Pavlov meets email: have you trained subscribers to ignore you?
A lot of email marketing “best practices” aim to get subscribers to salivate when you ring the bell.
The bell, in this case, is made up of those recognition elements that tell the casual inbox browser that this email is from YOU.
They alert the reader to the promised treasures within your message.
So we use a consistent, recognizable sender name.
We feature brand names in subject lines.
We put our logo up top left, so it stands out in preview panes.
We use brand colors and work with a common design template. We paste up samples on our sign-up pages. Etc. etc.
Recognition leads to attention to interest to response.
I’m all for this, but it does make one huge assumption: that people are interested in what you deliver.
The bad news is, many are not (check your response rates for proof).
When conditioning goes wrong
Here’s a disturbing theory…
For those who are no longer terribly interested in your messages, the ringing bell has the opposite of the desired effect: it tells them they can safely ignore your message. You have trained them not to pay immediate attention.
All the effort you put into conditioning readers to recognize your communications backfires when they’ve decided your emails are not worth their time.
But why should you care?
If they don’t like your emails anyway, it surely doesn’t matter if they ignore them?
Well, conditioning becomes very important when trying to win back or reactivate subscribers. Conditioning means most of these well-intentioned efforts are doomed to failure.
The problem with reactivation campaigns
Here are three scenarios where you want to reach those unenthusiastic recipients:
1. You’ve identified genuinely inactive subscribers: they don’t open or click and you’re pretty sure the steady stream of emails from you is not causing them to respond elsewhere either.
You’ve also identified why they might have gone inactive and taken action to ensure future emails would keep them in the fold.
2. Your emails never got too much organizational love, but now you’ve revamped your content and offers.
3. You had a few lazy weeks/months when you coasted a little and let standards slip. But now the email specialist is back from sick leave and you can return to your usual high standard.
We want to give those unenthusiasts a reason to take a new look at your emails: a “reactivation campaign”. Not a new concept by any means.
Most advice on such reactivation efforts focuses on sending a standout offer or a clever subject line. If our theory is correct, they shouldn’t work very well.
Because the emails carrying this offer or subject line still ring the bell that tells people “here comes another one of those emails we get little value from”.
So, do typical reactivation campaigns work?
Here’s what noted email expert Loren McDonald says:
Many marketers tell me their reactivation programs bring only 1% to 2% of their inactives back from the dead. Some are more successful, others less so. (My query on Twitter generated responses of 0.91%, 1.82% and 3.2% reactivation rates.)
One lesson, suggests Loren, is that we should work harder to stop people going inactive in the first place.
But what can we do when it’s too late? As I’ve asked elsewhere:
You’ve trained people not to pay attention, so how do you prove that you deserve that attention with your special reactivation offer or improved email program?
Untraining the trained
If recognition and familiarity actually work against us, should we then try the opposite of what we normally do?
Should we try some of the things we’d never (or rarely) consider doing if we were mailing active subscribers?
And that’s the point. If we’re mailing people who are not responding to normal emails, then:
1. There is little risk from trying something markedly different: the worst that can happen is they continue not to respond.
2. If “best practice” (like a branded subject line) is supporting the habits these inactive readers have formed with your emails, then they are hurting your results, not helping. They are best practice for active subscribers, but not necessarily for inactive ones.
So what counts as doing things differently?
Well, this is still all theory, but what do you think of one or more of these:
- Send a plain text email or drop your logo down out of the preview pane
- Change frequency dramatically, reducing it considerably or increasing it considerably
- Change the friendly from name
- Take branding out of the subject line
- Scrap your usual template and go for a single big image
- Send your email(s) at a different time of day/week/month
If you reaction to any of these is “but doing this is not a best practice so won’t work as well”, remember that you are not mailing active subscribers. It cannot actually work any worse.
For example, altering your friendly from line is generally considered a bad practice.
Here’s what I said just last month:
The from line should normally be the name most familiar to the recipient.
So my newsletter, for example, comes from “Email Marketing Reports”.
After all, a lot of people have real or mental filters in place to sort email by sender, and you’re going to break those filters.
But that’s a feature, not a bug, when it comes to inactive subscribers, no?
These people might be using the from name to identify the email they’ve decided isn’t worth their time. Might a from line that is new get at least some people to give the email a second look?
Now there are four provisos I’d throw in with this theory:
1. Different practices does not mean bad practices. Plain text email is not per se a bad practice. Using a deceptive from and subject line is. We shouldn’t do anything plain silly, unethical or illegal (obviously).
2. It’s a second look you’re going for, so people are alerted to the (new) value of your emails. But you cannot abandon recognition elements entirely.
People still need to know it’s from you so they can look out for your future, normal emails. And if they don’t know it’s from you, you run the risk of spam complaints from people who think you mailed them without their permission.
3. This is all largely theory. I’ve only tested the idea of removing subject line branding (I’ll reveal the results in another post). I wouldn’t try any of the suggestions without running a test first.
4. Any success you have reactivating subscribers is largely a waste of time if you haven’t addressed the reason they went inactive. Otherwise they’ll simply go inactive again.
So, what do you think? Does this counterintuitive approach make sense?
Have you tried any of these reactivation techniques yourself? Let me know in the comments…
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