Are you over-rating the power of email?

Nobody likes to feel unloved. When we write a lovingly-crafted message and send it to lots of people who’ve asked to hear from us, we normally convince ourselves that they’ll all be delighted to receive it. But there are all sorts of reasons why the actual readership will be far lower than we dare to contemplate. And this particularly applies to email, which everybody would still love to be the great free mass-market publicity tool we’ve always dreamed of.

As somebody who has sent out millions of emails over the years to people who’d asked to receive them (such as over 10,000,000 copies of Engineeringtalk on my watch), I know this only too well. I’ve included free offers in the emails which ought to be of interest to every recipient, yet seen responses of only one or two percent. What’s going on?

The first problem is the quality of the recipient lists. These can get old and stale, or maybe the people who signed up did so under the impression that they were going to get something different. It’s amazing how many companies have built their sales email lists from people who’ve requested a brochure, for example, and then expect to get good response from a newsletter which the readers never requested. Even worse are “bought in” lists. One MD told me recently that his company was planning to do an “email blast” (a what?) to a list of recipients bought in from an independent publisher. Seriously? In 2012, you expect people who’ve found themselves on a junk mail list to even open an email from someone they’ve not asked to hear from, and probably have never heard of?

The second problem are the guards at the recipient end, such as “spam filters”. To be honest, these still aren’t great when it comes to dealing with mass emails – the default seems to be “junk them” unless enough people mark them as “wanted”, but how many people even look in their junk mail regularly? And of those who do, how many are going to retrieve what are obviously sales emails?

Even if you’re sending to people who see your email, and recognise it as something they want to receive, they might not have the time or inclination to open or read it. Over the years, as a magazine editor, I sat in the office of several people who told me (quite honestly) that they liked my magazine, at the same time as I could clearly see several unwrapped copies in their in-tray. Emails are all too easy to mass-delete when you’re busy.

And if you get through all that? Far too many emails I receive from companies have far too much in them – they’re almost designed like a web page. I won’t argue about including unnecessary information, but it does reduce the chances of any individual item being read.

The end result is that response rates of one or two percent to emailed offers are often quite an achievement, and in no way the disappointment some people think they are. If you want to get every email read, you need to carefully curate the recipient list on an individual basis. For most companies, that’s not an option, so be realistic about what you can achieve.

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