E-mail Marketer: Meet Information Overload

Please just stop

Have you heard from your favorite retailer recently? If so, it’s probably been via e-mail and you probably didn’t open most of them.

According to research by Responsys, a company that provides marketing tools, the top 100 online retailers sent an average of 177 e-mail messages to each customer in 2011, an 87% increase from 2007.

If you think that’s a lot, consider that some retailers, led by Neiman Marcus, sent as many as 1.5 messages per day.

I’ve noticed this trend as well and decided not to unsubscribe to some of the more egregious offenders in an effort to capture some data points.

In my inbox, Restoration Hardware and Bloomingdale’s are the top offenders.

On March 10th, Bloomingdale’s told me to “Go Exotic In Trend-Right Tribal Prints” after having told me that “Ladylike Dresses [are] In Bloom” on the 9th. But that wasn’t the only e-mail on the 10th: Exactly eight minutes before that e-mail came, Bloomingdale’s told me about “HOT Things We Love” and that I could “Buy More, Save More!” if I wanted to.

The funny thing is that I’m not really a prospective customer for most of what Bloomingdale’s is offering to me. Occasionally, the store gets it right and tells me about a men’s department sale but 90% of its missives miss the target. As if to further illustrate how off-target the mailings can be, the next day, 11 March, was focused on “The Pleated Skirt.” On the 13th, Bloomie’s got a bit closer – it offered me 20-50% savings on “Home” items.

In the period of one week, Bloomingdale’s sent 1.3 e-mail messages per day – all of them for products I wouldn’t buy with the exception of possibly a few products for the home. And the store has never asked me to complete a profile indicating my interests, either.

Restoration Hardware also e-mails me incessantly. On the 10th, the store introduced its “deconstructed” collection and, on the 9th, I found out that the 900-page Spring Source Books were out (didn’t we used to call them catalogs?). While it doesn’t send me as much e-mail as Bloomingdale’s, it does send quite a few offers and the only reason I am even looking at any of these is because I am writing this article.

E-mail marketing messages don’t have any kind of special privileges when it comes to Information Overload. Just as knowledge workers miss critical work-related e-mail in their inboxes, they also miss much marketing e-mail as well. It’s no wonder that the open rate and clickthroughs have declined significantly. Marketing firm Harte-Hanks found that consumers opened 19% of retail-related e-mail messages in 2007 (the clickthrough rate was 3.9% then) while the number dropped precipitously to 12.5% and 2.8%, respectively, by 2011.

Some marketers attribute the decline to burnout on the part of consumers but that only tells a small part of the story. The average knowledge worker received 93 e-mail messages per day in 2010 according to my research and that number is growing steadily.

The problem is that the typical knowledge worker simply can’t manage 93 e-mail messages and still get work done, so it’s no surprise that more retail-oriented e-mail messages are simply going by the wayside.

Put differently, and I am sure I am not alone, I would not have subscribed to any marketing messages had I not been interested in counting them and analyzing them. I typically make purchases when I independently come to the conclusion that I need or want something and I am very resistant to marketing propaganda. In fact, such efforts typically push me in the opposite direction.

In my conversations with marketing executives, I have learnt that they are unaware of the impact of Information Overload on their efforts despite the fact that they themselves admit to being overloaded. Perhaps if they put themselves in the place of the recipients of their missives, they might be able to come up with better and more effective e-mail campaigns that ultimately reduce the number of e-mails being sent.

[Editor's note: one marketer that seems to have the right idea is Newegg. I have recently noticed that after looking at some item on their website, and not making a purchase, a week or so later there would be a message in my inbox offering a handful of items fitting the specific category I looked at on the previous visit.-BA]

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex and author of Overload! How Too Much Information Is Hazardous To Your Organization.

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