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Email Marketing Problems: Are You an Email Assaulter?

By | May 18, 2012

Is your company guilty of email assault? When it comes to your subscribers, how do you know the difference between regular communication and aggressive bombardment? It’s not as simple as you might think.

Consider that according to a recent article in The Wall Street Journal—”Stores Smarten Up Amid Spam Flood“—some of this country’s biggest retailers by e-commerce revenue sent the following estimated pieces of email in 2011:

  • Spiegel: 663
  • Neiman Marcus: 534
  • Lands’ End: 376
  • Gilt Groupe: 362
  • Toys “R” Us: 349
  • Williams-Sonoma: 328

More or less?
The highest average monthly retail email volume in 2010 (December) was 18.2.* That breaks down to roughly 4.5 per week, or a little more than one every 2 days. The average monthly volume for that year was around 11-12, or roughly 3 per week. Guess how many emails Apple sent in all of 2011? 26. Yes, that’s one every two weeks. What’s the magic number for your business?

I’m not going to claim that your company should necessarily imitate the largest retailers that are sending 6 emails per week or go Apple’s opposite way: rather, consider the point that even if your business is only sending one message every two weeks, if you’re giving the right people what they want, you’re going to cash in sooner or later (DMA average projected ROI for email, 2012: $39.40 to $1). It’s the value and regularity in the messages more than any particular frequency that matters.

So, how do you know that you might be guilty of email assault in the court of subscriber opinion?

5 Ways To Know You’re a Spammer


1. You blast like Neiman Marcus, but you’re not Neiman Marcus.

Yes, you’re the stalker who ignores restraining orders. The cliché “absence makes the heart grow fonder” is foreign to you. Message overkill is the norm, not the exception. You’re giving customers a whole lot of information, but not the information they want.

2. You have an obscenely large database, but you don’t customize your messages.

The secret to Neiman Marcus keeping its unsubscribe rates steady while increasing open and click-thru rates despite sending 534 subscriber emails last year is its use of customer data to customize its messages. By targeting based on purchase history and website behavior, the luxury department store gives customers the precise content that is known to appeal to them. Lesson: Using “Big Data” to segment can help save you from an ugly situation.

3. “Less is more” sounds like bad business to you.

You subscribe to the notion Bud Konheim, CEO of Nicole Miller Inc., elaborated upon in the above article (as quoted by its author, Dana Mattioli):

 “You get into this mind-set that the more emails you send, the more sales you generate.”

Konheim followed that by revealing, “But that can really start to annoy people.” A typically easy way to annoy people is to send them a high volume of messages in short time periods (this can apply to Facebook/LinkedIn/Twitter updates as well). Make those messages unwanted messages that crowd out the messages they actually want to read, and you’re wearing out your welcome.

Consider that many people might think that more than one message a day from a good friend is too much, especially if that friend is forwarding spam or a link to some cat video you’re not actually interested in watching. If people don’t have patience for the friend (or the cat), they’re going to have even less for you, the company, unless you offer them something of value. If you’re able to offer value in each of your messages—whether or not you’re sending 1.46 messages per day (a lá Neiman Marcus)—then more power to you.

 4. Your open and click-thru rates plummet.

Pretty self-explanatory: Fewer people open your emails after each send, and fewer of those that actually do bother to open the message take the next step of clicking thru to the landing pages that reflect your offer(s). This is a sad fate.

 5. Your “unsubscribe” rates are skyrocketing (or worse, your relegations to the spam folder).

While dissatisfied or apathetic users may not follow your links or even open your messages, the next logical (and worse) step is actively leaving the list. If you have increasingly large percentages of your database opting out, this can mean one or two things: your list is bad or you keep pushing the wrong message. If your list is poor quality (containing outdated or otherwise not fully opted-in readers), consider proactively cutting out the subscribers that have shown no activity in the past 6-9 months. Before you put them in cold storage, you might want to try a last-ditch, “We miss you”-type campaign with a special offer to re-engage. However, don’t expect the world. The smarter choice would be to refine your pitches to the slimmed-down list and resurrect the recruitment of new subscribers through enticing offers (with a double opt-in mechanism). (See additional tips for doing email right.)

News flash for CMOs: Digital growth trumping traditional
Mattioli’s article also revealed these nuggets from Forrester Research: That online sales accounted for 9% of total 2011 U.S. retail sales, and they’re growing at a rate >2X as fast as brick-and-mortar sales. At the same time, the DMA tells us that in 2012 Internet marketing in general will surpass direct mail in sales driven to the tune of $652B to $642B.

CMOs, don’t let your marketing department’s email messages turn into the disaffected loners of their beloved subscribers’ inboxes. Delivering too many (or really bad) messages may not be a felony, but imitating a stalker will hardly flatter you in your readers’ eyes.

As online sales increasingly make up a larger percentage of total sales, both in retail and elsewhere, make sure you’re not turning off one of the most potentially significant sources of digital revenue: your email subscribers.


*Source: DMA 2011 Statistical Fact Book/Responsys, “Retail Email Year-End Trends,” 2010.

Photo courtesy of Mulad via Flickr.


Check out our white paper for 6 secrets to improve email deliverability. You’ll learn how making the inbox can mean big dollars for your business. Includes a case study of adaptive deliverability that boosted customer response by 19%.

Case Study: Email Deliverability

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About Paul Richlovsky

Paul brings a writing and teaching background to his marketing career, where he's been happily active since 2006. After spending his early years serving clients as a Web copywriter and account manager, he currently leads Fathom's own content strategy in collaboration with sales, marketing and others across the company. He is an enthusiastic marketing automation practitioner and active member of the Cleveland Marketo User Group. He also serves as editorial director of Fathom's website and blog and has written/edited multiple guides on marketing, including for audiences in healthcare, higher education, financial services, retail and manufacturing. He previously was lead blogger and managing editor for, a resource for individuals interested in career-focused education. With a BA in English from the College of Wooster, he is also the author of a collection of poetry, "Under the Lunar Neon." He is particularly interested in usability, readability, ballroom dancing, bachata, racquet sports, and romping with his niece and nephews.


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