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Marketing Friction: Three Deadly Email Sins

You've got a new customer. Great news! You now have that customer's email address and the opportunity to make more sales in the future. So, how do you keep that customer interested in our product or service? Adding them to an email campaign sounds like a great idea. Indeed that is a valid strategy, but too many companies do it wrong

When marketers make their customers exert extra effort, they are creating friction. Bad email campaigns are a common source of marketing friction, and these are three common errors:

Not Asking Permission

Many companies have a checkbox on their order form that lets the customer opt-in to marketing emails. This is the right way to do it. For companies I'm interested in and likely to buy from again, I'll check the box. For the rest, I won't. Companies that do this know that customers who opt in are reasonably good prospects for future sales. The best will give the option to select email frequency. The option of less-frequent emails should be given up-front, not at the point when the customer is about to unsubscribe.

Many other companies don't ask. They apparently assume that because you bought something on one occasion you'll be delighted to hear from them in the future. Is there any opt-in at all? If so, it's buried in the fine print terms and conditions that nobody reads. Or, there is a pre-checked box that is easy to overlook.

Friction Point #1: Unexpected or unwanted sales emails are more likely to be deleted immediately and create a negative association with the brand in the mind of the customer.

Off-target Offers

If you are going to send marketing emails, they should be relevant to the customer's interests. Past purchases, wish lists, browsing history, and other factors can help maximize relevance. Amazon does a great job of this. Their emails are almost always relevant to my interests. (The only significant failure in Amazon sales emails is that they often fail to identify infrequent purchases. If I just bought a luggage set, I'm not likely to need another one a week later.)

Other mailers don't target the recipient nearly as well. They probably don't have either the customer data or the product range that Amazon does, so these marketers just promote what they have to everyone.

Sometimes offers are so irrelevant as to be comical. Do I need to know a car rental company has great deals in Jacksonville if I don't live there and have no plans to go there?

Friction Point #2: Irrelevant offers will be deleted immediately and demonstrate the brand doesn't know their customer.

The Worst Sin: Too Many Emails

Most customers will tolerate brands guilty of the first two mistakes. What they won't forgive is combining them with a frequency that is far too high. I've had brands start sending daily emails after a single transaction! Here are three recent experiences:

My closest office supply store is Office Depot. The staff are friendly and helpful on those rare occasions when I pay an in-person visit. But, after a 99-cent print order (really), I was added to an email distribution that sent daily emails, and, on some days, more than one! Is this the experience their customers are clamoring for?

I wouldn't mind receiving an occasional relevant offer from them, but daily (or more often) random pitches were just too much. I unsubscribed, severing a connection that might have been useful for both of us.

Even more bizarre was EZ Rent-a-Car. I travel for speaking engagements, but between conference-arranged transport and the ubiquity of ride-hailing apps, I rarely have to rent a car. But, a single transaction with EZ spawned a stream of emails, every three days or so. Even for a more frequent renter than me, this seems like overkill.

The same thing happened with the hotel chain Extended Stay America. I booked a room in one of these when there was nothing else available for miles. The property almost lived up to its two-star rating, and I certainly didn't request to be added to their email list. Nevertheless, an incessant drip of multiple emails per week began immediately.

In every case, the biggest problem was the fact that I had to keep deleting the too-frequent emails. I might have tolerated the occasional offer even if it wasn't perfectly targeted to my needs. But for these brands, there was a huge mismatch between how often I use the product or service in question and the frequency of emails.

It’s not just me. In a conversation with podcast host Mitch Joel, digital marketing guru Avinash Kaushik commented that big-brand retailers Macy’s and Nordstrom, “send me a sales email every $@#%* day! How many do you think I need? How many??” Kaushik continues, “I like shopping at Nordstrom. They have great service, amazing merchandising. I love Nordstrom. But I can’t believe their email people are lighting their brand experience on fire every single day. It just breaks my heart.”

Friction Point #3. Deleting a single email doesn't take much effort. But the drip-drip-drip effort of deleting unwanted emails every day or two will drive most customers to their breaking point. They will unsubscribe. With prejudice.

Observe Customer Behavior

All of these marketers had the opportunity to observe my behavior. Without resorting to external data sources, they knew my purchase frequency (once!) and whether I opened their emails (nope). Both of these should have been clues that ultra-frequent emails would be more annoying than helpful.

Sad to say, none of these brands used my behavior (or even common sense) to adjust their email frequency to an appropriate level.

Less Customer Effort, More Loyalty

In my book Friction, I describe research showing that minimizing customer effort is the best way to drive loyalty. Making customers exert extra effort, on the other hand, drives customers away. High-effort experiences also greatly increase the probability of negative word-of-mouth.

Marketers should be in the friction-reduction business. The more effort they can take out of the customer experience, the more satisfied and loyal customers will be. While on-target sales emails can be helpful to the customer, a high volume of emails that get deleted immediately is hurting, not helping.

To minimize marketing friction, always match email content and frequency to customer behavior, not arbitrary marketing plans.

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