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The Hierarchy of Subscriber Needs: Are you satisfying all four?


Creating relevance is the key to boosting email marketing performance, return on investment, and deliverability. However, it can be confusing and daunting to craft a plan that increases the relevance of your email messages.

We have a four-part framework that will set you on the right path. It’s called the Hierarchy of Subscriber Needs, and it lays out the requirements to create email experiences that are:

  1. Respectful
  2. Functional
  3. Valuable
  4. Remarkable

Each need in the Hierarchy of Subscriber Needs builds upon the next, with each successive need being more difficult to fulfill. After all, you can’t hope to create remarkable or even valuable email experiences if your emails don’t function correctly and you’re not securing permission.

Hierarchy of Subscriber Needs

Let’s take a look at each layer of the Hierarchy of Subscriber Needs in turn.

1. Respectful Subscriber Experiences

At the lowest level, subscribers need marketers to respect their permission grant. At the beginning of the email relationship, that means marketers should ensure that every person is aware that they are opting in to receive email—whether they’re using a passive or active opt-in, and whether they’re confirming that consent in the inbox with an opt-in confirmation request email or not. It also means setting the appropriate expectations around email frequency and content.

And at the end of the email relationship, it means an easy and quick unsubscribe process and having a system in place to manage inactive subscribers. If a subscriber hasn’t opened or clicked on one of your emails in a long time, marketers need to acknowledge that the person is no longer interested in their emails and has in effect withdrawn permission. At that point, the brand should stop mailing that person.

Respect and trust are the foundations of all personal and business relationships. And they are the foundation of email relationships as well.

While some think that a relevant message can compensate for a lack of permission, this is a losing strategy, as permission is foundational to creating relevance. This is borne out by the fact that the email element that is looked at first and has the biggest impact on whether an email is opened is the “from” name. Just like caller-ID on a phone, people aren’t likely to pay attention to you if they don’t recognize your name or if they do recognized it but don’t think well of your brand. Disregarding permission puts your brand at an immediate disadvantage in the inbox, in addition to risking sender reputation damage through spam complaints and brand damage through negative word of mouth.

Inbox at a Glance

You can measure how successfully you’re creating respectful email experiences by looking at open rates. A lack of opens early in an email relationship likely indicates that you never really secured permission in the first place, and a lack of opens later likely indicates that permission has essentially lapsed.

2. Functional Subscriber Experiences

The next need is for functional email experiences. That means, among other things, that:

  • Emails render appropriately across the mobile, web, and desktop email clients that your subscribers primarily use—which is a major challenge because of the thousands of possible email renderings for every message
  • Text is legible and links are spaced far enough apart so they can be accurately clicked or, more importantly, tapped
  • The links in your emails take subscribers to the intended destinations
  • The content is clear and free of errors
  • Any special email design elements—interactivity or embedded videos, for example—have good fallbacks for when that functionality isn’t supported by a particular email client

Essentially, all of this is about quality assurance and brand image protection.

As in other forms of communications, people are easily distracted by errors—which is especially detrimental to emails since you only have a few seconds to capture a subscriber’s attention. If they focus on an error in rendering, for instance, instead of your message, then engagement suffers. And if they’re motivated enough to click through and then find themselves on an unexpected landing page or encounter a “404 page not found” error, then they may be less likely to click through in the future.

Rendering, in particular, is a challenge because there are no standards for email coding support, unlike there is for web coding. So CSS that works in Apple Mail may not work in Office 365 or Gmail, for instance.

Migrating to mobile-friendly email designs has been a struggle. According to joint research between Litmus and Salesforce, only 77% of major B2C brands are using either responsive or mobile-aware email designs for their promotional emails, despite the fact than the majority of emails are now read on mobile devices.

Additionally, the number of devices that can display emails is growing—and becoming more challenging as well. For example, after years of contending with the small screens of smartphones, marketers now get to wrestle with optimizing their emails for the downright tiny screen of the Apple Watch, which recognizes a new version of HTML, watch-HTML.

You can measure how successfully you’re creating functional email experiences by looking at click rates. If your emails have broken links and images or have text that’s too small to read on mobile devices, for example, your clicks will suffer.


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3. Valuable Subscriber Experiences

In order for marketers to have profitable relationships with subscribers, they have to create valuable experiences for them. Whether it’s in the form of deals, news, alerts, or some other kind of content, subscribers must find your emails useful.

Thankfully, marketers now have many tools at their disposal to create valuable experiences. Generally speaking, basic analytics that provide open, click, and conversion data can help you determine the preferences of your overall audience, and A/B testing can help determine how best to communicate with your subscribers and important subscriber segments.

But the most exciting tools are ones that get us closer to the 1-to-1 marketing paradigm. Advanced analytics can power sophisticated segmentation, dynamic content, personalization, and product and content recommendations. And marketing automation and triggered messaging can deliver the right content to the right person at the right time.

You can measure how successfully you’re creating valuable email experiences by looking at email conversions and revenue. This is the point in the Hierarchy of Subscriber Needs where marketers often go wrong. Because of confusion, poor goal-setting, technical roadblocks, and other issues, marketers will use top-of-the-funnel surface metrics—like opens and clicks—instead of the bottom-of-the-funnel deep metrics to measure relevance and campaign performance.

In the 3rd Edition of my book, Email Marketing Rules, I advise marketers to “not attach too much meaning to open rates and other surface metrics. For truly meaningful activity, look further down the email funnel at deep metrics like email conversions.”

Surface Metrics vs Deep Metrics

For instance, some marketers unwisely measure the success of subject lines by opens, leading to “winning” subject lines that sometimes maximize opens at the expense of conversions. Also, for privacy or security reasons, many brands don’t feed conversion data back to their email service providers, depriving those systems of key data that would allow them to help marketers make better business decisions.

4. Remarkable Subscriber Experiences

And lastly, subscribers need the emails they receive to at least occasionally deliver remarkable experiences—that is, something that’s worth telling someone else about. People are social beings and want to be in a position to share high-value information with their friends, family members, coworkers, and colleagues before anyone else. They want to evangelize for your brand, but you have to give them something worth sharing, whether it’s an amazing deal, exclusive content, or a special experience.

Creating an email that subscribers will talk about isn’t easy. Less than 1% of commercial emails generate forward-to-open rates of more than 5%, according to Litmus’ Viral Email report, which examined more than 400,000 email campaigns to uncover the drivers of email forwards. Those drivers include:

  • Targeting niche audiences with segmentation and triggered messages
  • Making the most of topics such as events and charity efforts, which are innately more share-worthy
  • Planning periodic emails with extra special content and using design to differentiate those emails from your run-of-the-mill emails
  • Placing prominent “share with your network” calls-to-actions in your most share-worthy emails, as these links also increase forward rates

You can measure how successfully you’re creating remarkable email experiences by looking at forward-to-open and social share rates. In addition to raising awareness, aiding acquisition, boosting email engagement, and generating additional conversions, forwards and social shares are powerful indicators of the overall health of your email program. Used to measure the topmost portion of Hierarchy of Subscriber Needs pyramid, these actions are a sign that you’re fulfilling your subscribers’ needs at the highest level—that your emails are not just relevant, but extraordinary.

Brands tend to overestimate how memorable and share-worthy their emails are, so measuring audience response is important. An email program can be modestly successful while only fulfilling the first three subscriber needs, but a program can never be highly successful if it isn’t creating remarkable experiences that turn subscribers into evangelists.

In addition to watching social activity, we recommend tracking your forward-to-open rate via Litmus Email Analytics as a barometer of email program health. To calculate it, just divide your total forwards by your total opens.

If your monthly forward-to-open rate is in the bottom quartile—that is, less than 0.11%—then that’s likely a sign that your email program is not meeting this need. As a consequence, you may find that the engagement of your new subscribers falls off quickly, you’re managing a high level of inactive subscribers, and the lifetime value of your subscribers is low.

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Key Failure Metrics

In addition to the success metrics mentioned above for each layer of the Hierarchy of Subscriber Needs, there are two overarching failure metrics to watch carefully: spam complaint and unsubscribe rates.

These two metrics are typically thought to be punishment for creating email experiences that aren’t respectful—and that’s generally true when complaints and opt-outs occur very early in an email relationship. However, complaints and unsubscribes that happen a bit later in the relationship likely indicate problems further up the hierarchy.

That was one the key findings of our Adapting to Consumers’ New Definition of Spam report, research that we did jointly with people-based digital marketing and consumer acquisition company Fluent. For instance, 51% of respondents said they had unsubscribed and 43% said they had marked a brands’ emails as spam because they didn’t display or work well on smartphones, proving that email experiences that aren’t functional can damage your program.

Regarding valuable experiences, 67% said they’d unsubscribed and 57% said they’d marked a brands’ emails as spam because the brand sent irrelevant or too many emails. And 65% and 53%, respectively, said they’d done so because they were no longer interested in the brand.

Regarding remarkable experiences, 41% said they unsubscribed and 45% said they’d marked a brands’ emails as spam because they’d had a bad customer service experience with the brand. That’s also compelling evidence that consumers expect coherent end-to-end experiences and don’t think of brands in terms of silos or channels.

Subscribers now use the unsubscribe link and the “report spam” button to express their displeasure over a wide range of issues—from poor email rendering to difficult landing page experiences to bad experiences in stores or with call center reps.

That shift in subscriber behavior requires marketers to take a big picture perspective on unsubscribes and spam complaints and spend more time doing some detective work to determine the causes. Adding an unsubscribe survey or updating an existing one to reflect the full range of subscriber motivations can be a big help.

How well is your email program fulfilling each level of the Hierarchy of Subscriber Needs?

Chad S. White

Chad S. White

Chad S. White was the Research Director at Litmus