether. “Ask an appropriate amount of questions,” Phelan said, “because consumers, by default, want you to be contextual.”

For marketers struggling to determine which questions they should ask and how many, Dayman recommended applying the “grandmother test”: Would you ask your grandmother this question, and would she understand and trust the situation enough to give you her information?

2. Know the rules and regulations.

The email marketing landscape is constantly changing, and with those changes come new legislation and rules. From the Canada Anti-Spam Legislation and European Union privacy regulations to industry best practices and company mandates, marketers have to study up on these guidelines and ensure that they’re abiding by all of them.

“Make sure you know the rules, and make sure you know what your company is going to do to adopt these rules,” Phelan said.

But marketers don’t have to go it alone. Both Phelan and Dayman encouraged marketers to become best friends with their chief privacy officers. In fact, Phelan advised marketers to pay their chief privacy officers a visit at least once a month to keep up with the rapidly evolving industry. 

3. Inquire about preferences.

No one knows consumers better than themselves. That’s why Dayman advised marketers to ask consumers what kind of content they want to receive and how frequently. “Don’t decide for them,” Dayman said. “Let them decide.”

But avoid asking too many preference questions. Although Phelan recommended asking three to five questions, he acknowledged that testing is the best way for marketers to find their true sweet spot. Dayman also encouraged marketers to consider context when asking for consumer preferences, such as by using a slider bar versus a survey format for consumers answering the questions via a mobile device.

Oh, and if consumers do provide their preferences, make sure to use them. “If you ask for preferences…do not send them other stuff,” Phelan said.

4. Start small with segmentation.

With so much big data and so many ways to slice and dice customer data, segmentation can seem daunting. That’s why Phelan advised marketers to start small. Jumping directly from batch-and-blast to advanced segmentation, he said, is a mistake. 

“If you’re doing batch-and-blast, tomorrow do one thing differently,” he said.

5. Listen to what inactive subscribers are not saying.

You know those consumers who haven’t opened an email in six months? They want marketers to notice their inactivity, Phelan said, and to take it as a clue to provide more contextualized messaging. 

To deliver this relevance, start by looking at subscribers who have been inactive for 60 days, Phelan said. Look at when they started to fade off and try to determine why. 

Also, marketers shouldn’t be afraid to encourage consumers to unsubscribe if they’re totally inactive. After all, their level of engagement (or lack thereof) impacts deliverability.

In addition, the messaging that marketers send their inactive subscribers should be different than the emails marketers send their active subscribers. As Phelan noted, marketers don’t want to send a “you’re one of our best customers” note to someone who hasn’t clicked on an email in years.

6. Be wary of buying lists.

The build-or-buy debate is one that has been going on for years. Dayman discouraged marketers from buying lists unless the vendor can provide concrete proof that those consumers opted in and that marketers have permission to email them.

“Hold your partners accountable for that list,” he said.

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