E-mail has given marketers an unparalleled opportunity to understand and reach their customers. But its rampant abuse by spammers has also made users more cautious about sharing information and pickier about which companies they invite into their inboxes and wallets.

To earn the trust of your customers in the new world of electronic communications, you must befriend and learn about them rather than trying to sell them en masse. A great way to do this is to let them choose the types of communications they want to receive from you by offering preferences.

What are preferences?

An e-mail preference center is a Web page you create for customers who sign up for your e-mail program. Here, you give them a chance to tell you what they want by letting them choose and manage the types of messages they receive from you. While preferences can create a little bit more work for you, they improve the experience for your customers by ensuring they only receive the kinds of e-mails from you that they want.

Components of a preference page

A preference page should always include company contact and customer support information as well as a link to your privacy policy. Otherwise, it generally is comprised of two basic components: administrative and content options.

Administrative options include the following:

  • A clear and easy way to change preferences and/or unsubscribe from your list.
  • A password change if your e-mail program is part of an online customer relationship that requires a log-in.
  • E-mail change of address. Up to one-third of the e-mail addresses on your list will "churn" every year as recipients move, change jobs or switch Internet providers. Offering an ECOA option allows customers to continue receiving your messages without having to re-subscribe, and can help minimize the number of obsolete addresses on your list.

On the content side, you can group your e-mail offerings into two overall categories:

  • Advertising mailings like special discounts, partner promotions and event or sales notifications.
  • Promotion-free mailings like product updates, press releases and newsletters.

So content-wise, a sample preference page of an online retail business might include an invitation to sign up for a monthly newsletter(s), product updates and press releases in one section, and a sign-up to receive e-mail special offers and promotions based on products and services subscribers choose from, in another.

People are naturally sensitive about receiving advertising messages, and will be more receptive if you give them some control over the amount and type of promotional material they receive.  Many marketers resist the idea of letting recipients decline promotional e-mails. After all, they ask, isn't that the primary purpose of an e-mail program? But when you consider the alternative--recipients who decide not to sign up at all, or who unsubscribe to everything--turning off promotional messages isn't such a bad outcome.

This sensitivity is why you should also consider creating an "anchor" newsletter with recipients in mind. Let customers know that if they sign up for only one newsletter, this should be it. Make the newsletter appealing by filling it with valuable content and limiting the number of advertising and promotional messages it contains.

How much is too much?

One of the challenges of creating a preference center is figuring out how much control to give recipients while still keeping the number of preferences manageable. The most common mistake marketers make is providing too many choices. The logic that drives survey design--knowing that the number of questions is directly proportional to the drop-off rate--holds true for e-mail preferences as well. Some companies, such as Amazon.com, The New York Times or Sotheby's, offer a multitude of choices for customers with highly-specialized interests. But most marketers will want to offer a maximum of about eight to 12 options. Any more, and you risk overwhelming customers and driving them to abandon the process.

When determining what content choices to include, ask yourself the following:

  • Would I want to receive this mailing?
  • What is truly important to my company? Are there specific mailings that are more valuable to the company's bottom line than others?
  • What are my competitors doing? Did they include something I have forgotten? A good tactic is to check various competitors' sites to see what options they are including to ensure you are not missing anything.

Marketers often ask if they should let recipients control frequency. Frequency preferences are tough to manage. If you let someone sign up to only be contacted once a month, but you have an offer you know they will want to hear about, you can't send it. It's generally better to let customers sign up for regular mailings, and for you to be mindful of over-mailing. By allowing frequency to become a byproduct of relevance, you actually reinforce your valuable e-mail relationships.

What doesn't go on a preference page

You can leave off transactional and relationship messages, receipts and e-bills. Under U.S. CAN-SPAM legislation, companies are given a fair amount of leeway to send transactional messages without explicit customer permission. Although you always want to ask for as much permission as possible, you risk creating a real problem for yourself if you give customers the preference of not receiving transactional messages. If they elect not to receive these messages, you may not be able to complete important business transactions.

The days of one-to-one service that mom-and-pop businesses were famous for decades ago may be long gone. However, we can still offer our customers a quiet oasis in a marketplace teeming with advertising messages. Preferences bring individual choice back to e-mail and make the customer an equal partner in the transaction. When you involve your customers in your marketing communications, the messages become more valuable, and your value soars in their eyes.