Breaking Up Is Hard to Do, But Sometimes Necessary


I think people either love Valentine’s Day or hate it. If you are in a relationship, you love it. If you are single, your feelings are often mixed, to say the least. I started thinking about Valentine’s Day early this year since some stores seemed to be displaying their heart shaped chocolates right after New Year’s Day. The thought occurred to me that we have all kinds of relationships in our lives with our family, friends, co-workers, and even our pets. And in business, relationships abound, especially with our customers. I have noticed over the years that businesses who think of their associations with customers as relationships that have to be nurtured seem to be more successful in keeping customers and engaging them.

It makes sense. When you are in a relationship, it is personal and we all like buying things from companies that make us feel respected and cared for, as if we mattered. But just like interpersonal relationships, business relationships go through stages and email marketing interactions definitely have a life cycle. Getting customers on your lists seems to be something people are very comfortable talking about, but just like with interpersonal relationships, sometimes you have to talk about the hard stuff, like when it is time to get someone off your list.

Any kind of breakups are hard to do, but I think there are some clear parallels between human breakups and the stages of ending an email relationship with a customer that is not engaging.

1.     The Warning Signs. We have all gathered lots of warning signs from our personal experiences over the years that tell us a relationship may need reexamination. It’s no different in business. One of the first warning signs is when you have subscribers who aren’t opening your emails. It is also time to take notice when you have subscribers who aren’t clicking through to your website or offer. A lapsed customer is one who has not engaged with your brand within the past 6 to 12 months. This time frame can vary, depending on your industry.

There are many reasons for lack of engagement. Are the messages relevant & personalized for your individual customers? Is your email campaign is meeting your subscribers’ expectations? Are you sending a weekly sales pitch for your company’s products and not the tips and expert advice you promised? It is also possible that the customer’s interests have changed? There are lots of ways for you to find out that information and augment your campaigns.

2.     Time for THE Conversation. Just about everyone has faced the dreaded conversation about what is going wrong. With your personal relationships, being clear and direct is best, but your business relationships may require a little more finesse.  You need to find out why a customer continues to not engage, but you have to make sure you are doing everything to make your campaigns sparkle. Are you personalizing your emails? Are you using analytics to understand your customers’ interests, wants, and needsAre you regularly testing different strategies? Are you coordinating your email campaigns with other channels like Facebook and Twitter? Are you recognizing that, like with personal relationships, there is a lifecycle to your customer relationships?

The business equivalent of having “THE conversation” might be to direct your lapsed customers to a preference center. You should direct them to your preference center when they first join your list, but sending them back after a period of inactivity could help. Your preference center can allow them to “opt down” and choose a lesser frequency of email delivery, instead of unsubscribing altogether. They can also change their topics of interest, or even specify an alternate channel for communicating with them. They can choose how often they want to hear from you, and you might even let them choose what day of the week they’d like their emails. You can find out their interests and increase the likelihood that they will engage with your mailings.

3.     Last Chance. In every relationship, there comes a time when it’s “my way or the highway.” In your customer relationships, ideally, there is more subtlety. Create a win-back approach to try to get them re-engaged and keep them on the list.  For example, offer them your company’s app and consider making an app if you don’t have one. Today, 86 percent of Internet users use apps to get them where they want to go. Be sure to invite them to your social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Consider including an enticing promotion or incentive as part of your win-back approach. Make sure your emails contain one clear call to action. Remind your customer how they got on your list. They might have forgotten. Be sure to provide a convenient change of email address link in your mailings. And don’t forget to ask for feedback.

4.     Calling it Quits (or, sometimes, We’re Back on Track). Nobody likes to admit when a relationship is over, but the reality is that sometimes it is. Same with your email customer list. A customer that hasn’t engaged for one or two years should be sent a request to confirm they want to remain opted-in for your emails, indicating that they will be removed from your email list if they don’t click a link to confirm their desire to stay.

And you should not send to anyone who hasn’t opened or clicked your emails in more than two years. Continuing to send to customers who are not engaging with your emails can negatively impact your deliverability rates, and the success of your email campaigns. This unengaged data may also include spam traps, and sending to them repeatedly can result in ISP blocks or blacklistings. Just like with your personal relationships, there could be harsh consequences to not knowing when to call it quits!

Of course, sometimes the news is good and your customer is back on track because of all your efforts.

Relationships are relationships, business or personal, and must be managed, treated with care, and supported by open, clear and honest communication. If you avoid the pitfalls, the rewards can be great. Happy Valentine’s Day!

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