Recently my family and I adopted an energetic young dog, so I decided to review some training techniques to make sure she develops into a happy and pleasant companion. My favorite book on the subject is Don’t Shoot the Dog by Karen Pryor. While reading it, I started thinking about how the principles of animal training apply to interactive marketing.
The Principles of Training
As I read, I realized there are similarities between the author’s experiences with dolphin training and marketers’ relationships with their audiences. Since dolphins have a choice in how they interact with their trainers, encouragement and reinforcement are the only means to shape their behavior. They cannot be controlled with a leash, and they can swim away at any time.
Likewise, email recipients are in control—they can delete our messages or unsubscribe whenever they want. As interactive marketers, like trainers, we want to elicit certain behaviors, but we can’t force compliance. So we send and hope, measure and modify, test and revise, and strive to cater to each individual on our list. But what are we training them to do in the meantime?
According to Karen, the principles of training incorporate fundamental elements of behavioral psychology that apply to all animals, including us humans. Like dolphins, we glean a little more from every interaction about how our responses affect our situations, and we adjust our behavior accordingly.
Trainers use this principle to shape animal behavior by offering reinforcement for desired actions, but the concept still applies whether or not the trainer is consciously guiding behavior. In terms of online marketing, each time recipients receive our messages, a training event occurs. When they open a message from us, are they rewarded sufficiently to encourage that behavior the next time they receive a message?
The Lessons of Variable Reinforcement
One concept I found particularly interesting is variable reinforcement. Karen explains that behaviors do not need to be rewarded each time they are performed in order to continue training that behavior. Instead, once a reward for a behavior has been established, rewarding the subject on a variable basis from then on can actually have a stronger effect than rewarding each time the behavior is performed.
Subjects who receive rewards on a variable basis will often repeat the behavior or try harder in order to gain the expected reward. But there are limits: Karen warns that prolonged periods of unrewarded behavior can lead to disinterest. The rewards must come frequently enough for the subject to continue to expect them even when they are not immediately received.
I believe this is why email programs that incorporate welcome campaigns do better than programs that don’t. Welcome campaigns provide increased relevancy—and often special offers and incentives—in the beginning of the relationship and establish these characteristics as rewards for opening messages. Once this expectation has been set, the recipient is more inclined to open future messages.
What It Means for Marketers
Based upon the variable training principle, marketers may be able to strengthen their relationship with subscribers and drive continued high open rates by occasionally providing significant rewards or incentives in messages instead of always (or never) providing them.
The reward should be presented upon completion of the desired behavior (opening the message), so it should be included in the body of the message and not described in the subject line. It may be a significant discount, relevant educational content, a fun cartoon or video, or any other content that creates a pleasant association for the recipient. To be most effective, it should be something that the reader can immediately enjoy. This strengthens the association between the reward and the behavior.
Of course, opening the message is not the end goal, but it is the beginning of a chain of behaviors we want to occur—clicks, conversions, etc. I suggest taking a look at your program from a trainer’s perspective to see how you may be inadvertently rewarding undesired behavior—e.g. offering free shipping in every email you send—and to find opportunities to encourage desired actions.
If you’re looking for a quick read that’s a little different from all the “how to” marketing books, you may want to try “Don’t Shoot the Dog” and discover how it applies to your program. I’m very interested in your feedback, article suggestions, and any comments or questions on this topic or others you may have on email marketing—please post your thoughts below or email me at SilverpopStrategyConsulting@silverpop.com.