Simple preferences

By inviting customers to an easy-to-use area to sign up for emails, you will be gaining their trust—and useful customer information


Email preference centers, also called subscription centers, were once an optional feature of an email marketing program. Now, they have become almost mandatory. Best practices, however, still lag.

“For many of the customers we’re working with right now, it seems like preference centers are an afterthought,” said George DiGuido, VP-marketing at digital agency Zeta Interactive.

These are missed opportunities, since research demonstrates that preference centers can boost the success rate of an email marketing program. For instance, an Email Experience Council white paper released in June 2010, “Manifesto for Email Marketers: Consumers Demand Relevance,” found that those users who visit an email preference center are more tolerant of more frequent mailings. According to the white paper, when asked “When is the best time for companies to send email?” about two-thirds (65%) of respondents who were interested in a more personalized preference-oriented experience answered, “Whenever the company has something important to say.” The online survey, handled by Forrester Research, polled 1,033 adults in the U.S. and U.K.

“The punch line is, [buyers] demand preferences and preference center management, and there is a clear connection to buying behavior when it is delivered,” said David Daniels, CEO of the Relevancy Group, an interactive marketing consultancy.

Gerry Widmer, general manager of BlueHornet, a business unit of e-commerce solution provider Digital River, said using preference centers can reduce the rate of opt-outs. “We’ve seen lots of studies that show the two reasons people opt out is because of frequency and irrelevant content,” he said. “Preference centers address both of those concerns.”

And yet marketers are still having trouble figuring out what to include in a preference center, how to get email subscribers to visit them and even how often they should be updated. Here are the nine things that every marketer should be aware of in building an email preference center:

1. Figure out what you want to use a preference center for. Are you looking to segment your list better? Capture cellular numbers for an SMS program? Obtain social media handles and email addresses? Let subscribers select frequency and desired content type? These are the questions you need to ask before creating a preference center, said Laura Crawford, senior digital strategist at email marketing solutions provider StrongMail. “I suggest doing a focus group and surveying customers to see what they want out of a subscription center and how they would like to see it personalized,” she said.

2. Make your center an extension of your brand and website. The preference center should retain the same color scheme, images and logo as your main site—and it should include minimal navigation since you want people to stay on task. Once the design is set, test your page to make sure it’s easy to use. Do buttons and mouse-overs work? Is it easy to jump from field to field using the Tab key? Will users get an error message if they don’t enter an area code with brackets? All of those things can contribute to abandonment, BlueHornet’s Widmer said.

3. Make it easy to find. Links to your center should be featured in every email, and prominent links should be included on most, if not all, of your website pages, said Ari Osur, principal analyst-interactive marketing at Forrester Research. “We try and push for promotion on the home page. There should be a prominent call to action on the home page above the fold,” he said. “Also, it should be adjacent to any content that people come to via links in an email to any white papers or articles that people are linking out to.”

4. Don’t ask for too much—or too little. Customers may appreciate being able to tell you which products they own and which subjects they are interested in, but may balk at providing spending and budget information. Don’t ask for cell numbers if you know you’re not going to use them, for example, and be prepared to use what you collect. Customers will become frustrated if you ask them to specify cadence but still email them based on your own schedule. One thing you should include, said Todd Graden, senior manager-digital strategy at multimedia marketing company Alterian, is a source field. “Tracking how someone comes into the preference center to sign up can help you decide where to put more resources. If the 10% of people who sign up from search are your most profitable customers, you may want to dedicate more spend to search engine marketing,” he said.

5. Don’t make it difficult. Even if you have multiple fields and questions you’d like filled in and answered, you don’t have to capture them all at once. Forrester’s Osur suggested sticking with a single-page format for first-time users, then capturing additional data on subsequent visits. While this strategy may entail creating more than one preference center, it may also mean more compliance, he said. “You’re going to get a lot of abandonment if the preference center format is more than one page.” And don’t forget to create a mobile version for those subscribers who read their email on mobile devices, he said.

6. Incentivize occasionally. “I’m typically against providing incentives for an initial signup; you want them to want your email newsletter because they want to start a relationship with you, not win an iPad,” Graden said. “That said, it’s OK to incentivize them with a coupon, or a discount for updating preferences or sharing the page with a colleague.”

7. Show people what they’ll be getting. Marketers can set expectations and help subscribers choose the most relevant content by giving them examples of newsletters and campaigns. You can provide a mouse-over image or a pop-up of the example, said Megan Glover, director of marketing at email company Delivra.

8. Don’t forget to provide a confirmation. Once someone has made their choices, send out a confirmation email immediately, said Alterian’s Graden. “It should be triggered and include a link back to the preference center so they can make changes in the future,” he said. “You may also want to take that opportunity to remind people to add your address to their address book to help prevent deliverability issues.” A “please save this email so you can make changes in the future” may work best. Include an opt-out link as well so people don’t have to hunt around to leave your list.

9. Synch your centers. Larger marketers may have multiple ESPs—one for Canada and one for the U.S., for example. Make sure you’re coordinating preferences in your CRM database so customers have a consistent experience across the board, said Rick Buck, VP-privacy and ISP relations at e-Dialog, a provider of interactive marketing services.

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