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How to Optimize Different Types of Email, Part 1: Retention Email

How to Optimize Different Types of Email, Part 1: Retention Email

How to Optimize Different Types of Email, Part 1: Retention Email

email-marketing-retentionEditor’s Note: Look for this series each Wednesday beginning today and continuing for the next two weeks.

I am often asked about the different types of email and how they affect deliverability, reputation, and ultimately ROI.

Email by now has become one of the few killer apps on the Internet. We depend on it more than we imagine, and when you send a message, you have that predetermined expectation that it will arrive.

With all this dependency on the channel I thought it appropriate to examine the differences in some of the mail streams, specifically Retention, Acquisition and Transactional emails. If you’re using email marketing, you need to tailor your strategies to meet the needs of each.

In this, the first of three parts, I’m going to examine Retention email – the (relatively) easy one – and discuss the different challenges associated with permission, relevance engagement, frequency and reputation.

Retention email

Retention email’s primary focus is to obtain, nurture and retain a customer relationship once you have established the initial permission to make contact.

For example, let’s say that Mary buys something from MyStore, and provides her email address and permission to contact her after her initial transaction. At this point Mary is 100% opted in to your program – this is good. What you do next will establish your ability to communicate with Mary and ultimately drive ROI with strategies and offers based on her preferences and expectations.

To begin with: Now that you have her attention, it’s imperative that you get her engaged with your program almost immediately to ensure continuity.

Begin the on-boarding experience

  • Send a welcome message: thank her for signing up etc.
  • Set expectations on frequency and content that she will receive
  • Provide instructions on how to add your “From” address to her safe sender list
  • Explain the message outreach. “This is message 1 of 5”, for example. Explain what’s coming in future communications.
  • Allow her to reset her preferences at any time, put her in control of her experience
  • Personalize your messages; remember, Mary probably doesn’t want to receive emails with information that’s not important to her

The more you know about your clients, the more you can tailor programs and marketing efforts that fit their needs. As your customer become more engaged, this in turn will provide better deliverability, reputation and ROI.

As our inboxes become cluttered with a lot of electronic communications, you have to ensure that you deploy the best measures available to give you the edge when it comes to fighting for that important real estate in the inbox.

Best practices for Retention email

  • Deploy a great onboarding program make it engaging
  • Keep gathering data on your customers; don’t take their preferences for granted. Things change!
  • Send thank-you’s for purchases and touch base periodically; check in with your clients
  • Send invitations and reminders of events based on past behavior or purchase history
  • Send announcements of new products, promotions or services based on past purchases
  • Encourage social sharing for your brand – this helps build client loyalty
  • Segmentation works; one size, message, data point or product definitely does not fit all
  • Be consistent in your relationships with your clients

Remember as we head into the holiday season, that we often imagine we can send more email to take advantage of increased spending. We’re ready for greater ROI. But – more email does not automatically mean better conversion. Overdone, or done badly, it can mean more complaints, which translates ultimately into deliverability issues.

Retention email is your path to ROI. Don’t abuse your house files. Delicately manage your data and you will see the benefits of proactive management. Remember this: It’s hard to obtain a client… but it’s really easy for them to leave. It only takes one click.

Next week I’ll be discussing Acquisition email and the associated issues that come with this channel, which are decidedly different.

Thanks for reading; please let me know your thoughts.


Looking for more email marketing tips and information? Make sure to check out the email marketing resources section of our website!



David Fowler serves as Act-On Software's Head of Digital Compliance and Industry Relations. He has over 20 years of experience in the marketing industry, including the last twelve years strictly focused on the issues associated with the digital channel including, email marketing, deliverability, social media, mobile, integrated marketing, marketing automation and digital privacy compliance. David is a seasoned speaker, and email deliverability and privacy consultant with national and international engagements that include: Online Trust Alliance (OTA and Board Member), Email Services and Provider Coalition (ESPC and Board Member), International Association of Privacy Professionals (IAPP), Federal Trade Commission (FTC), InBox East and West, Inbox/Outbox – London, American Marketing Association, Messaging and Anti Abuse Working Group (MAAWG) – US and EU, TRUSTe, Privacy and American Business and the Email Insider Summit. 

 Prior to joining Act-On, David held US- and European-based senior management positions focused on Deliverability, Email Privacy, Sales, Marketing, Business Development and Product Management with such companies as MarketFish, Lyris Technologies, Blue Hornet / Digital River, Yesmail, XO Communications, KPNQwest, Qwest Communications, Electric Lightwave, GST Telecom and MCI. Reach him on Twitter: @oregonlimey

  • The part I’m just diving into is speaking differently to my different customers. I need to talk to someone who purchased an intro course a little different from someone who went all in and got the high end product.

    This of course leads to splitting up your larger email list into smaller ones (which I sadly didn’t do and now must).

    Enjoyed the post! Cheers.

  • I really like this series of blog posts. I think its extremely valuable information if you are running or thinking about running this type of program. You mentioned detailing how to add your email address to a safe list. Where would you recommend putting this at in the email. On that same note, letting them know how many emails they are going to receive is a great idea too. Should you just do this on the first one, or is it a good idea to keep them updated during the oboarding series as to which email they are opening?

  • Jeff

    Glad I read this. I am looking forward to the future posts about this. Didn’t think about explaining to them how to add to you to their safe sender list. How soon after the the initial welcoming email should you send another one? Is there a recommended span of time between each email to avoid “Spamming” them?

  • Tim

    I think tailoring the messages and campaigns to particular segments is critical. I call it the “boy who cried wolf” concept.You want to make sure you only send people information that is pertinent to them, so when they get an email from you, they know they should pay attention. Otherwise if you send them things that are not relevant to them, when you actually do have something to say, they will not pay attention or they will have already unsubscribed from your list.

  • Segmentation works; one size, message, data point or product definitely does not fit all

    Excellent suggestion here. Let’s stop looking at it as email blasts but email laser guided missiles!

    Sending out generic emails that are not relevant to the person who receives it is one sure-fire way to lose a subscriber or earn a complaint.

  • I actually hit this after reviewing part 2 & 3, thank you for making the time to do these posts. We are in the process of “re-engaging” contacts who came in 2-3 years ago and some of these tips made me change our approach.
    Cheers, Chria

  • Nik Dahlberg

    I understand the importance of continuity, but we inherited a similar situation as Chris above. We are also re-engaging our customers and former customers. The difficulty is that we have little knowledge on current client needs. With our new customers it will be easy to establish continuity, but does anyone have any suggestions about how to reel in old contacts while minimizing unsubscribes?


  • Dani Calvert

    I think that one of the most challenging parts about online marketing is finding the balance between inundating recipients and giving them the information that is useful for them. Segmentation is key to achieve this balance, as is building those core relationships with clients. Thanks for the article!

  • Relevance and timeliness are the keys, and you become more relevant and timely by following a person’s thinking process. If you understand the process by which someone goes from “visitor” to “customer”, you can tailor your messages to this process. We call this “following the customer’s buying process,” but in reality it’s their “thinking process.” When they read an article or download a report, ask yourself what their thought process might be and follow that in your email sequence.

  • As is so often in marketing, the devil is in the details. An article like this, or this series, needs to be considered carefully within the context of one’s own business situation, audience, product/service type, etc.

    Having done marketing consulting, and specifically technology marketing consulting for, well, longer than I want to admit, I can read an article like this and see examples immediately on the face based on past work/projects I’ve been involved with, but for my current job/role it takes alot more thinking and consideration of the analogous situations to those simple examples described.

    When I was writing emails for a small business “get a website in a minute” campaign for British Telecom years ago, it was easy to think about an “on boarding” set of messages, think about how I would logically plan out delivery of 4 key thoughts and educational concepts, spacing these out in a value-added way.

    Now? Selling semiconductor memory intellectual property to integrated circuit-on-a-chip designers who are three steps removed from finished products, and who are likely engineers who receive “text only” email in their Chrome browser on a linux system…well, that’s a bit more challenging, since it’s barely a B2B challenge– I think of it more as a T2T: technical2technical!

    But, retention is still an issue. The principles remain the same: frequency gets adjusted to the audience’s tolerances, message has to get STRAIGHT to the point, as does the subject line– and the language, while informal and familiar, needs to respect their intelligence– I always have to be careful of undershooting that. Think “writer for Big Bang Theory watchers”.
    Thanks for the article!

  • Nik, that’s a great question and it comes up a lot. Many companies have old contacts they would love to re market too. Reengagement of these customers is not easy, if you have no historic engagement data on the file, then I would recommend that any address that is a year or older is probably invalid you should remove them from your file.
    For the remainder of the list you should create the best reengagement campaign and make the call to a action hard to ignore. Nurture these contacts back into your program gently and clearly state and set their expectations on your program and allow them to set preferences and frequency. A word of caution here is that your deliverability make get bruised a little as the unengaged contacts may complain at higher levels, but the ones that convert will qualified and engaged.

  • Brittany

    putting her in control of her experience is a great way to get her involved, or at least let her know she can have a say in this. the best part is, you’ll still be able to be a sort of “guide” for her experience. it’s a form of freedom and a sort of control wrapped up in one concept.

  • I especially like the part that states “But – more email does not automatically mean better conversion. Overdone, or done badly, it can mean more complaints, which translates ultimately into deliverability issues.”
    That’s a constant discussion I’m having with my sales & product managers, who like to send out individual e-mails for every little promotion they come up with.
    I’m always telling them that in the end there’s no conversion and no sales, if the messages don’t get delivered.

  • I agree that more does not mean better and that differentiating your messaging to different customers is key.
    This process also needs to be fluid and a learning curve on how to be persistent without being a pain in the …

  • The article hits on some really valid points in regards to client retention communications. My concern would be to watch out for inundating the client with too much. I have seen relationships lost over a client feeling like there is always something in their inbox from us , even if it is a simple welcome or update. I try to make every email focused and full of useful content.

  • Cory

    This was a helpful post and I’m looking forward to the series. With regard to the response by Chris K., we are also in the process of re-engaging with customers that have not received any communications from us since they opted-in months and in some cases years ago.

    Any recommendations on best practices for talking with these contacts? Should there be an acknowledgement of the silence and ask them to opt back in?

  • Kat

    I am glad I read this and I sent it to my marketing team to read as well. I think our biggest misses are scheuduled follow ups. We tend to do things in spurts. I like the bullet points of best practices.

  • Even with retention emails don’t overlook the A/B test for subject line and content. You can also use this process to determine the right timing between emails as it will depend on your audience and even to some degree the segmentation within the broader audience.

  • The unsubscribe process is something we hate to talk about – losing the direct line of communication with our customer, right? This needs to be addressed as you begin planning your retention emails. When a lead clicks the unsubscribe link they should have a branded, well thought out unsubscribe page. This is an opportunity to remind them why they signed up for your emails in the first place, and an opportunity to keep that relationship going.

  • Brad

    Thanks again for the best practices list. Makes for easy reference.

  • Bobby Holt

    I’ve noticed that sending a thank you email after someone registers or signs up for something can go a long way. Especially if that email isn’t a canned response. It makes the customer feel special.

  • Claudia Smith

    Great article, thank you. I have always worked for companies that sell products in the past but I am currently working for a service provider with a long sales cycle. I
    have found this role to be much more difficult in terms of determining appropriate
    email frequency. Does anyone have any suggestions on what has worked best?

    • I have one suggestion. Take care to send something of value when emailing prospects (e.g., a whitepaper). This way they don’t feel as if you’re trying to sell them something and yet you might get a dialogue going. You can email current customers more frequently since they already know and trust you. Hope this helps a little.

  • Just reading through it, this post seems a bit more geared to B2C, but some of the concepts still apply.
    Thinking of more B2B interaction, I feel there is a wider swing in how
    much customization is needed in emails, which I feel makes it more
    difficult to frequently write up this tailored content.

  • Sometimes transparency really lends a hand in retention efforts. And what I mean is by the tip here about listing out a series, so people will know what is to come. (i.e. Message 1 of 3). This opens a clear channel of what will be communicated as well as creates something for recipients to look forward to.

  • Zachary Winnie

    Retention emails are definitely important. Using A/B testing would be very valuable as well to try out several different strategies to figure out the best message for retention emails.

  • Great article. We struggle with deliverability and I will be looking into how we can apply some of these ideas into our business. As a professional services firm we often struggle with how to apply some of the ideas/practices often used in a retail setting or for B2C communications for our purposes.

  • As far as personalizing messages, how are people collecting more information about their prospects beyond their name and email address? Has anyone had success doing polls or surveys to gather more insight?

    • Sarah

      Kristen, I have successfully used incentive based survey’s to gain insight into my readers, but also look at links you’ve included in your e-mail marketing. Click throughs will often show you what your readers want more of.

  • Today’s consumers expect to be treated with intelligence and transparency. If retention emails look anything like a sales ploy, your credibility drops like a lead balloon. Trust is extremely important to retention. I like the suggestions in this article. They’re all about being above board and treating the customer/prospect with the same respect you’d give a friend.

  • Sarah

    I find it disheartening that the core message of most e-mail marketing articles these days is “better content, fewer e-mails”. If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a thousand times. That’s a great rule of thumb for all forms of marketing but it’s not news. Like Kristen DeLucia says below – give us some tips for how to get more information from our readers and how to send those special targeted e-blasts without sending a thousand different ones.

  • sexygourmetchef

    Thanks that’s helpful :)

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