A successful email program is a lot of work, and many of the articles I’ve written here are about reducing the email marketer’s workload without compromising the effectiveness of email. It only makes sense then to look at the topic of recycling emails. The practice of recycling an email – or re-sending an email to the same audience on a later date, commonly a year later – is more apparent than ever.
At least, it is more apparent to me since a switch I made in my own inbox management technique. On my iPhone, the default inbox setting was to sort messages by thread, a sorting method made popular by Gmail where all the messages in a single thread appear together. I liked it so much on the iPhone that I set my main inbox to sort by threads as well. But “sort by thread” is an imprecise categorization. In some cases, the setting groups all messages together with the same subject line, even if they do not include the “RE” or “FWD” commonly appearing in threads. I’m an email hoarder – I keep messages for years (though in my defense, I do push them into Archive folders arranged by date). So when I get a message that has the same subject line as another one from the same sender a year ago, it shows up as a thread and I can immediately compare the two messages. Re-cycling the exact same message from a year ago is more common than you might imagine, and is being used by retailers, conference marketers, trade associations and technology companies alike.
Does its popularity make it acceptable, however? Does recycling simply save the email marketer some effort, or is it a shortcut that could ultimately compromise trust and engagement? Here is what you should know before you amortize your message investment through another year of service:
Your audience is none the wiser, except the ones who are. I know which senders are re-cycling emails because of the threading I use in my inbox. That is, my role as an email subscriber (not an email professional) tipped me off. Surely, I’m not the only one of your subscribers who does the same and is liable to notice. Inbox threading brings email recycling straight to the surface. If you recycle because you think your subscribers are none the wiser, it’s time to revise your assumption.
Frequency can mean vague familiarity. The advertising industry uses the term “frequency” to measure the number of times an ad reaches an audience. Imagine that – an entire industry predicated on recycling of creative assets. It is commonly believed that being exposed to ad a single time is almost worthless, so campaigns are optimized around higher frequencies. Many emails are ads themselves, and would likewise enjoy a lift with higher frequency. If your audience has seen the message before, it may register with them when they see it again, which itself is a measure of engagement new messages lack. In particular, messages which have a creative element (a subject line, image or other component) that is memorable are strong candidates for re-registering.
Try some unfiltered re-sending. Some email marketers strip out previous readers of a message before recycling the message. The thinking here is that they’re not actually re-using the message; they are trying again to get it in front of the audience who didn’t see it the first time. But remember that inbox threading will make this tactic transparent, as long as the subscriber didn’t delete the message. Consider instead deliberately re-sending a message to the subscribers who did read it the first time. For example, at the beginning of the month you may send out a message promoting a white paper library on your organization’s website. If the message is still relevant at the end of the month, why not re-send it to the same audience? Measure the performance of those who read the message the first time around to those who ignored it the first time to see if the message benefits from added frequency or not.
Same event, different year. Many organizations hold the same conference annually. While some of the messages are agenda or venue-specific, messages about registration deadlines and other logistics are largely unchanged from year to year. Recycling these messages from one show to the next is perfectly acceptable. Finding a new way to say or graphically lay out “Registration is now open” just to keep from re-using last year’s message may show creative integrity, but does likely doesn’t generate a defensible ROI on the incremental time invested. Save your energy and devote it instead into the messages that tell the unique story about this year’s event.
Some messages are not made to be recycled. Newsletters and other topical announcements are not strong candidates for recycling. Re-sending these is not increasing frequency; it’s repeating yourself. Over the past month, I’ve also been a little appalled at how many organizations re-send their email holiday card from the previous year. I don’t mean just re-sending a message with the subject “Happy Holidays from XYZ Company!” but actually re-using the same exact digital image in the card itself. If it’s a message designed to be personal or show some effort, you may actually have to be personal or show some effort. Better to send nothing than to chunder a message designed to engender goodwill and embarrass yourself in the process. “Lillies that fester smell far worse than weeds,” said the bard.