How Effective is Your E-mail Preference Center?

Jul 14, 2009 9:05 PM  By

Surf the Web and you’ll encounter all kinds of online preference centers: Some that ask customers effective questions that can be used to fuel e-mail message relevance, others that provide a bare-bones form for newsletter sign-up and nothing more.

By providing a preference center where consumers can manage their e-mail communications with you, you’ve taken an important first step in creating a digital dialog.

But e-commerce marketers need to recognize online preference centers as a golden opportunity to engage a customer one-on-one and forge the foundation for a true relationship. How you use manage the process can make all the difference.

If you’ve got data, use it.
Any discussion of preference center best practices must include one cardinal rule: if you are collecting the data, use it.

Asking for data you may never use sets up false expectations on the part of your customer, and may sour her on providing profile information in the future when you really need it.

There are countless questions you can ask customers that could potentially help you direct relevant messaging. Instead, focus on the information you will leverage in programs right away.

If a customer provides you with valuable profile information, use it to personalize your marketing messages. If you ask a customer if he prefers daily or weekly e-mail contact, be prepared to honor his request. If a customer takes the time to engage you in a meaningful exchange of information, use it wisely and handle that information with care.

Keep it in plain sight.
Relevant e-mail depends heavily on the availability of meaningful customer data, which is why your preference center deserves to be a center of attention. Any time a customer is welcomed into an e-mail program, he should be invited to visit the preference center and share a little bit more about himself.

Your e-mails should always prominently feature links to the preference center. Not just the welcome e-mail – every e-mail. Include such messages as: “Is this information you want? If not, visit the preference center and tell us!”

And don’t bury the preference center on your Website. Make it easy for visiting prospects to enroll in newsletters and other e-mail programs and initiate a relationship with your brand.

Be fun and flexible.
To be effective, your preference center must be easy and engaging. For example, don’t expect customers to force-fit themselves into categories defined by your brand’s messaging. Instead, ask questions they naturally know the answer to, in their own words and in a friendly format.

Perhaps a fashion quiz, sports trivia game, or interactive vacation map will spark curiosity. Done right, the preference center can be an entertaining experience that a customer will share with friends.

Also, consider an incentive for customers to provide you with their preferences, such as a discount or special offer. Creating the perception of value will likely increase your rate of participation.

Just as important as enticing customers to visit your preference center, however, is avoiding moments of frustration that could drive them away. Lifestyles and preferences will change. Remind customers regularly of their settings and make it easy to update them.

For example, send customers an invitation to review their profile and update it every six to 12 months. When they do return to manage preferences, show your customer that you are truly learning about them by pre-populating questions that have been answered in the past. Nothing will turn them off faster than answering the same questions again and again.

Let customers confirm preferences.
If the product recommendations you send are based on browsing and purchase history, allow the customer to choose which products or categories should be tracked and which shouldn’t. Sometimes bad information has a way of trickling in to a customer’s profile.

For example, if Uncle Bob buys an American Doll tea set online for his niece, he is suddenly identified as an American Doll aficionado.

Avoid misappropriated profile information by asking the customer to confirm what you’ve learned (or think you’ve learned). Confirmation should be sent whenever a customer makes changes to their preferences, with clear instructions on what to do to make corrections.

Tell the truth.
Finally, when it comes to preference center data, honesty is the best policy. Don’t be afraid to tell customers what the information is for and how you plan to use it.

It’s true that customers are more concerned than ever about privacy and the security of their information online. But they also want relevant marketing, and they understand that they must be willing to share information in order to get it. Establishing yours as a trustworthy brand will dispel these fears and jumpstart a relationship.

Andrea Orvis and John Rohloff are group directors at e-mail marketing consultancy e-Dialog.