Bulk email is dead. OK, some people might still be doing it, but does that mean it works as well as it could? Just look in your own junk folder to find the many emails you have opted into but no longer reach your inbox.

So why is bulk email on the way out? Well, let’s consider what the top three email ISPs have to say…

Windows Live Hotmail – Enhancing email deliverability:

“The bottom line to remember is: If as little as 1% of your
customers complain, the inability to communicate with your entire
customer base may be the end result”

AOL-Email delivery guidelines:

“Complaints submitted by AOL members will be used as a basis for refusing connections from any mail server”.

Yahoo Postmaster:

“The mission of Yahoo! Mail is to deliver all the messages users
want to receive and none that they do not. One of our strongest tools
is our users’ feedback, i.e. the messages users mark as “Spam” and “Not
Spam.” The simplest way for you to ensure your messages are delivered
is to avoid looking like a spammer.”

The ISPs are not obliged to accept all the mail that is sent to
them, their relationship with regard to email is with their customers
(the email recipients). It‘s these people who they endeavour to protect
from spam and only to let through the ‘wanted’ emails to the inbox.

It’s not a perfect system, but it has certainly kept email as a
powerful and usable communications device, despite over 90% of the
traffic being spam.

So how can you use this to your advantage?

We can only influence people while they are engaged. Over the last two years customer engagement has become a panacea for most email deliverability ills. A consumer’s engagement with a brand is a transient ever changing state.

Ideally someone has visited your website, made a purchase, and signed up for email, successfully engaged and is now ready to be nurtured towards the second purchase and future loyal customer status.

It’s up to you to keep them on this path, and not batter the poor recipient into a state of disengagement, with too frequent irrelevant and valueless email. Don’t get me wrong, if you have enough data on the customer to send them emails they will welcome on a weekly or on a more frequent basis and builds on the relationship, then great, send them and reap the rewards. But that may not be possible for everyone on your list.

Recent research by Merkle (PDF) found that three quarters of email respondents said that irrelevancy was the main reason for unsubscribing from a company‘s email program. Frequency of emails is another issue, with 66% of email users listing it as a reason to unsubscribe.

The fact of the matter is that there are a lot of organisations that neither have the usable data or the resource to put this type of engagement process in place, or the type of customer focused data strategy and customer knowledge that could power the campaigns (yet).

Inbox or junk:  if you don’t reach the inbox, you can’t get a response.

The people who want your emails are those that are currently opening or clicking them. These are the ones we need to nurture and develop to become our most valuable customers.

Remember, the goal here is to make sure that when the customer is ready to buy; your emails are still getting into the inbox, and haven’t been consigned to junk or even blocked. And if you think your customer will sort through their spam folder to find your email when they want to buy, think again. We have seen considerable difference in response rates between emails that default into the inbox and those that fall into junk.

Engagement segmentation

So how does this really work? Well, there are three principal segments based on engagement:

1). Engaged subscribers exhibit one or all of following: they open and click the emails you send them (and have done so recently); they have recently visited the website; they are a previous purchaser.

You know this person is highly likely to purchase soon, they are interested, if you have the right behavioural data you will even know what they want. These people will want your emails, respond to your offers, and if you want a segment to tactically email, this is the one to focus on. This is the conversion segment.

2). Semi Engaged. They open your emails sometimes (although not too recently) they have not visited the website recently, are not approaching any anniversary purchase. Reduce the frequency for this customer and base the communications on value and relationship rather than immediate offers.

Practically, the content for this email will need more consideration, and the reduction in frequency will provide greater brand impact when the next email arrives. It maybe impractical to implement a dedicated relationship program, but just reducing frequency to this group will keep more of them reading your emails.

This keeps the customer listening, even when they don’t want to buy yet, and you can only influence customers who are listening. This is important when you are competing in a market where the customer is being courted by a number of other businesses, as the one they listen to, is most likely to get the business.

This is the relationship segment and once they are ready to do something, they will fall into the first segment, and therefore become the focus of your behavioural conversion program. 

3). Disengaged. These people haven’t opened or clicked an email for quite some time, you may have been sending them emails for ages (years) and they have not visited the website from an email. These are trouble with a capital T.

A few of these might be reactivated by reducing frequency or altering the message drastically, but by far the greatest volume of these people have never done anything and will go on to do nothing ever (unless you count the damage they do to your sending reputation and deliverability).

These people are mostly toxic to your mailing program, and although you will probably get sales from this segment, the damage you will do to the rest of your program will make it counter productive.

The vast majority of your sales will come from the engaged customers and the more engaged customers you have, the more sales you will make. Engaged email recipients have a higher propensity to purchase.

First define frequency based on their web behaviour. Then concentrate offers to your most valuable customers, especially if they start to disengage or lapse. Focus on the potential buyers, those who are exhibiting pre-purchase behaviour. And finally analyse the reasons for lapsing and re-engage the disengaged customers. This is how email marketers are gaining much greater control over their email marketing by using engagement segmentation.