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Preferences Prove Profitable for Email Marketers

How giving customers what they want gets the results that you want.

You know the age-old maxim: the customer is always right. The extension of that for the email marketing community is: let customers choose what is right for them. Research has shown that when customers are allowed to choose what they receive from you, when and how often, they will also choose to maintain an email relationship with you. With recipient attention dropping and skepticism about the inbox rising, email messages must be relevant and anticipated or they will never be read.

Preferences allow you to personalize communications for the specific needs of your customers. They are the ultimate way to steer your campaign from appearing to only benefit you, the sender, to helping the recipient see the importance and relevance of the campaign. Using preferences as a key component of your email campaigns will move your email program from the old, marketer-centric system to the more effective customer-centric approach, yielding greater results over the long term.

What are preferences?
Preferences are what set your customers apart from each other; they are your customers' information and contact interests. Some customers, for example, may be responsive to advertising messages while others see them as annoyances. Some customers may want to receive messages once a week and others may not want to hear from you more than once a month. Preferences can be general (HTML or text) or specific to your company (i.e., interested in romance, mysteries, fiction or non-fiction books). By implementing a preference center, you shift control of the relationship back into the hands of your customer or recipient.

But preferences not only work in favor of the recipient, they also serve the sender. When recipients control what messages they get, the relevancy of your communications increases, and with it open and click-through rates as well. Another benefit of the preference page is the ability to catch customers before they opt themselves out of all communications. By driving a customer to a preference page to opt-out, you provide an additional opportunity to remind or inform a customer of all your communication offerings. In a world without preferences, the only option for recipients is to opt-out of all communications, resulting in an unfortunate end-of-the-line for your email relationship.

Dos of a preference page
The preference page should consist of two components: administrative and content options. On the administrative side, marketers often include some subset of the following choices:

  • Email format (HTML or text)
  • A clear and easy way to unsubscribe from (or subscribe to) all mailings
  • Password change (if appropriate)
  • Email change of address

On the content side, you need to figure out how much control you can give recipients without offering an unmanageable number of preferences. The number one mistake marketers make is providing too many content choices on the preference page. If you include more than eight to 12 options, you might bewilder your customers and drive them to just opt-out of everything by default.

When determining the choices to include, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Would I want to receive this mailing?
  • What is truly important to my company? Are there specific mailings that are more valuable to the company's bottom line than others?
  • What are my competitors doing? Did they include something I have forgotten? 

When you list your message choices, be sure to include a description of each option and, wherever possible, a link to an example of the type of email the customer could expect to receive. You should also include a box that "selects all" and "unselects all" so the customer won't have to manually click a bunch of boxes. You want to do everything you can to make the experience easier for the user.

Grouping aids the process
Grouping preference choices also makes the experience less daunting for customers. Category grouping makes sense if all your preferences fit neatly into groups. In the absence of a clear way to group by content, an effective alternative is to group them by promotional level, taking into consideration how much advertising/selling each email includes and segment accordingly.

Customers are more receptive to your message if you give them some control over the amount of promotional material they receive. For example, group advertising mailings such as partner promotions and sales together, away from customer communications such as product updates or press releases, and clearly label them as such. Then offer a group of promotion-free messages that are information rich and benefit only the recipient.

You should also consider creating an "anchor" newsletter that is heavily skewed toward the recipient. Let customers know that if they sign up for only one newsletter, this should be the one. Once you have customers hooked on that information-rich newsletter, you increase your chance of gaining their permission for other mailings and reduce the likelihood that they will opt-out altogether. The anchor newsletter is the ultimate way to (gently) cross-sell your other subscriptions.

Frequency options are as important as content choices
When and how often a customer receives a mailing is just as important as the type of mailing a customer chooses to receive. Per-recipient frequency is a critical component of a preference list. However, individual frequency preferences are tough to manage from a process perspective. Furthermore, only certain types of messages lend themselves to recipient-controlled frequencies. Promotional messages benefit highly from frequency control, whereas transactional or administrative messages may not work at all.

Don'ts of a preference page
You can leave off transactional and relationship messages (TRMs), receipts and e-bills. Under CAN-SPAM, companies are given a fair amount of leniency to send TRMs without explicit customer permission. Generally speaking, don't request permission for transactional messages unless they are optional from a business process point of view and/or they are promotional in nature.

What's next?
As marketers and their email service providers become more sophisticated, preference options are going to become more personalized and more specific. Recipients are going to be able to choose not only what they receive, when, and how frequently, but also via what channel. For example, a customer may want to receive breaking news via instant messenger, but entertainment news via email, billing statements via RSS and so forth. 

Preferences bring individual choice back to email communications. They make the customer an equal partner in the transaction with a stake and an interest in the outcome. When the customer is involved in the communications, the messages become more relevant and the sender's brand value soars. And that is the power of preferences.

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