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Building and Maintaining an Email Database

How do you get customers to offer up their email address and keep them engaged with your emails? Read on for insight from a retail expert and showroom owner. 

Amy McIntosh
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(Photo: Bits and Splits - stock.adobe.com)

We all know this scenario. We’re buying something in a store or browsing a company’s website, and at some point we are asked for our email address. Sometimes we recite it instinctively, or maybe we don’t want to offend the employee, so we give it out of obligation. Or maybe we see the online subscription form and think, “I don’t need to get another email,” and decline to give up this precious information.

As retailers, how can you make the customer experience — either in-person or online — that so the customer voluntarily gives you their email address because they want to hear from you? And after you have their email, how do you keep them from unsubscribing?

Compiling a List

Jenny Hayes, owner of 1767, a custom furniture maker and retailer in Nashville, said when her business launched a little more than five years ago, they built their initial email database by asking for emails at local markets.

“We would just put out a list and tell people, ‘If you want to hear more information or get updates on when we have new stuff come out, just sign up with your email address,’ and then we would add them to our newsletter,” she says.

Now, the business primarily gathers names from the web, both via a voluntary subscription form on the website and also from online sales. When someone places an order on the website, they are automatically added to the newsletter list, and she says these subscribers tend to stick around. 

“We do review all the analytics and for the most part our retention rate stays pretty high,” Hayes says. “At this point we have about 6,000 people on our mailing list, and with each blast that we’ve sent out, we’ll get maybe between two and six unsubscribes, but that we kind of make up for the following week in new subscribers.”

1767’s website is rife with resources that extend past basic e-commerce, so when customers sign up for the newsletter online, they do so expecting to receive the content they’re familiar with, including the company’s monthly blog and upcoming event and sale information.

For those retailers asking for sign-ups in-store, Bob Phibbs, CEO of the Retail Doctor, offers the basic components of a short point-of-sale (POS) script: ask if the customer wants to join your loyalty program and describe the benefits, such as a discount on their first order or free shipping.

“This should be no more than two sentences,” he says. “Ideally one.”

Still, many retailers opt for online subscription forms, and all email databases are maintained digitally. Phibbs sees retailers making mistakes on the back end of their email platforms that can complicate data usage.

“You need to have one standardized database that is the same in your online store, back office and POS,” he says. Not standardizing data points such as state abbreviations or having missing fields in a subscription form can render data unusable. These issues should be addressed at the point of initial sign-up to avoid problems down the road.

Keeping Subscribers Engaged

When it comes to keeping customers on your list, content and frequency should both be considered. For 1767, blog updates and store events and promotions once or twice a month are what their subscribers expect when they sign up. The business also works with an outside marketing company that helps segment their audience, reaching past customers with targeted content. By personalizing content and prioritizing quality over quantity of emails, 1767 is able to minimize unsubscribers.

There is no magic formula for knowing exactly how many emails to send, but according to Phibbs, retailers should find a balance to stay memorable.

“Not too long between emails to them so they forget who you were, and not too many they feel you are spamming,” Phibbs says. “About once a month is a minimum, and twice a month on a regular basis is ideal.”

Hayes echoes that sentiment. She says 1767 learned a lesson about sending too-frequent emails. The key, she says, is to not “bog people down.”  

“When we were sending out emails every week, we did see a higher number of unsubscribes,” Hayes says. “So I think it’s just finding the sweet spot, as far as engagement is concerned. You don’t want to be inundating people with information, but we just want to make sure that we’re kind of tapping into what our clients want to see.” 

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