Three Steps To Building The Right Audience Through E-Mail

TECH | 7/19/2011 @ 1:46PM

James Slavet, Greylock

This post was written by James Slavet, a venture capitalist at Greylock Partners.  Greylock is an investor in companies mentioned in this post, including Constant Contact and Facebook.

Many people (including me) have written about why it makes sense for business marketers to invest in producing high-quality, original content. But no author wants to pour his heart out, hit “send” and then hear nothing but crickets.   Once you’ve mastered the art of writing compelling email content, you need to get distribution. There are three steps to intelligently building your email following: promotion, deliverability and optimization.

Step #1: Promotion

Distribution starts with making it easy for people to sign up to receive your emails. Sounds obvious, right? Yet most websites don’t promote their email newsletters in even obvious ways.

Check out your site and see if you’re promoting your email newsletter in the right spots. You might be surprised by what you find. A few basics you should have in place:

  • Put an email capture box on either the upper right or lower right corner of your home page and consistently throughout your site.
  • Provide sign-up opportunities on user profile or account management pages.
  • Offer this again at checkout and in transaction confirmation emails.


Social media is email’s friend, not foe. Promote your email newsletter content on your Twitter feed and Facebook page so that people who are following you can get a taste for the type of content you provide in emails. Build your email distribution through social channels by making sure your subject lines are conducive to sharing through Facebook and Twitter. Your subject lines should be short, creative and interesting (a few examples: “Ditch the denim and show some leg;” “What I learned about how the real estate industry really works;” “When bad companies do good things”). Pithy subject lines are fodder for tweets.

Encourage email subscribers to like you on Facebook and follow you on Twitter. Several major ISPs are starting to rank emails within in-boxes based on social media signals. At some point your email will likely be prioritized up in consumers’ in-boxes if they’ve opted to connect with you through Facebook and Twitter.

Martin Lieberman writes a great blog about email marketing for Constant Contact. His writings have informed my thinking about email promotion and other topics. More from Martin and team can be found here.

Step #2: Deliverability

You can grow your email list through on-site and social media promotion but a large list won’t matter if all those potential customers aren’t getting your emails. Unlike the U.S. judicial system, ISPs presume all emailers are guilty (of SPAM) and need to prove their innocence. And ISPs are becoming even more stringent in trying to protect users from the deluge of unwanted messages overwhelming in-boxes.

Deliverability starts with making sure you’re white-listed across the key ISPs, including Gmail, Yahoo, AOL and Hotmail. You can do this directly if you’re operating at scale, or you can use a third party email service provider such asResponsysExactTarget or Constant Contact. You should manage to a 98% deliverability rate or higher (this means 98% of the emails you send are being received by users).

The other component of deliverability is formatting and display. You should know what your emails look like across different ISPs, browsers and mobile.

Deliverability can also vary by individual message. One early stage startup we’re invested in recently sent out an entertaining Viagra-focused video to their email subscribers. The video was hilarious, but unfortunately none of the company’s customers got the joke. Using “Viagra” in the subject line got the note tripped up in ISP spam filters.

Size matters–but only partly. If you focus too much on list size versus list quality, you’ll not only damage your relationship with customers, you’ll also shoot yourself in the deliverability foot. You should be clear on the email sign-up page how often subscribers will receive a message from you and make opting out an easy one-click process instead of a Mensa test.

It’s also important to actively manage your list and remove people who aren’t responding. Over the course of a year, a meaningful volume of your email will go to dead email addresses, and you should process and scrub these bounces out right away. Some ISPs are starting to use engagement stats like open rates as a factor for determining how reputable different email senders are and therefore where in a recipient’s inbox a sender’s message should go.

If you called a woman fifteen times in a row to ask her on a date and she never called you back, you’d stop calling right? The same applies to email. If someone hasn’t opened any of your emails in the past three to four months, you may want to remove him from your list.

Des Cahill, the former CEO of an email marketing business and an email marketing adviser to companies, is quite thoughtful on the subject of deliverability and beyond. Check out his blog here.

Step #3: Optimization

You should set up a few core metrics to track and optimize, including open rates, click-through rates and churn. Through cohort analysis, you can follow the trending click-through and transaction rates of a group of users who signed up in a particular month through subsequent periods, and then also compare how that group’s level of activity and attrition stacks up relative to previous groups of users.

Pete Sheinbaum, the former CEO of Daily Candy, shared a useful email scoring metric with me. By focusing on ensuring at least a 10-to-1 ratio between positive actions they want users to perform (click-throughs) versus negative actions (unsubscribes), companies can be conscious of monitoring both the good and bad results of each email sent.  So if one customer unsubscribes to a test email, you should effectively deduct ten click-throughs from your internal scoring. If that causes you to fall below your goal, pull the campaign.

In addition to tracking core metrics, there are a few ways you can optimize your communications to make sure the right message gets to the right person in the right way. Core optimizations include:

Segmentation: To whom are you sending the email? Send an email to the wrong segment of your file, and it may not matter what you say: your metrics will stink. While some traditional marketers obsess about creative, the biggest needle mover on performance is good list segmentation. Email marketers are increasingly segmenting their customers into buckets based on behavior (i.e. what they’ve clicked on, viewed or purchased) and are targeting communications accordingly.

Product: Are you offering a deal? If you’re an ecommerce company, what product are you showing? Does it look good?

Creative:  The copy and design in the body of the message matter. But more importantly, do you have the right subject line?

Timing: Are you sending at the right time of day and day of week, and with the right frequency? A nuanced approach is to alter email frequency for different customer segments. Perhaps your more active and engaged customers hear from you more often. You could also give customers the option to “opt down” or “opt up” in terms of frequency rather than just opting out altogether.

Email is still one of the most effective ways for you to build relationships with your customers. If you take a smart approach to building your audience, it can pay off big-time.


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