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On Monday, I answered some questions for Econsultancy about optimal email frequency at Christmas, and apparently I ruffled a few feathers.

What can I say, I’m a Parry-iah  (see what I did there?). The following blog post will rub some people the wrong way. My good name may get dragged through the mud. But, what can I say, with playful glee here comes an erudite, iconoclastic viewpoint.  

My point is this: retailers who send out more (not crappy) emails this Christmas period will drive more revenue from all their channels, both online and offline. 

This Christmas, give your customers a present. Give them the gift of more emails. 

Email marketing ROI is usually attributed incorrectly

Let me ask you a question. The last time you walked into a 7-11 to buy a can of Coke, did you tell the shopkeeper, “I saw a Coca Cola billboard outside, and therefore I would like to purchase a can of this sweet, sweet nectar.”  Unlikely, right?

If you do email marketing, you know that some people do buy from your emails. For sure! It’s a powerful direct response channel. But that’s not all it is. 

Take, for example, Travelodge. In October 2012, the company sent me a bunch of emails  Here’s a screenshot of my Gmail inbox, filtered for Travelodge during that period:

Travelodge Emails

Notice how I didn’t open a single one. According to the widespread email marketing axiom, I’m a disengaged email address. I’m a lost cause, one of those annoying people who simply doesn’t open their emails.

And yet, when my friend got married in Cardiff, where did I stay?

At the Travelodge. Why? Because Travelodge gets it: the inbox is a branding tool. 

Take a look through those subject lines. Nearly every single one is saying how I can make great savings, how it's the market leading discount hotel brand. 

Consider this: what are the odds of Travelodge sending me an email at the exact moment I’m ready to purchase a hotel for the night? Slim to none.

What Travelodge has done is consistently reinforced its brand ideals – low cost, adequate hotel rooms – through a series of emails. 

I didn’t open them, sure. But I still saw the from name and the subject lines: discounts, cheap, cost-effective. And when I was in buying mode, I went to Travelodge’s website and booked direct, because this brand was top of mind.

I didn’t buy that can of Coke because of the billboard. I bought the can of Coke because the brand was top of mind when I was in purchase mode. 

Don’t forget, email is a form of advertising

Lots of email experts will tell you that you need to be relevant, you need to segment, you need to be mobile, and so on. My point is not about this.

Relevance works. Segmentation works. Responsive design works (probably.) 

But, if you aren’t emailing someone, you aren’t getting your brand in front of them in the first place, regardless of if they are in that traditional 'engaged' group or not.

So let’s fast forward to Christmas...

To set the tone, here’s an out of context image of a bunny wearing a Santa hat:

Bunny with Santa hat
(h/t Mike Smail)

At Christmas time, most retailers spend more money on advertising than any other time of the year. All of the major brands, from Macy's to John Lewis to everyone else big and small, have Christmas campaigns: '12 days of this' and '12 days of that.' Whatever. 

So advertisers are doing more:

  1. TV spots.
  2. Radio spots.
  3. Print ads.
  4. Offer/coupon inserts.
  5. Catalogues/direct mai.
  6. Outdoor advertising.
  7. Point-of-sale offers.
  8. Online display.
  9. Paid search.
  10. Social media stuff (ads, tweets, pages, whatever;) and so on, and so on, and so on.

And yet, people say that you shouldn’t send out more email. 

“Because we don’t want to annoy customers”

I get it, you don’t want to be a spamming bastard. But let’s be frank, what really annoys people is seeing the same TV commercial over and over and over. And hearing the same annoying jingle on the radio at work. And so on. 

How many times have you gone to sleep at night after watching TV with an annoying jingle stuck in your head? (The bane of my existence for about six months back in the 80s was the Meow Mix song. It still gives me shivers.)

Or, like the trend is these days, when you go to a website, and leave that website, then have banner ads stalk you around the internet. You go on YouTube to watch a squirrel on a surfboard and are bombarded with aggressive ads for a site you visited the day before.  That’s annoying.

So does email marketing annoy people? People can easily unsubscribe if they get annoyed, which is a lot easier than never hearing your jingle on TV or radio, or no longer seeing your banner ads across display advertising networks. 

“We have to keep user experience in mind.”

A few years ago, there were a handful of user experience gurus in the world. Now they’re everywhere. That’s cool, we're good dudes, I’m just saying it’s a category that barely existed when the dogs were still being let out.

Let me pose you this question: what’s a better user experience than a series of relevant emails, offering some great deals on Christmas gifts from your company? 

So this is the thing. If you’re sending out a load of spammy shit on a regular basis, you’ve got a problem. 

What I’m not saying is send out a load of crappy emails. What I am saying is, don’t be afraid to send out more emails so long as they’re good.

“We should let the user decide how often they want to receive emails.”

So here’s a fun task. Call up 10 of your customers who have purchased directly from emails, and ask them one question, with no preamble: “How often would you like us to email you: daily, weekly, monthly or quarterly?”

None will say daily. One may say weekly, one quarterly, and probably eight will say monthly.  The thing is, what people say they want is different from their actual purchase behaviour.

People think they don’t like to be advertised to. And, every consumer thinks that they’re less susceptible to advertising than anyone else on the planet. It’s like how everyone thinks they’re a better poker player than everone else at the table, but there’s only one cowboy counting his chips when the game is over.

If you only send emails to people once a month at their request, whether they’re regular customers or not, your brand won’t be top of mind.  Your competition’s will be.

So once again, I’m not saying spam the hell out of your customers. What I am saying is that if you restrict frequency of emails at the Christmas period, where everyone and their dog is after your customer’s hard earned dollars, guess what? Someone else will get there before you.

Re-visit your attribution model if you’re worried about email volume at Christmas

We, as marketers, do marketing because it works. It helps move product. It delivers revenue. It pays our paycheques. 

And yet, the most popular strategy is to measure the ROI from the email channel based upon last click. Email marketers have an obsession with statistics: opens, clicks, unsubscribes – and sometimes miss the basics. A little thing you may remember from Marketing 101 called AIDA

Most emails are sent out with that final A in mind – Action – and ROI is attributed based upon this. The thing is, email is an extremely powerful channel for the Attention and Interest phases, regardless of if an email gets opened. 

So how can you determine email channel revenue uplift for your brand this Christmas?

If you’ve made it this far, you think one of two things: 1) I’m a tosser; or 2) I’ve got a point. If you’re in the #1 camp, fair enough, maybe you’re right. 

If you’re in the #2 camp, consider this:

Say you’ve got a list of 500,000 email addresses that have not purchased from the email channel in the last 12 months (and stripping out unsubs and bounces.)

Note that the proven purchasers from the email channel should be held in a different segment; this test is about attributing revenue correctly to the email channel. 

That is, anyone who is 'disengaged',  those who would get fewer or no emails following the prevailing beliefs of email marketing dogma.

Here’s what you do with that list of 500,000 who are perceived to not respond to the email channel:

  1. Set aside 100,000 and add them to a quarantine list. Send them no emails whatsoever.
  2. Take another 100,000 and let them tell you the frequency they wish to receive emails. Send them emails at that frequency. 
  3. With the next 100,000, send them your regularly scheduled programme, whatever it is.
  4. With the next 100,000, send the initial email with five subject line splits, and then do a re-send to non-openers with the best performing subject line.

    This shouldn’t be hard, any ESP should be able to do this off the shelf. This will be doubling the frequency to the non-openers. 

  5. Lastly, the ultimate 100,000: send them loads of (relevant) stuff. Triple the regular frequency, to everyone. Openers and otherwise. 

After the Christmas period, line up all your sales and dupe based upon email address, irrespective of whether or not they’ve clicked or opened correlate the number of emails sent per contact with the revenue generated.  Which one did the  best?

Of course, every business will be different, and your results may differ from your neighbour. But I’m confident enough to say that in the majority of cases one and two won’t buy the most stuff. Three may. And if it is the winning segment, kudos to you, you are already an email marketing ninja.

But my money, all things being equal, is on four and five. 

If those last two out-perform the first three by a decent margin, and the uplift of five on four is negligible, re-sending to non-openers is your dominant strategy. If five is the clear winner, it’s time to invest more time and money into your email channel.

I’ve probably made no friends with this blog post...

I’m not gonna lie. I’m expecting a bunch of people to tweet about this saying that I’m an idiot. That’s cool, I can take it. Feel free to chuck in a comment below if you want to debate.

Simply put, email is more than a direct response channel, email is a key branding tool for digital brands,  so consider that this Christmas. 

On December 26th it’ll be too late… and if your sales are short, there’s no one to blame but yourself. 

Parry Malm

Published 6 November, 2013 by Parry Malm

Parry Malm is the CEO of Phrasee and a contributor to Econsultancy. Connect with him on LinkedInTwitter or Google+.

25 more posts from this author

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Luke Corden: Aspirationalist

Hi Parry,

Thanks for this post. I found it really interesting. I am in a process at the moment that will see me with a product ready to launch over christmas and new year. I was considering delaying the launch until the first week if january as I thought there would be a higher amount o customers.

But this article has given me christmas food for thought. I guess though in my case I will be looking for affiliates to drive traffic during this period and the more affiliates that aren't on holiday, stuffed with turkey or down the pub with mates celebrating the festive season the better.

I will however, keep up with the general marketing campaign.

Thanks again for a really interesting post.

almost 3 years ago

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Simon West

Parry!

WTF - sending more emails gets me more business? We're making a very healthy living running email campaigns for clients and you go and give away our number one secret... please, please no more posts like this :)

More seriously, great post and you are so right about the email marketer's reluctance to send more regular messages but I think the problem most business mailers have is that they are so caught up in talking about themselves that they very quickly run out of things to say, so end up sending spammy shit.

PS. Nice image...

almost 3 years ago

Claire Stead

Claire Stead, Head of Marketing at Smoothwall

Thanks for an entertaining read. Your argument is well written and well thought out. I for one, agree. I have always been a fan of email marketing and although many marketeers or chief execs worry about spamming customers and being 'annoying', I believe it is a lot less invasive than many other forms of advertising. Plus, all you have to do is press 'delete' if you don't want to read it. You've still seen it though.

It is hard to always measure ROI on emails, as like you say it is a brand awareness exercise more than anything, but by having an email in your customers inbox you're a lot more likely to be at the top of their mind than someone who hasn't emailed.

I think this article may change marketeers cautious approach to email marketing. Just as long as the email always adds value to the customer - offers them discounts, promotions, products and services that suit their needs.

almost 3 years ago

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John de Robeck

Hi Parry,

Good article with some really relevant points, and yes you probably wont win too many votes from the traditionalists.

Sending more email when it is both targeted and relevant is not often a bad thing and is something I'd love to be able to do all year round, not just for Christmas, but you definitely need to shout louder to be heard at Christmas. The big question I'd have is how do you avoid this being a a short term win when your deliverability gets hit by the thousands of junk boxed emails you send while trying to find that winning formula?

almost 3 years ago

Parry Malm

Parry Malm, CEO at Phrasee Ltd.

Hi everyone - thanks for the feedback! How come no one is saying I'm a tosser? I had brought my knuckle duster into the office this morning just in case.

@Simon - sorry, the secret is out. Hey, you can always get a job as a UX consultant if this email thing doesn't work out ;)

@Claire - excellent point. This article goes further into that - how VALUE is the key in high frequency email success: http://www.alchemyworx.com/emailworx/2013/strategy/competitor-analysis-how-boden-use-value-to-increase-frequency

@John - I'm not sure the deliverability issue is as big as everyone things. If your emails are value-driving, then why would people spam score it? I guess it could happen and if it does, re-visit your content, because spam complaints are rarely a result of frequency but usually a result of poor content.

almost 3 years ago

Craig R Morton

Craig R Morton, Senior PHP Analyst/Programmer at Reiss

Hi,

Thanks for posting this, very interesting. You certainly make sense with regards to email being a form of advertising. However, don't you think that can be considered misuse?

I believe email should be considered a communications tool rather than yet another way for advertisers to get through to us. I suppose it is just reality, but I am of the opinion that if I got the same number of emails from Travelodge, for example, that you have received then i'd be inclined to hit the "Unsubscribe" link.

Thanks,
Craig.

almost 3 years ago

Parry Malm

Parry Malm, CEO at Phrasee Ltd.

@Craig IMO email is a communications tool when I email my colleagues, my buddies, my wife, my mom, whatever. But we're talking about "email marketing" here.

I don't get people's reticence to have unsubscribers. I think unsubscribes (within reason) are a great thing; you learn a lot more from unsub rates than open rates.

But that's tangential. If everyone is unsubscribing then it's not a function of frequency, it's a proxy for sending out crappy content.

almost 3 years ago

Claire Stead

Claire Stead, Head of Marketing at Smoothwall

Thanks for the link Parry. I particularly like the closing statement, "The only 100% certainty in email marketing is a subscriber cannot engage with an email they don’t receive."

almost 3 years ago

Peter McCormack

Peter McCormack, Founder at McCormack Morrison

You picked the wrong company as an example - also Groupon and Fab proved that sending too many emails doesn't work. It is desperate and spamming and helps the industry in no way at all.

almost 3 years ago

Parry Malm

Parry Malm, CEO at Phrasee Ltd.

@Peter I'm not sure I did pick the wrong company! Desperate and spamming are not the behaviour they're exhibiting - they're making sure that when I'm in buying mode, I think of them.

GroupOn is a special case, as their business model is questionable at best (remember their botched IPO?) They are probably a bit too far on the far end of the spectrum.

Once again, what I'm not saying is send out loads of useless, spammy content.

Thanks for the counter-point though, I certainly understand your point of view, just don't 100% agree with it :)

almost 3 years ago

Peter McCormack

Peter McCormack, Founder at McCormack Morrison

It is a flawed model, shouting for attention, Ryanair have just proved this and are having to change strategy.

Congratulations on the article but you are giving out crap advice based on a single client example.

almost 3 years ago

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Alia Formoy, Digital Marketing Consultant at Stream:20

Interesting article Parry. I would just add that increasing frequency over seasonal times needs to be done tactically. Boden are a great example of having a week of sale activity, where they increased frequency of emails to daily during their sales week.

What they also did was offer people a temporary opt out if the daily frequency was too much for them. They clearly communicated how often the emails would be coming and it became something of value because I was expecting to see the email in my inbox in the afternoon every day.

The solution to rise above the noise isn't necessarily about creating more noise, it's about creating the right kind of noise, and offering a temporary way to silence it rather than a blanket (and possibly final) unsubscribe for those who find it too much.

almost 3 years ago

Parry Malm

Parry Malm, CEO at Phrasee Ltd.

@Peter thanks for your congratulations! But, it's probably worth mentioning that Travelodge are not one of my clients. I wish - imagine the volume they send out. I'd be able to retire and put my feet up instead of doing my stupid day job :)

The RyanAir example is illegitimate within this context; their bad user experience examples go right from email through to site to at the airport to on the plane.

@Alia for sure, it's about creating the right kind of noise. But as Wayne Gretzky said, "You don't score on 100% of the shots you don't take." If your email's not being sent, no one is going to engage with it no matter what :)

almost 3 years ago

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Rory Dunne, Account Manager at Powa Technologies

Talking about shit content, Groupon might have managed their daily emails better if they didn't keep emailing everyone about discount colonoscopies.

almost 3 years ago

Parry Malm

Parry Malm, CEO at Phrasee Ltd.

@Rory But without those discounts, you'd be paying through the ass!

Sorry... :)

almost 3 years ago

Kate Gowers

Kate Gowers, Principal Digital Consultant at Ogilvy&Mather UK

I have worked with clients who have made both mistakes - mailing too frequently (IMHO) and not mailing enough. Allow me to explain.

Tesco Diets allowed you to calculate your BMI (I don't know if they're still around in truth). Great. You then get a welcome email suggesting you sign up to a paid Tesco Diets plan. If you don't sign up, you get another email a day or two later with an incentive (Clubcard points or whatever). And then again a couple of days later. And again the next day...and so on and so on and so on. They were my client and I unsubscribed - it really did grind my gears and did not entice me to use Tesco Diets (instead I had a paid subscription to weightlossresources.co.uk which had a less aggressive sales technique. Tesco Diets didn't deliver relevant, good content and shouted too often (and yes, they did have a high unsub rate, and a high complaint rate).

Conversely, a current client of mine - coincidentally another diet product - only mail their base twice a year and they only mail their engaged base. The people who have already signed up for the plan and already buy the diet foodstuff. Surely, I've told them, they should be mailing people who AREN'T buying the product but have still signed up to receive emails - the engaged base are already fully subscribed. They are missing a trick.

So yes, I think you can over mail, but I think under-mailing is more likely to negatively impact sales.

almost 3 years ago

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Martin Harris

Very good reminds me off

<!-- Place this tag in your head or just before your close body tag. -->
<script type="text/javascript" src="https://apis.google.com/js/plusone.js"></script&gt;

<!-- Place this tag where you want the widget to render. -->
<div class="g-post" data-href="https://plus.google.com/117326531214007203960/posts/2JaJ6mKD19L"></div&gt;

almost 3 years ago

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Martin Harris

Sorry for the above spam guys, just testing something out, feel free to delete!

almost 3 years ago

Parry Malm

Parry Malm, CEO at Phrasee Ltd.

Post two comments and they get read more than one. Proving the point, cheers Martin! It's science hahaha :)

almost 3 years ago

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Luca Mastroianni, Start-up Consultant at American Express

Brilliant post Parry. I liked the the way you challenged the "assumed best practices". Definitely worth testing!

almost 3 years ago

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Tommy

Hi Parry,

Strong article - I agree with a lot of your sentiments here, particularly your point about customer surveys.

To take your example, when customers/readers says they'd prefer to receive a monthly email rather than say a weekly email, that's interesting data... but you shouldn't just take that as gospel and start defining your strategy based on that information alone.

A number of fancy pants media agencies are guilty of pursuing and basing client strategies around this kind of conceptual focus group data as if it were cast iron - it's not, it's woolly at best.

We've found that what customer focus groups say and what they want (and react to) are often wildly different, so base your strategy on the actual numbers: the opens, click throughs and conversions.

No one wants to openly admit they're 'a consumer' - yet all paying clients are just that - consumers. If they weren't you wouldn't have a business and we'd all be out foraging for our dinner.

Monitor and react to their behaviour not their musings.

I'll finish by saying that we increase our broadcasts over the Christmas (and have done for the past 3 -4 years) because it works and the figures stand up so you're absolutely right to make this point.

Waffle over and out.

almost 3 years ago

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アラフォー婚活

Nice image!

almost 3 years ago

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Thomas Boyd

Great article and quite correct.

E mail a crucial and effective part of the marketing mix.

Thomas Boyd

MD and founder
www.digitalfire.co.za

almost 3 years ago

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James

Can't believe I missed this article after all the debate last week. Thankfully Peter McCormack hit the nail on the head.

almost 3 years ago

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Chuck

James, Peter

You are in the minority here. What gives? Quick to criticise a courageous post but no counter points other than "I don't like this."

Weak!

almost 3 years ago

Peter McCormack

Peter McCormack, Founder at McCormack Morrison

Chuck,

I used to run the Travelodge email business when we were contracted by Rapier. I actually saw statistically as they increased the volume of emails that response rates dropped. It became a vicious cycle of send more emails to catch up to where we were the previous month.

I actually emailed Parry privately a few days ago to explain this because I didn't want to make it public. Anyway you know now, it actually doesn't work.

Peter

almost 3 years ago

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Chuck

Peter, so yiu are saying that more emails didn't work. Did you not read the alchemy worx piece? Maybe you just sent more BAD emails, and perhaps travelodge made a bad choice in choosing your strategy.

I don't mean to be mean but it's an easy out to blame the channel and not the marketer. What you've said is you followed a spam strategy and are blaming the author for your lack of marketing skills. It's not Parrys fault that yiu can't get results.

If you ran travelodge and it went badly... Erm... Surely the blame is yours?!?

Chick is out.

almost 3 years ago

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Chuck

iPhone!!! Chuck not chick! Imagine me dropping a microphone. Seriously, peter, your argument is weak. Do better marketing. It's not anyone's fault that you can't drive results. Except yours.

almost 3 years ago

Peter McCormack

Peter McCormack, Founder at McCormack Morrison

Chuck I am not getting into an argument with you. Parry wrote an email saying that Travelodge sending more emails is a good idea.

I ran Travelodge and it was successful. When they needed more conversions we sent more emails, unsubscribes went up and CTRs dropped.

We advised them not to do this but they had targets to hit. Overall conversions were maintained but we had to send more emails to achieve them.

To me this was a false economy.

almost 3 years ago

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Chuck

Peter, that doesn't make sense. Either you are good at email marketing or bad. It sounds to me like you are bad - advise a client, but do their bidding.

The pint is, you willingly sent out a bunch if emAils and list a client because your emails weed crap. Well done.

If love to hear a voice from travelodge here. Clearly according to Peter you are all idiots.

almost 3 years ago

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Chuck

Sorry for autocorrect issues. Hope my point is ducking clear :)

almost 3 years ago

Peter McCormack

Peter McCormack, Founder at McCormack Morrison

Okay I think this is probably a pointless argument. I'll accept we have a different opinion.

almost 3 years ago

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Chuck

Erm... Very evocative before. Point taken - can't handle a debate.

almost 3 years ago

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James

Chuck. I don't disagree that a rise in emails can lead to a rise in sales. I just feel this is over simplified - as Peter said it's, "shouting for attention".

Raising frequency for everyone will get more sales because you are still hitting those who want the emails, but if you can try to drill down into who these people are before sending, you can hit everyone at the optimum frequency. It's trial and error obviously and maybe Parry is right in saying it's best to go a bit over rather than under on frequency.

But his theory still seems like using a shotgun for deer hunting to me.

almost 3 years ago

Parry Malm

Parry Malm, CEO at Phrasee Ltd.

@Chuck thanks... I think?

@James @Peter: The main thesis of the post is that over-sending is less risky to revenue than under-sending. I'm not sure I agree with the "crap advice" statement but hey, our forefathers went to war so we are free to argue about super important topics like email marketing :)

almost 3 years ago

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Gerard

I think there is a transatlantic divide here. The other side of the Atlantic has always accepted a frequency of mail shots that the British would tend to consider junk mail and its probably much the same with emails.

Sending more emails to a large subscriber base with a low response rate probably will generate more business short term.What is does to the life time value of the customer base is another matter

almost 3 years ago

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