Email marketing’s hierarchy of subscriber needs: 4 must-haves to optimize engagement

By Chuck Leddy

Email delivers the highest return on investment of any marketing channel, delivering an impressive $38 in revenue for every $1 spent, according to Campaign Monitor. Email is the preferred communication channel for most people, with some 3.8 billion people worldwide having email accounts and 73% of Millennials (the most sought-after demographic) declaring it their preferred channel. Yet most marketing emails are forgettable.

Chad S. White wants to change the way marketers approach email. He literally wrote the book (entitled Email Marketing Rules) on email marketing, and his Oracle webinar, The Hierarchy of Subscriber Needs (available free on-demand), explains how to improve upon the traditional email funnel and craft better emails that drive ROI. White is Head of Research at Oracle CX Marketing Consulting, and his webinar likens email marketing to the famous hierarchy of human needs first developed by psychologist Abraham Maslow back in the 1940s.

The 4 needs for effective marketing email

Like psychologist Maslow, marketer White views his hierarchy of needs as a pyramid that goes up from basic needs to more complex, higher-value ones. In White’s case, those four hierarchies that every marketing email must integrate, from the bottom of the pyramid to the top, are as follows: (1) respectful, (2) functional, (3) valuable, and (4) remarkable. White explains in detail the meaning of each need, then tells marketers how to deliver and measure each one.

It’s notable that White consciously moves away from using the term “relevance,” because he believes “the term can be amorphous and difficult for marketers to achieve.” Most importantly, White explains that the 4 needs align with the traditional funnel for email marketing, tracking metrics such as open rates, click-thru-rates, and unsubscribes. “When you meet these four needs in your emails,” he says, “you’re aligned on driving key funnel metrics that drive business success.” Let’s explore the 4 needs in White’s hierarchy in detail.

1: Respectful

“Respect and trust are the foundation of all business relationships,” says White. “And they serve as the foundation of email relationships as well.” Showing respect in an email means several things to White, including:

  • gaining clear permission to market to people;
  • setting clear expectations for your emails, and then following up on your expectations in practice;
  • having an easy, clearly displayed process for unsubscribing — no more than two clicks; and
  • having a standard process to drop your inactive subscribers, because prolonged subscriber non-engagement should be treated by marketers as subscribers opting out.

How can respect be measured? White asks email marketers to closely track metrics around open rates, especially for new subscribers, as well as the number of complaints, unsubscribes, and the percentage of your list that’s currently inactive. Respect is akin to food, breathable air, and shelter in Maslow’s famous pyramid: it’s the basic foundation upon which everything else gets built (or topples to the ground).

2: Functional

“Errors and poor usability distract and frustrate your subscribers, causing churn and brand damage,” says White. Your emails need to be functional, meaning accessible and readable across multiple devices and platforms. The keys to creating functional emails include, according to White: (1) the email should be accessible and readable across devices and platforms, especially mobile devices; (2) buttons and links should be user-friendly across devices and platforms; (3) links should not be broken; and (4) the email content should be written in a clear way and be free of errors.

Marketers can measure whether they have a problem with functionality by looking at the number of people clicking on links, as well as unsubscribes and complaints. If your rates of engagement are different on different platforms, you may have to optimize your email for those low-performing platforms. As the number of devices and platforms proliferate, email marketers need to adapt to these emerging environments to drive subscriber engagement.

3: Valuable

“To have profitable relationships, marketers have to create email experiences subscribers find valuable, engaging, and compelling as individuals.” Value for marketers gets unlocked only when there’s value delivered to the email recipients, notes White. For marketers, that value can be quantified in revenues/profits for the business, high customer retention rates, and creating brand ambassadors/evangelists via email engagement efforts.

Value for customers, on the other hand, can be created in any number of ways, according to White. Brands can offer discounts and sales via email, as well as information about new products and upcoming events. Educational content can also be shared via email, as can “influencer” voices that come from inside the company (internal subject matter experts) and outside the company (outside influencers and thought leaders). Storytelling that integrates the values and goals of the brand is becoming increasingly important for email marketing, notes White, as customers seek a sense of belonging by identifying with a brand.

How can marketers measure “value” for email? White points to sales and conversions, as well as revenue per email and lifetime subscriber value.

4: Remarkable 

This is the top of White’s pyramid, equivalent to Maslow’s “self-actualization” (i.e., the capacity for a person to fully express themselves). “Your email subscribers want to evangelize for your brand, but you have to give them something worth sharing,” explains White, and that’s where “remarkable” comes into play. Creating an email that’s “remarkable” goes a step beyond “valuable.” As for how to create a remarkable email, White suggests: (1) offering extraordinary and exclusive deals to subscribers only; (2) offering news and content that’s also extraordinary and exclusive; and (3) offering content that’s highly targeted, almost personalized. “Give them something they can’t get anywhere else,” he suggests.

White notes that marketers will increasingly turn to martech tools that integrate artificial intelligence and machine learning to personalize content and target its delivery to the right customers at the right time with the right message. How can marketers measure whether their emails are remarkable? White suggests looking at sales and the number of email forwards, social shares, as well as the volume of word-of-mouth generated by your messaging.

By leveraging this 4-level hierarchy of subscriber needs, you’ll be crafting more effective marketing emails that drive engagement, ROI and business growth.

Interested in learning more about optimizing your email marketing? Reach out to us here.

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