Silverpop - Guest Q&A: Dela Quist on Managing Inactives, Subject Line Length and Marketers' Fear & Self-Loathing
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Guest Q&A: Dela Quist on Managing Inactives, Subject Line Length and Marketers' Fear & Self-Loathing

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by: Loren McDonald (@LorenMcDonald)
20 January 2012

We're picking up where we left off in my interview with Dela Quist, CEO of the email agency Alchemy Worx. Here, he argues against the conventional wisdom on inactive subscribers and subject-line length and tells marketers how to overcome their inferiority complexes.

You recently knocked Dell for removing you, a paying customer, from one of its lists because you hadn't clicked recently. Should marketers ever remove inactives from their database? What is your overall prescription for how email marketers should deal with the growing problem of inactives?

[caption id="attachment_2827" align="alignright" width="150" caption="Dela Quist, CEO of Alchemy Worx"][/caption]

I've probably bought more than 150 Dell laptops, desktops and servers over the years, and I had been on Dell lists for five or six years. I might go three months or so without actually opening a message, but I loved having them in the inbox because I could tell exactly where Dell was in its sales cycle.

About three months ago, I wanted to see where Dell was because I needed to buy, and I went into my inbox to find the most recent email. It wasn't there. Dell had taken me off their list. How stupid was that?

Here's how the nudge effect works: Right about this time, I had been thinking, "What are we, a Dell shop?" I had begun to think about HP for pricing. Was that coincidence? I haven't stopped buying Dell, but I haven't resubscribed, either.

Are you saying marketers should never remove inactives from their databases?

Well, you know, at one time I was one of those preaching this stuff, that when you take away half of your list for inactivity, you'll double your open rate.

The first of my clients that I tried to make do that ignored me. So we split his list in two and mailed to the inactive list in the same way as we mailed everyone else.

The conversion rate on the inactive list was pretty high. Between 2 percent and 5 percent of the people who never opened before would open. I realized that for the cost of sending the email to everybody, the return was pretty good.

The problem is that we have a distorted view of what people do with email. We are focused on opens and clicks, not on sales. If someone opens an email that's a month later, they will buy.

The value of an open is significantly different early in on the campaign than at the end of the campaign. If you start to value these opens differently, it changes your strategy.

You realize that every email you send affects every other email you send and influences the decision to buy. Customers will go back and look for a good offer and see if it's still active.

No one has ever shown me conclusive proof, with hard numbers, that taking people off your list makes you more money.

You were one of the first thought leaders to buck the “short subject lines” practice with a study that showed longer can actually convert better. But isn't it really all about the copy and offer in the subject line, not the length?

That's right. Our study found that the longer a subject line, the lower the open rate. But, very bizarrely, we saw that clicks went in the opposite direction: The longer the subject line, the more the clicks.

We came to the conclusion that it's all about meaning. The shorter the subject line, the less likely you are to convey meaning. People have to open your email. So, overall, they tend to be less qualified.

With a longer subject line, the person can decide if the email is relevant. Although fewer emails are opened, those who open them are more qualified.

After we published our white paper, "Subject Lines: Length is Everything," subject lines in the United Kingdom grew 15 percent on average.

I'm completely excited again with the branding potential of longer subject lines. Marketers like Gilt Groupe and Groupon have astonishingly long subject lines because they have multiple propositions.

Does your data hold up as more consumers read email on their mobile devices?

I don't think mobile is going to take us back to shorter subject lines. Go to any marketing email on your smartphone, and tell me what you see. The smartphone is optimized for subject lines. The creative is irrelevant.

So, that also makes the obsession with creating mobile versions ridiculous, because you don't even see that.

You've often said that the email marketing industry is plagued by "fear and self-loathing." Although email marketing delivers the highest ROI, marketers beat themselves up over frequency and deliverability. Why do they focus on the negative, and what is your antidote?

Marketers have a visceral fear that the public hates getting email or that they're getting too much email. Their challenge is, "How do I get my list wanting another email from me?"

The answer is value. It's taking care. It's having great creative, great content and great ideas.

This fear and self-loathing comes from what happens when you tell people you do email marketing for a living, and their first reaction is, "You're a spammer."

Being called spammers has an insidious effect on us. But we allow the word to be used far too loosely. No marketer I work with spams, but we allow people to use that word casually. We even use it amongst ourselves!

I try to bring out the positive. Email is bigger than Google. I would say 50 percent of all clicks online are generated by email. How likely are you to Tweet about a product? Maybe 5 percent will.

Marketers also are terrified of making a mistake. They live in fear of best practices. When did a company go out of business because it put "Oops!" in a subject line?

Finally, ecommerce thrives on email. If we can get that message out, everyone would love what they do.

Read Part 1 of my interview with Dela, "Guest Q&A: Dela Quist Talks Email Frequency, Branding."

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