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Advanced Email Marketing: List Hygiene, or Cleaning Up Your List - Part 2

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

In the first part of this mini-series on list hygiene I talked about why list hygiene was a good idea, and outlined a typical re-engagement program sequence that you would send to non-responding readers as part of the process.

Before you head off and do that first, though, a few tips on best practice.

How Many Non-Responding Readers Do You Really Have?

Say your open rate is, on average, 10% on any given mailing. If the same 10% open every email you send, then you will have a 90% non-responsive reader rate.

That's pretty unlikely, though. It's one extreme. The other extreme is that each mailing is opened by a different 10% each time. In that case, over 10 mailings, all your readers will have interacted with your messages and you're golden.

The truth lies somewhere in between, of course, and where that is depends greatly on your audience and how you engage with them.

You should find out, though.

Why? Because the total non-responsive number is the largest number you will actually force off your list. If you have 1,000 people on your list and a 10% response rate, worst case you could end up getting rid of 900 at the end of the process. Is your ego ready for that much of a hit? Is your manager / investor / partner going to be happy? Your advertisers and sponsors? If you use subscriber counts as part of providing "social proof" that your list is worth joining, what might the downstream effect be if that number is crushed at the end of the process?

See, you should occasionally clean up your list. But as well as gaining greater focus and engagement, you're going to end up with a lower subscriber count. Perhaps a LOT lower. Prepare your ego (and warn your associates!) before you begin.

Most email services, FeedBlitz included, will have the ability to tell you more-or-less how many subscribers are going to be affected by the process. If you need to explain, justify and prepare other stakeholders in the process, do so up front. It will help avoid, um, uncomfortable conversations further down the pike. You don't want to finish up with a nicely focused, effective list ... and end up having to prepare your resume because your boss didn't like losing a zero from the count.

One trick you can use is to move the relevant subscribers into a separate list just for the purposes of the re-engagement campaign. That way you know who many you're working with (and might therefore possibly lose) before you even start.

When to Stop the Re-Engagement Campaign

What you really want to avoid is to have your engagement campaign keep running for a subscriber if that subscriber has started to interact with your mailings again.  That's aggravating and likely to lead to a slew of unsubscribes from people whom you were *this close* to winning back as long-term readers.

As you work through the multi-step mailing, make sure that you remove all the subscribers from the campaign that have opened, clicked or otherwise done what you wanted them to do to stay on the list. Depending on the email application or service you're using, that might be handled automatically for you, or may require a little manual intervention. Make sure you know how to do this before you start!

How Often Should a List Hygiene Program be Run?

Well, it depends. If you have a relatively new or highly engaged list you can probably defer for a while. If your list has been around for some time, perhaps sooner rather than later would be a good thing.

What you don't need to do is run this on a daily or weekly basis. That's just silly. A four or five sequence re-engagement campaign will take the best part of a week or two to run if you space the emails out to every three days, so don't make yourself crazy this way.  Most bloggers could probably run a list hygiene campaign at most every quarter and you'll be fine. You can even do it annually.

Once you decide how often you're going to run the campaign, make sure that engagement time span is at least as long as the time between each re-engagement campaign. So, if you do list hygiene annually, I'd recommend that you include people who haven't interacted for at least that year.  If you run hygiene campaigns quarterly, I would say that your cut off time should be at least one quarter, and maybe two.

No matter what, once you have a list hygiene campaign under your belt, you'll be able to look at how well it did and adjust accordingly. So that's one last check box item: Give yourself the time to see how much better open and click through rates become after you run each campaign, so you can see that you're getting the results you wanted from it.

Essential Re-Engagement Prerequisites

If your email application makes tracking opens and click-throughs optional, then you can't run a re-engagement campaign if you haven't enabled those features (you need both, by the way; more on that in a moment). Further, you have to have had these features on for at least the "idle time" you are using as your non-responding criteria. For example, if your criteria is to filter out subscribers who haven't interacted in the last three months, then tracking must have been enabled for at least three months for that list. You can't switch it on today and then expect to have data miraculously "appear" for the last N months. It isn't going to happen. If you must, switch it on now, and set a note in your calendar to revisit list hygiene in a few months' time once you've got enough data safely gathered.

Secondly, as I said earlier, you need to have both open and click tracking enabled. That's because open tracking typically uses an image to track the activity. When the tracking image is served, the image server can note that the image HAS been served and that the email sent to that subscriber has therefore been opened.

The problem is, it's both tempting and easy to draw this conclusion: If the tracking image has not been served then the email has not been opened.

This is not true.

Images - specifically open tracking images - won't be served when they're explicitly disabled by users for privacy or security reasons (image serving is off by default in gmail, Outlook and many other email apps, so this is a very real risk); they may not be fetched in a timely manner by mobile devices or low-bandwidth connections; or the subscriber may be reading the plain text version of your email.

In all cases, the email may well have been opened by the subscriber, but it will remain untracked by your email service. The subscriber will appear to be non-responsive and not engaged with the list, even when they are.

So the reason you add link tracking is simple. If a user clicks a link in your email, then that email MUST have been opened, even if the tracking image itself hasn't been served. Once you click through, whether or not images have been served is immaterial. So link tracking - and using link tracking as a selection criteria - helps keep people off the list hygiene program who shouldn't be on it. Not all of them, mind you, but it's better than the alternative.

The bottom line, then, is this: Simple open tracking is at best only indicative of your true open rate. It will almost certainly be under-reporting the actual number of opens any one mailing is getting.

Re-Engagement: Full Circle

And, ultimately, this is why you need to run a multi-step re-engagement list hygiene campaign. Not only is it simply common sense to try to keep people on your list using multiple triggers and emotions; it takes into account that your non-responding subscriber count is probably over-estimated due to the challenges inherent in open tracking. You will include people in the program who are, in fact, engaging with your mailings, but are simply not being tracked. The multi-step list hygiene campaign will readily find these folks, and help ensure that you don't erroneously remove them.

All clear? Great! Now you know what to do to create an effective list hygiene campaign. Tomorrow, I bring this week's series full circle by linking the new FeedBlitz system fields mentioned on Monday into a how-to guide specifically for FeedBlitz users.

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