Saturday, May 22, 2010

Optimal Email Frequency: How Much is Too Much, and When Don't You Do Enough?

Recently there have been questions on the ASAE listservs regarding optimal email frequency. It's hard to determine, overall and by specific goal: product, event or activity. Frequently the specific and overall objectives are in direct conflict with each other.

Many of us prefer empirical evidence over anecdotal, but we also have to ensure that our metrics show the big picture—impact on overall association performance—rather than metrics for a single campaign or a product (event, publication, etc.). It's very common in our associations to have motivated managers or outsourced service providers who can inadvertently abuse the email list and undermine member satisfaction, leading to unsubscribes, lower open rates, even lower renewals and overall participation.

Thinking back to presentations I've heard and/or given over the past couple months at Great Ideas and DigitalNow! regarding e-communications management, there are a few instructive points to consider:
* Ian Ayres (author of Supercrunchers) made a compelling case for associations that, if you're not conducting randomized tests/trials at least part of the time, you're not really doing your job of maximizing member value and satisfaction.
* In a GI session, none of my panelists and very few attendees had EVER done a randomized, A/B split test of their emails to determine what email approaches (frequency or format) work best for them.
* Another popular GI session featured speakers who were proudly explaining how well they boosted attendance for a single event through a systematic process of carpet-bombing with emails. (Judging from audience reaction/note-taking, they really liked the idea!)

These points embody "the fallacy of composition" reasoning that often applies in managing email:
* Ian is right: the best and perhaps only way to determine what works for your audience is to test alternative options head-to-head, pick statistically valid winners. Then test again, repeatedly against other options to ensure that your overall communications and programs are optimal.
* Without this process, our formats are determined by personal taste, past habits and convenience rather than what leads the audience to read & act. In the short term at least, this may mean being less efficient, but the long-term payoff comes from being more effective with the right format, frequency, messages, and segmentation.
* We also need to manage the process top-down and to avoid letting the 'tail wag the dog.' This means balancing the tactics used for specific events, products, advocacy issues etc. in a manner that doesn't swamp the organization-wide communications.


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