To email or not to email, that is the question.

And the answer to that question isn’t as straightforward as it would first seem.

At one end of the spectrum are those, including Toby Fallsgraff (the Obama campaign email director), who argue that more email is better. At the other end are those who counter that sentiment; MailChimp’s John Foreman generates data indicating that there is an inverse correlation between email frequency and subscriber engagement. The “happy middle” HubSpot camp provides benchmark data showing that 16-30 emails per month is the ideal.

When even the “experts” can’t agree on where marketing ends and spamming begins, it’s time to look at other parameters. And those parameters include the following:

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1. Type of product

The cost, consumption rate, perception and seasonality all affect how often your emails will be welcomed or frowned upon by your subscribers. Regarding cost, consider the price difference between a car and an MP3 player. Both products may only need to be purchased once every several years; however, consumers will give a lot more thought towards the purchase of that $30,000 Toyota or Honda versus the $150 iPod. As a result, you will need to craft more frequent and well-researched content pieces for potential car versus MP3 buyers.

Consumption rate will also determine how often you should email people. A new printer isn’t purchased every month, unlike the ink cartridges that go into it. Thus, the greater the need and the recurrent need for a product, the more welcome your emails will be- especially if they offer a product discount.

Product perception can be a key factor in email frequency. Consider the heat that cigarette or alcohol manufacturers would get if they indiscriminately emailed consumers- even those consumers who would be of legal age. In fact, not only do such manufacturers make it a point to not email too often, but they often require that their subscribers go “fetch” the message or promotion at a different website.

Finally, there is the possible seasonal nature of the product. A box of candy or flowers will be quite popular during major holidays like Christmas or Valentine’s Day. Consumers will also be on the prowl for deals on these items. As a result, you will not be perceived as a spammer even if you email subscribers twice a day with product deals or other valuable messages.

2. Type of email

The emails you send may be topical, meaning that they are educational and informational in nature and often don’t even mention your products. Alternately, you may send mostly promotional emails that advertise a product or service and provide a clear call-to-action in the message. This might be the case if you operate a coupon or daily deals site, for example.

Topical emails are usually better tolerated (and even shared) by audiences compared with promotional emails. Many affiliate marketers, including Pat Flynn, even advise that promotional emails not be sent until several weeks after subscriber sign-up. Furthermore, when that inevitable promotional email does get sent, readers should be notified ahead of time or within the email.

How can you sell anything without promoting it? I described the concept of how to go ad-free yet still make money on your website nearly two years ago. However, whether it’s a website or an email newsletter, the premise is still the same: you won’t keep your readers for long if all you do is promote, promote, promote.

There are also different ways of sending out email: auto-responder or broadcast. Auto-responder emails are usually sent on an automatic basis to new subscribers over a period of days, weeks or even months. Broadcast (or blast) emails, by contrast, are usually one-off emails that make an announcement or promote a product. Auto-responder emails are more frequent, and so will typically contain a lot of information, while the occasional broadcast email is likely to be hard-sell and feature a product or service.

When in doubt, check your metrics

You can’t always be sure how your subscribers will respond to being emailed once a day, once a week, or even once a month. This is why it’s good to work with an email marketing platform like MadMimi or MailChimp to not only send emails, but to also track how well they do.

There are four key rates that you should measure:

  • Open– This refers to the number of times your emails are clicked on and viewed within the recipients’ inboxes. While the open rate is a useful parameter, its number can be skewed by recipients’ email service providers, which often automatically open all incoming emails.
  • Click-through– If you include a link to your blog post or promotion within your email, your readers must click on it to read the actual content or view the ad. Click-throughs are a good measure of subscriber engagement because the clicks are intended.
  • Unsubscribe– Some of your subscribers won’t want to receive your emails; this can be quite common with new subscribers.
  • Conversion– Ideally, some of your subscribers will not only open your email and click-through to its content/ad, but they will also complete the desired action and thus convert.

Desired rates for opens, click-throughs and conversions will vary. Some marketers are happy when they see a 2% click-through rate, for example, but that doesn’t mean you should only strive for 2%. In the end, the best rates are those that increase over time. As a result, you won’t know how well you are really doing until you’ve been emailing and measuring for at least a few weeks. That’s also why these parameters are called rates- they are being measured against the scale of time.

It goes without saying that you should study your email metrics closely if for no other reason than to avoid being black-listed as a spammer. However, doing so also helps you learn which headlines grab the attention of your subscribers. With enough practice and patience, you might even get to know the psychology of your audience and which consumer ploys work best at generating conversions and sales.

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