You don’t own me! The myth of email list ownership.

man surfing internet on laptop

I’ve participated in a number of trainings lately for entrepreneurs and small businesses and have noticed many of the trainers using the phrase, “you own your email subscriber list and no one can take that away from you.” Today I’m going to share with you how the “myth of email list ownership” can be dangerous for your business and for your subscribers.

You see, a subscriber list is a set of relationships your brand has with its customers and prospects. Just like with any relationship of the dating, or customer relationship type, there are several phases that span the life of the relationship. In some cases you’ll earn a loyal customer and in others you’ll lose a customer. As a brand you need to foster that relationship and provide value. This is why its dangerous to view a subscriber list as something you own, because at any point in time the customer can opt-out of what you have to offer. And, if you abuse the relationship, you’ll quickly see your customers run for the hills.

So lets take some time to look at the different phases of your relationship with a customer who’s opted in to your email list.

Swipe Right or Left: The Prospect Phase

In the beginning, your subscribers are in the casual dating phase or prospect phase, they’re looking to see what you have to offer. Maybe they provided their email address to get a free whitepaper or coupon code and are willing to see what value your email content provides after that initial exchange of info. Does your message/product resonate with what their wants and needs are? If yes, they’ll move to the next step in the relationship.

Its Just Casual: The Occasional Customer Phase

In this phase, your customer is starting to consume your email content. They’re opening the emails that have catchy subject lines, are scanning the content, maybe clicking through to your site to read more or learn about a particular offer. They may even make a purchase! However, there isn’t consistent engagement with your brand yet. The opening of your emails, clicking through to your site and purchase of products/services are sporadic. In this phase the customer is testing out how quickly you’re delivering on a purchase. What was the experience to complete that process? Do they want to take the relationship with you to the next level? Or do they want to go elsewhere? If all goes well in this phase they’ll move to a more regular cadence of engaging and purchasing with your brand.

We’re Kind of a Thing: The Regular Customer Phase

In this phase, there is a consistent level of engagement with your brand. The customer regularly opens your emails, reads the content, visits your site and makes purchases. However, they aren’t quite ready to shout your name from the rooftops and profess their love for your brand and what you have to offer. They’re still testing the waters. They’re trying to determine if your brand makes their lives easier than your competitors. Again, is the purchase/engagement process easier than others they’ve experienced? Is it a consistent experience? In this phase, consistency in the delivery of your product is going to be key. If you falter one, two, three times on the experience, you’re going to lose the customer. (disclaimer: the number of times a customer will tolerate you screwing up in the relationship, is going to depend on how much better your competition delivers on their customer experiences) However, if you consistently deliver exceptional customer service and experiences, your customer will become one of your greatest advocates.

So, after this phase, the relationship can go one of two ways….

This Relationship is Over: The Unsubscribe and Moves On Phase

If things turn sour in the relationship with your customer, they’re going to say “buh-bye” and move on to greener pastures. Maybe you didn’t provide a consistent customer experience or consistent level of service. Maybe your brand evolved, as people do in a relationship, and the customer didn’t like where your brand evolution was going. Maybe the customer had different expectations of what they were going to get and what they actually received. Maybe you did everything right. You were clear on how often you would communicate, when their purchase would arrive, you were consistent with your follow-up, etc. But, in the end it just wasn’t enough. You two weren’t the right fit. And as hard as it is to lose a customer, its important to take the time to evaluate why you may have lost them and make changes if necessary.

This is a Serious and Dedicated Relationship…..(but its not monogamous): The Loyal Customer Phase

On the flip side, if the relationship with your customer continues to go well, your customer could become a loyal fan of your brand and sing your praises to their friends, family, coworkers, etc. They are loyal because they purchase or engage with you regularly. They are happy with your communication, your product/service delivery, etc. However, there is one important caveat here. While your customer is loyal to what you have to offer, they most likely have other brands that they are in the “regular” customer phase with. Just because your customer buys most of their groceries, clothing, tech, or whatever you’re selling from you, doesn’t mean that they don’t buy similar products from other brands as well. Example: I love White House Black Market, and would consider myself a loyal customer, but I buy clothing from other brands too, such as Target, Old Navy, Nordstrom, etc. So, just because your customer is loyal, doesn’t mean you get to sit on your laurels, kick your feet up and get lazy in the relationship. You have to continue to foster the relationship with your loyal customers. You have to continue to remind them why you are so awesome, and in some cases, even offer them additional benefits for their loyalty. (Examples: special discounts, expedited free shipping, early access to new content, etc.) If you start to get lazy, one of your competitors will turn their “regular” relationship with your customer into a loyal one.

Bringing it Back to the Dangers of Using the Word “Ownership”

Ok. You’re probably thinking, “Shelby, I get it. Customer relationships can be nurtured or damaged by how I treat them in my email communications, but why can’t I say that I ‘own’ my subscriber list? I mean, this is a list of people, who specifically said they were interested in what I have to offer.”

To that I say, its not that you can’t use the term “my subscriber list” or these are “relationships that I own,” you just need to be careful not to think that you actually own that customer. You own the responsibility and privledge of providing a valuable relationship but you don’t own the person or their email address.

To illustrate, I want to tell a story of my early days in marketing, when I worked for a retailer. A number of my collogues on the email team were part of an early morning meeting with the company’s president, where he was pressing the team to email the customers everyday, multiple times a day. His rationale for emailing the customer so much was that “we own these customers.” “We can contact them as much as we want.”

While the email team tried in vain to explain that emailing at the frequency at which the president was proposing would destroy our ability to email customers in the future, and would impact the ability to get our emails into the customers’ inboxes, the team had to fall on their swords and teach through experience.

What resulted, was our brands were blacklisted from getting into the customer’s inbox for a short time, our unsubscribes skyrocketed and our customers marked our emails as spam. It wasn’t until this happened did our president start to understand that you don’t own the email list, but the relationship with the customer. And if you abuse the relationship, you lose the relationship.

It is because of this experience early in my career that I cringe anytime I hear someone talk of owning an email list and why I was compelled to address the myth of “ownership” with you.

What other terms can be dangerous when taking about a brand/customer relationship? I’d love to get your thoughts in the comments!

Published by Shelby Bono-Mitchell

My passion for exceptional customer experiences started early in working for major brands in the advertising industry and on the corporate side. I've had the opportunity to work with brands in the tech, retail, automotive and financial services industries to develop brand & communications strategies, optimize digital experiences, introduce UX analytics platforms to gain customer insights and shape customer messages. It is through a single customer experience that we have the power to captivate or sever our customer relationships, and my goal is to captivate.

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