E-mail Overload

email overload E-mail behavior is very predictable but stuck in the Ice Age when it comes to brands’ strategic use.  We have access to troves of customer and prospect e-mail response data – past, present and certainly future.  Yet segmentation strategies, commonplace with other digital marketing efforts, are vastly under-utilized by e-mail marketing practitioners.

Why?  Well let’s look at who ‘owns’ the e-mail channel within marketing departments:  Many organizations silo e-mail under the “Direct” team who have roots in direct mail.  These professionals grew up with basic RFM segmentation and demographic targeting to hone-in on their audience.   Other organizations assign the e-mail function to the “Digital” team who tend to devote most attention to other low cost/low return digital strategies.  I supposed the thinking is that since most of us are online all the time, the allure of marketing to such eyeballs is temptation enough to commit most of the strategic thought and resources.  This regardless of the paltry return most digital strategies produce.

The e-mail ‘Golden Goose’ is simply expected to produce the highest returns even with minimal attention.  Maybe it’s just me but I want to maximize my return on any investment; under-utilizing my top performer is not a good way to achieve that goal!

Yahoo and Cornell University recently completed a painstaking study of several million people, analyzing 16 billion emails over several months.  The results of the study were largely predictable, but should not be overlooked.

The study points out that “e-mail overload” is real.  That is, people believe they receive/send more e-mail than they can handle.  Therefore, they have to make certain sacrifices with respect to their e-mail handling.  These take one of two basic forms:

  1. Handle less e-mail (older folks)
  2. Shorten replies but attempt to handle all messages (younger people).

The data suggests that the second group generally fails to ‘keep up’; they wind up dismissing e-mail they otherwise would engage if time allowed.   Many then naturally fall back into the first group.  So if we’re seeing people handling less and less of their e-mail due to the medium’s extremely lucrative appeal from a marketing perspective and thereby causing “e-mail overload”, what are e-mail marketers to do???

The last thing is doing less e-mail.  (“Less” being defined as campaigns.)  If anything, the data above suggests MORE campaigns.  Allow me to explain:

Most companies send WAY too much e-mail per campaign as they attempt to achieve economies of scale regarding deployment costs, list rental costs, etc. The problem with scale is that we lose our all-important segmenting, which, for e-mail INCLUDES the time of day AND day of week when each recipient is most likely to act on our communications.  Therefore, it logically follows that we should be chopping our campaigns into smaller batches based on the behavior of every e-mail address to which we communicate.

This effort is not simply attempting to maximize campaign performance now, but in the future as well.  The day is coming when “smart e-mail” features will be commonplace. We’ve seen the start with Google Tabs, which many predicted to be the beginning of the end of commercial e-mail (not me: see “The Sky is Falling…”).  The next evolution from “Tabs” is predictive handling of our e-mail in a centralized location; our e-mail provider will rank order our e-mail so that “overload” can be managed by technology.  In-box placement will be akin to search engine placement which is why the digital folks need to start paying attention to their handling of e-mail.

Algorithmic ranking of e-mail in our in-box will certainly take into account the relationship we have with the sender.  How often we engage, reply, click, time from in-box receipt until “delete”, to suggest a few.  It’s imperative to begin thinking about such considerations now as rankings will certainly impact campaign performance more so than we experienced with “Tabs”.

Start delivering e-mail campaigns to bucketed recipients based upon their demonstrated preference for receipt and get way ahead of the competition for in-box rankings coming down the pike.  And improve your campaign results now as a nice side-benefit.