The One Thing More Important than Relevance

image courtesy The Verge
image courtesy The Verge

If you take part in any sort of email marketing, you’ve no doubt heard about the importance of relevance. Across the industry, some say it’s the key to increasing engagement while others say it’s less important than other factors like frequency.  I’ve even thrown my hat into the discussion once or twice.

Despite the oft-lively debate, the general industry consensus is that timely, relevant content is a cornerstone of any successful email marketing campaign. Where some marketers go wrong, though, is thinking that relevance is the most important factor in reaching their subscribers.

So many times, I’ve heard marketers say things like “I only send relevant mail to prospects” or “my list is highly targeted,” but these same senders are having trouble getting any response from their mailings. This is because they are ignoring the one factor that matters even more than relevance: permission. 

As mailbox providers have become increasingly reliant on engagement metrics to drive mail placement, more and more senders believe that all that matters is whether someone opens the message or clicks on a link. And we’ve all heard the best way to drive opens and clicks is to send – you guessed it – relevant content. But relevance doesn’t mean squat if your recipient didn’t ask (or at least allow) you to send them email.

Many marketers are tempted by vendors who peddle “highly targeted” or “guaranteed active” contact lists, only to find abysmal response rates and newfound deliverability woes. I recently worked with a sender after a very costly failed append/purchase of around 1.1 million contacts. Of those million-plus, around 50% bounced or unsubscribed, and less than 1300 actually engaged with the email (which was a discount offer!). For those of you averse to math, that’s a response rate of less than 0.0012%.

These types of response rates are not the exception when dealing with non-permission-based lists – they are the norm. The reason is that no matter how well you target or segment the data, you’re sending to recipients who never asked for your emails. And mail sent to recipients who didn’t ask for it is, by definition, spam. Sending spam hurts your ability to get legitimate mail delivered which in turn hurts your business. When the mailbox providers stop delivering your mail due to reputation issues, even the most relevant content won’t be able to elicit a response.

Get permission, set proper expectations around content and frequency, and then you can put all of your relevant, engaging copy to good use.

– BG



  1. Great article Brad. You can’t have one without the other, and you’re right, relevancy is kind of the buzz word right now, and I’m glad it is becoming a focus regarding deliverability, not just on the marketing side, but permission is key and the very first step. I always chuckle when a new marketer tells me they have an opt-in list… that was not theirs to start with. The term opt-in has been used synonymously with permission, but they are two completely different things.


    • John,

      Great comment! I wonder if maybe it’s time to retire the term “opt-in” since in many circles it’s understood as “once opted in somewhere for something from someone.”

      That’s probably an extreme idea, but I think we need a better term that conveys these subscribers have actually requested information from the sender.


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