Save your (inbox) bacon

A few weeks back I wrote about the generally sorry state of response rates to nonprofit advocacy emails. Those numbers, by the way, were in a 2010 report. The 2011 data was released shortly after and it’s gloomier. Grab the data from M+R and NTEN when you get a chance.

Nearly 28 Billion Bacon emails were sent per day in 2010
Nearly 28 Billion Bacon emails were sent per day in 2010.

The data is telling us that a whole heck of a lot of email is going unread. The amount spurring action – at least measured as a “response” – is even smaller.

This is no small matter as email providers like Google make efforts to more actively manage email for users. For a few years now web and desktop email providers have made it simpler for users to mark email as spam and many provide ISPs with feedback loops that let them tap this info to better manage spam.

But Gmail’s Priority Inbox and other services are changing the game and looking at whether or not email is read by users. If a sender is delivering to your inbox but you’re not reading the messages then, well, that email may fall below the fold in the inbox. In other words, if subscribers aren’t reading your email then it’s less likely to be presented to the reader at all. Add this to user filtering/folders and you have more hurdles than ever.

So we’re left with BACON (did somebody say bacon?). Yes. Bacon. That’s email that people asked for but don’t really read. Facebook pushes email out every time someone comments on a status update you commented on or a photo you’re in. Nearly every online retailer has an email list. If you’re remotely involved in politics you’ve likely been subscribed without permission to every candidate email list under the sun. And nonprofits are pushing out emails about events, issues and fundraising with reckless abandon.

It’s crowded out there. And little or none of this email qualifies as or is marked as spam. It is (many political emails aside) requested email.

Recent data put together by unsubscribe.com indicates that it takes, on average, one minute to unsubscribe to an email list (assuming the unsubscribe process works or is even offered to the user). That doesn’t seem like much until you realize that almost 28 BILLION bacon emails are sent each day.

As someone who is a prolific email subscriber and also aids and abets in the sending of vast quantities of email I can tell you that while email works to deliver advocacy messages and raise funds it is an increasingly, and painfully, crowded inbox out there. And your emails are probably suffering. And as email providers react to the bacon age I predict that more and more “requested” email is going to be hidden from users – even while being delivered. And it may not be delivered at all.

How to save your bacon without getting fried

A place to start is by culling your email list. Think honestly about dead wood and getting rid of it.Your boss and board may not like this but your email list isn’t nearly as big (in real usable terms) as the number of “deliverable” email addresses indicates. Get better at identifying and trying to reactivate inactive subscribers. And if they don’t get back in the game then cut them loose. If they want to find you again they will.

Get better at segmentation. Give people what they want.

Better subject lines and better content overall. Test subject lines. Frequently. Don’t rest.

Think hard about the value of an email address. If someone is on the list for five years but has never donated or taken an action (and not opened an email) what does that mean? Chances are there might be more of those on your list than you think.

Make it easier to unsubscribe.

You don’t want people on the list that don’t want to be there. And that’s more true when your inbox placement is based on user interaction.

This is just a start. Be creative. I’d argue that social networks and mobile are throwing a wrench in the works (though probably not yet at a level that will be noticeable for most). Some subscribers are moving towards interacting in other channels, like Facebook, but it’s still somewhere between hard and impossible for organizations to connect email and social network data. Integrating that data is going to help.

Get to work saving your bacon. And soon.

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