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21 Preference Center Mistakes and How to Fix Them

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by: Loren McDonald (@LorenMcDonald)
13 November 2013

A preference center can be one of your best allies as you work to create more lasting and useful relationships with your customers, but it's also one of the trickiest to pull off.

I've spoken with many marketers and industry pundits who say preference centers are a waste of time because they don't generate enough actionable data or customer activity to merit the effort they take to develop and maintain. If you're one of them, should you shutter your preference center efforts and go back to the drawing board?

Nope. You just need to figure out where you went wrong and fix it.

Below is my list of the mistakes I see marketers making most often. Many are relatively easy to fix. Once you get your preference center tuned up, it can help create a better customer experience and improve your data collection.

Types of Preference Centers

Before we dive into the common mistakes I see, let’s get on the same definitional page of what I mean by a “preference center.” I classify preference centers into the following four types:

1) Opt-in (presented when someone is asked to join your email database)

2) Update (when someone clicks a link such as "Update Preferences")

3) Opt-out (similar to the update but designed specifically to offer alternatives to unsubscribing such as decreased frequency, snoozing subscriptions, etc.)

4) Purchase/Account Registration (designed mainly to be used in account registration or the purchase process; email subscriptions are a typical option in this process).

Secondly, I'd like you to think beyond the current concept of a preference center, where data collection is based solely on subscribers providing demographic information and specifying their interests and preferences for newsletters, product categories, frequency, channel, etc.

The new preference center incorporates behavioral data that customers generate through Web browsing, purchasing, email activity and even offline engagements that tie into subscription data through the email address or other keys.

The new preference center is not just what is transparent to the subscriber, but also includes the "preferences" they provide through "what they do, not just what they say."

OK, so let’s dive into the four categories of preference center mistakes:

Data Collection

Why it's important: Preference data is often the only information you have on your customers until they start browsing, buying, clicking or downloading. Your preference options must help customers tailor and manage their own shopping or information-seeking experiences but also help you create more relevant messages and learn more about your customers.

Often, preference data is the first or only information you have until your customers start browsing, buying, clicking or downloading.

MISTAKE #1: Capturing only the email address. Yes, you sign up more customers by getting them into your database swiftly, but you're sacrificing data richness for speed.

The fix: Use a two-step opt-in process, short form, or progressive form to capture data beyond the email address.

MISTAKE #2: Asking for too much information. This can be fatal for form completion rates, especially if your customer is on a smartphone.

The fix: If what you ask for doesn’t provide some recognizable value or choice to the subscriber, get the data another way. What kinds of data do you really need to segment or target?

MISTAKE #3: Not incorporating behavior. What your customers say and what they actually do are two essential parts of the data equation. You need both to create the most accurate customer picture and deliver on the promise of the right-time, right-place message.

The fix: Incorporate behavior with preference data in your marketing database. A simple example: A prospect browses your website and shows clear interest in one product category over another. Perhaps you don't explicitly ask for this preference during registration, or you make it an optional field.

Using Web Tracking, you can connect this new subscriber's pre-registration Web behavior to her email address and, in essence, fill in some form fields for her based on behavior.

MISTAKE #4: Collecting data that you don't use: Age-restricted businesses aside, you're wasting my time if you ask me for my birthdate but don't use the information to send me a birthday email or send me content or offers based on my age.

The fix: Review your forms, and get rid of any outdated or unnecessary fields. Find other ways to capture this data when you need it or have a plan to roll out a new program down the road.

MISTAKE #5: Using your preference center to survey customers. Don’t confuse your preference center with a survey form asking for opinions or detailed comments.

The fix: If you need richer, deeper input from your customers and new subscribers, ask for it with surveys promoted in your onboarding and standalone emails. These surveys are a great way to not only capture feedback but also interests and demographics that can then be used in your “hidden” preference center.

MISTAKE #6: Not explaining why you’re asking for certain kinds of data. Asking for sensitive or identifying information (age, household income), especially from new customers who haven't trusted you with previous purchases or interactions, can make them abandon your opt-in or registration process.

The fix: Add a plain-language explanation why you need this information at the point where you're asking for it in the form. Explain what you’ll do with it and how you’ll protect your customer's information. Link to your privacy policy, too.

Utility to Customers

Why it's important: Your preference center has to show immediate value and be easy to negotiate on any screen size or device, whether customers want to update or expand on their profile and preferences. If not, customers won't use it, and you won't get the data you need.

MISTAKE #7: Showing every list your have in your email program: I recently clicked the “Update Profile” link on a retailer’s email and was taken to a preference center that displayed more than 100 lists – many with embarrassing, internally focused names. Imagine seeing that on your smartphone screen. Automatic fail!

The fix: Some email software services automatically show every list you have as an option on your preference page. You need to override this and create a custom preference center that only presents the email and other channel options that they currently subscribe to or are logical options for them.

MISTAKE #8: Omitting alternatives to unsubscribing:  People might think unsubscribing is their only option if they want to update their email address or change preferences. Your preference center should make it super easy to opt out, but just as easy to remain subscribed by making other changes to their subscription preferences or profile.

The fix: Add alternatives to unsubscribing such as changing the subscriber’s email address; receiving fewer or different newsletters or emails; pausing or snoozing their subscription for weeks or months; and receiving communications via other channels such as SMS, direct mail and social channels. Individually, these options may only reduce opt-outs by a small percentage, but in total they can help you take a decent bite out of list churn and inactivity.

MISTAKE #9: Requiring a login/password or multiple clicks to act. In the United States, CAN-SPAM prohibits requiring logins or passwords to complete the unsubscribe process.

The fix: Remove your barriers immediately for people who want to unsubscribe. Make sure that things like account profiles and communications are managed separately from regular email subscriptions. Include a link to the account login for those who want to change information associated with their account.

MISTAKE #10: Requiring subscribers to enter basic information you collected before. You already have this information — don’t make customers do unnecessary work.

The fix: Prepopulate forms when users click through from your emails. Even better, use progressive forms and show only the information needed in the context of the form or registration process.

MISTAKE #11: Offering outdated options such as “HTML versus Text.” 2003 called to say you don't have to offer this anymore, since nearly every desktop browser and most smartphones render HTML well enough to impart the most important parts of your message.

The fix: Remove this and similar outdated or marginally supported (RSS, etc.) fields from your preference center.

MISTAKE #12: Sending subscribers, regardless of intent, to the same preference center page. If someone clicks “Change Email Address” in your email, you don’t want to send them to your unsubscribe-focused page where the first option they see is, “Do you want to unsubscribe?”

The fix: Create different variations of your preference center based on which goal and link your subscriber clicked, such as “Unsubscribe” versus “Updating Email Address” or “Change Frequency.”

MISTAKE #13: Omitting a "global" unsubscribe. In the United States, CAN-SPAM requires you to enable subscribers to opt out of all company mailings, not just the message they are attempting to unsubscribe from.

The fix: Add this option to your unsubscribe page. It's a good idea even if you aren't subject to CAN-SPAM.

MISTAKE #14: Not setting expectations or explaining your email program's value. Yeah, you came up with a cute name for your daily deals email. But does that creative name explain to subscribers why they should sign up or what they can expect from your emails?

The fix: Add copy to your opt-in preference center that lists what subscribers can expect from your email program, including frequency, content, even appearance (for example, post a thumbnail image and link to a sample newsletter). Most importantly, answer that perennial question: "What's in it for me?"

MISTAKE #15: Making every field required. Really, you need my birth date or zip code so I can receive your daily deals email?

The fix: Require only the most essential data you need for your broadcast and triggered messages. Use progressive profiling, surveys or invitations to return to the preference center to fill out more fields.

MISTAKE #16: No regular audit, update plan or maintenance. If you haven't looked at your preference center in the last 12 months, you won't know if all parts are still working and up to date – and are risking serious issues if the opt-out process is broken.

The fix: Institute a regular monthly audit of your preference center links in your email and processes and options in your preference center. I’ve yet to see the perfect preference center, so create a plan to take your preference center from point A to point B over the course of several months, for example. Tackle different aspects each month until you get to that perfect state.


Why it's important: Besides offering the right mix of variables, your preference center must be easy to use, no matter what kind of screen or device your customer is using to access it.

MISTAKE #17: Not mobile-friendly. Your preference center probably was built for desktops. Look at it on a mobile device. Ouch!

The fix: Work with your email design team to develop a preference center that works well on all the key mobile devices and screen sizes but doesn't degrade the desktop experience.

MISTAKE #18: Using your ESP's default form. Defaults don't provide branding or offer the unique experience customers expect from you. Nor do they collect information that's relevant to your specific business.

The fix: Use the default as a starting point if you absolutely must, but add branding, content and imagery that clearly identifies it as unique to your company as soon as you can.

MISTAKE #19: Using a one-click unsubscribe. I'm all for making it incredibly easy for subscribers to opt out, but a one-click process makes it too easy and provides no alternatives to unsubscribing.

The fix: If your default setting is a one-click unsubscribe, create even a simple preference center out of the gate and at least enable a subscriber to change their email address in addition to opting out.

MISTAKE #20: Obscuring the preferences link in your regular email formats. I find it hard to believe that some marketers still think making an unsubscribe link hard to find (e.g., buried location and light gray and tiny font) will keep people on their lists. Those are the people who go inactive or hit the "spam" button because they don't see how to unsubscribe.

The fix: Highlight – don’t hide – the different options in your emails. Call out key options such as “Change Email Address,” “Unsubscribe,” “Receive Fewer Emails," etc. Use an appropriate font size and color that makes the links easy to find.

MISTAKE #21: Confusing layout and navigation. Maybe your page layout wasn't originally designed with the user in mind, or you added on so many new functions and sections that it became unworkable.

The fix: Whatever the reason, if your preference center layout has become a hot mess, it's time to redesign. Focus on ease of completion, making your most important data fields easy to find and organized in logical categories or layouts.

Hopefully no marketers are making all 21 mistakes I’ve outlined, but many of you are probably making at least a few. Pick the most critical mistakes you’re making and commit to getting them fixed in time for the holiday busy season.

Related Resources:

1) White Paper: "Unsubscribe Best Practices: How to Decrease Database Churn and Strengthen Your Marketing Program"

2) Video: “The New Preference Center

3) Blog: “5 Ways to Enhance Your Preference Center



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