What’s the sound of one hand clapping? Email marketing

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Existentialist playwright Samuel Beckett would have loved this one: Most email marketers continued to send email at a steady, high frequency for nearly two years, despite a total lack of response from the subscriber (no opens, no clicks, no purchases), according to a new study.

The study, titled, “The One-Way Conversation: Email Marketing to the Non-Responsive Subscriber,” was conducted by email marketing firm Return Path in order to get a better sense of what marketers do when email recipients aren’t interested in conversing. The results are less than encouraging.

Researchers at Return Path in late 2008 purchased a single item from several retailers and signed up for the retailer’s email program during that purchase process. In this follow-up study, the company tracked the emails received in the 19 months that followed. The original email account used to sign-up was kept active, but no emails were opened or clicked until the end of the study period.

During the first three months after sign-up, subscribers received an average of 10 emails per month from each company included in the study. The average number ranged between 9 and 11 emails per month for the duration of the study. There were exceptions to this pattern; a few companies, such as the Container Store, while continuing to send email, slowly and consistently decreased frequency with each month, “appropriately recognizing the growing gap in time since the subscriber’s last action,” the study said.

The pattern of sending emails sans follow-up can be costly. While there are no published statistics on the cost of sending an email, the study found that the average cost per email sent ranges from 0.3 to 0.5 cents. “So continuing to send email to non-responsive subscribers wastes significant amounts of money.” Return Path recommends that email marketers ask subscribers about their email frequency preferences when they subscribe or make their initial purchase. Another tip: When subscribers are non-responsive over several months, communicate with them via a survey or a re-permissioning email.

According to the study, marketers are missing an opportunity to increase sales by re-engaging subscribers in the conversation. In addition, they may be interfering with their ability to optimize email content for their entire email list. This occurs because totally uninterested recipients dilute email response patterns, skewing email metrics and making optimization hard to achieve.

For the full report, please click here.

For related stories on b-to-b sales and marketing trends, please visit Follow the Lead on a regular basis.

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