Fighting marketing fatigue White Paper
Fighting marketing fatigue: Perceived relevance
is the key to increasing message frequency and
Empirical research findings challenge traditional perspectives on email
marketing fatigue and revolutionise outbound marketing strategies
Recent research* published in the Journal of Advertising (US) analysed the email marketing behaviour of
nearly 15,000 consumers over a three-month period. Among the key findings, the research revealed that the
number of messages delivered by marketers can be safely increased if recipients perceive communications to
be personalised and relevant. The study found that the recipients’ recollection of message frequency was
lower when email subject lines and email copy were perceived to be relevant by the recipient—even when
the frequency of communications was increased over time. It seems marketing fatigue is not measured by
actual communication frequency, but ‘perceived frequency’ leading to a revolutionary finding: marketers can
safely increase the number of communications without fatiguing a target audience if communications are
uniquely personalised at an individual level. Increased relevance also minimises the likelihood that more
frequent messaging will result in a negative perception of the brand or communication; as well as reduce
detrimental outcomes such as opt-outs or worse, spam complaints.
This white paper will contextualise these research findings for marketers and reveal key insights and
recommendations for maximising conversion and engagement in email campaigns and minimising
damaging outcomes from these communications.
Re-thinking the concept of marketing pressure
It is every marketer’s dream to communicate nonstop via all available channels. In theory, this could
guarantee maximum exposure to messages and boost conversion rates to peak levels. In reality, things are
different. Since the inception of digital marketing, the marginal cost per communication has decreased
significantly leading to economies that gave birth to mass communication techniques like batch-and-blast
email campaigns. In a foreseeable pendulum movement, consumers embraced SPAM filters, junk mail
buttons, unsubscribe links and complaints to ISPs, which gave them significant power over marketing
outcomes. Two thirds of consumers say they receive too many messages, whether via email, call centres or
Consumers are overwhelmed, and they have the more control than ever before; using all
available privacy tools, they’re dramatically restricting the number of email communications that actually
make it to the inbox, much less get opened and read by consumers. That’s why response rates are
decreasing and database erosion continues to grow. Marketers are under increased pressure to find ways
to get in front of target audiences.
Table of contents
1: Re-thinking the
concept of marketing
3: From theory to
practice: 5 rules for
4: Taking Action
* Andrea Micheaux is Associate Professor at IAE, Lille University, France, and Associate Director of AID, Versailles, France, an Omnicom company.
Her research was published in the ‘Journal of Advertising’ in December 2011 in the USA (‘Managing e-mail Advertising Frequency from the
Consumer Perspective’ / #40, N° 4, Winter 2011 p 45-66, Publisher: American Academy of Advertising). The article can be purchased online:
The study uses an actual prospect database belonging to a credit consumer company. Andrea Micheaux targeted close to 15,000 people over a
period of several months. The test is based on the delivery of multiple emails with different properties: subject, content, colours, message type
and sender. All combinations were tested taking into account the repetition of messages in time (up to 6 messages per person). The quantitative
test protocol was backed up by qualitative surveys taken by the recipients.
†Forrester Research, Inc., ‘Marketers: Stop the Abuse! Adopt Preference Management’, July 22, 2009
is not measured by
leading to a
marketers can safely
increase the number
without fatiguing a
target audience if
at an individual level.
2Fighting marketing fatigue White Paper
These trends present challenging dilemmas for marketers. On the one hand, selling more seems to require
more communications. The widely accepted ‘Rule of 7’ suggests that marketing messages must be seen
seven times on average before a person will make a purchase. While this is a general concept, it strikes at
the core of the challenges marketers are faced with in the age of digital channels. Target audiences are
bombarded with messages and increased communications eventually leads to frustration and anger. For
many marketers, the solution is to communicate less, but in a highly engaging and personalised way; earn
relationships with double opt-in practices; and value them by carefully weighing the frequency and
volume of communications. Marketers then turn to marketing technology to implement and automatically
enforce communication throttles on the frequency of communications to ensure recipients are limited to
a finite number of messages over a given period of time. While this may reduce unsubscribes and
complaints, it does little to maximise revenue. This research actually suggests these traditional tactics are
leaving money on the table!
Marketing fatigue and communication frequency are certainly core challenges for marketers. How do you
communicate value propositions without overtly offending your target audience by sending too many
messages? How do you make sure they have been exposed to the brand enough times to maximise the
potential for a sale? How do you deal with pressure from the CEO to communicate more often and get
more out of the same budget? In the context of critical pressures marketers face, message frequency
would be top of the list. And most marketers would define the challenge of message frequency by ‘the
number of messages sent to a consumer’.
Unfortunately, many marketers are also under incredible pressure from internal stakeholders, the board
and shareholders to increase the volume of marketing messages in order to drive more revenue. In a
sense, marketing pressure could almost exclusively be defined by the need to manage communication
cadence and minimise fatigue. More money can be thrown at all kinds of different channels, but as soon as
the volume of messages becomes too high, contact lists start to shrink, customers opt out, and even an
unlimited marketing budget can’t fix the problem. But the research actually revealed that consumers don’t
measure fatigue exclusively by message volume or frequency; they measure fatigue based on perceived
relevance of the communication. As such, the real pressure for marketers need not come from internal
stakeholders, but from consumers themselves. This research shatters traditional thinking on marketing
communication and reveals message relevance plays an integral role in how consumers ‘perceive’
messages to be desirable or irrelevant.
Analysis on tens of thousands of emails over three months revealed that when email recipients judge
messages highly relevant, they were less likely to complain about message frequency and volume. Indeed,
perception is in the mind of the beholder.
But this poses a challenge for marketers because each individual will evaluate relevance differently. The
one consistent theme in the research showed that marketing fatigue was linked to the level of effort
required to read messages rather than the actual number of messages received.
Figure 1: How relevance impacts consumer perception. With the permission of M.E. Sharpe. Inc.
3Fighting marketing fatigue White Paper
In the above scenario (adapted from Micheaux 2011*), there are two critical milestones for shaping
consumer perception. Consumers evaluate the subject of an email first, to determine if the message is
worth reading. Emails that are not deemed relevant tend to be forgotten and left unopened, with no
significant impact on the brand. But if the email is classified as relevant by the consumer, there is a second
and far more critical milestone to overcome. Once the consumer has invested effort into reading the
content, the content must be perceived as relevant. This leads to outcomes in the green box and, based on
the findings, consumers have little to no fatigue with respect to these types of communications. However,
if the consumer invests time into opening an email and the content is not relevant, it is more likely to have
a negative impact on the brand and even the perception towards the channel (the red box). Ultimately, the
sum product of these outcomes influences how the consumer will react to future communications.
From theory to practice: 5 rules for managing marketing pressure
Taken a step further, the findings can be translated into a handful of ‘golden rules’ that, when mastered,
allow marketers to send even more communications with a high chance of increasing revenue and little
risk of fatiguing target audiences.
Figure 2: 5 rules for managing marketing pressure
These five rules allow markets to gain consumer respect and maximise conversion rates:
Individualise the approach. In order to minimise marketing pressure, it’s critical to manage relevance on
a consumer-by-consumer basis. Think of it more like a detailed contact management strategy whereby
communications are optimised using consumer purchase date, behaviour, demographics, preferences and
any potential source of online or offline data about a particular individual. It’s offer optimisation on a
one-to-one level. Traditional practices would apply a generic communication threshold to all customers
and prospects, business rules that generically define how frequently any given individual could receive a
message. But individualising communication would define communication thresholds on an individual
basis to maximise sales. For some prospects or customers, increasing message relevance may allow
marketers to increase communications by 2 to 3 times the standard rate, leading to increases in sales and
Focus on message relevance. Figure 1 underlines the fact that after a consumer has determined an email
subject is not relevant, there is little impact, negative or positive, on the brand or consumer perception.
But if a message is opened that the consumer thinks is relevant, and it’s not relevant, this actually damages
the brand and decreases future chances of success. So, step one is making sure communications are highly
targeted and personalised. Keep in mind, research has already suggested that personalisation and 1-to-1
messaging increases conversion and response rates. According to Gartner, Inc., “A well-crafted, targeted
email (i.e. one that is better targeted and sent in smaller lots to specific segments) can receive a 10% to
15% response rate, which is higher than non-targeted, stand-alone mass mailings.”‡
This new research
shows that personalisation also decreases marketing fatigue. It’s a win-win scenario.
4Fighting marketing fatigue White Paper
Increase message volume. In practice, once the relevance condition has been met, marketers can
increase (to a certain extent) the volume and frequency of communications, but only if those
communications are designed to continue delivering highly personalised and relevant messages. The
research also shows marketers can send relevant messages multiple times to maximise results. This means
that more relevance doesn’t mean the level of complexity has to rise exponentially for marketing.
Provide guidance. Don’t leave it up to the consumer to guess if messages are relevant. Rather, make it
explicitly clear through subject lines that will help them decide whether or not to open the message.
Remember, there’s no penalty for helping consumers classify messages as irrelevant before they open
them. Having said that, it’s critical to maintain the same messaging from the subject to the actual email
copy. The goal is not to fool them to open an email based on an appealing subject and then disappoint
with a non-relevant message in the body.
When in doubt, simplify. If a marketer doesn’t know if a message is relevant enough, it’s best to use a
simple, graphical or fun message. In this instance, the less you say, the less likely you will create a negative
outcome. By adopting the customer’s point of view, intelligent marketing pressure management is
guaranteed to increase the number of impressions, in turn increasing conversion.
Today, consumers actually expect a very high level of personalisation, much greater than what is currently
provided. In a recent Forrester Research study, 90% of consumers indicated the messages they receive
aren’t suited to their needs or expectations.†
Drawing on the conclusions of the Andrea Micheaux study,
it could be possible to conduct content relevance scoring.§
This approach could leverage a relevance
indicator for each recipient/message couple. The indicator could be calculated using all the information
available on recipients (channel behaviour, demographics, profile information, preferences, etc.).
Communication strategies could then be uniquely assigned and tracked based on the value of the
relevance indicator, much like a scoring engine uses thresholds and business rules to optimise targets for
marketing campaigns based on buying behaviour.
High indicator: the message is very relevant
Message format can be whatever you want and message doesn’t count
from an ad frequency perspective
Average indicator: relevance is uncertain
We need to captivate the recipient, either via form (images, animations)
or content (important announcements), and minimise the eﬀort required
to read the message
Low indicator: the message has very little chance of being relevant
We need to be brave enough not to send the message.
Figure 3: Relevance indicators.
To do this, marketers would need to assess the relevance of every single communication before
personalising each message on a one-to-one basis. Today, conversational marketing technologies can
help enable this type of intelligent and individualised management. Thanks to cross-channel campaign
management, inbound and outbound communication fusion, and real-time personalisation and
recommendation engines, marketers are provided with all the necessary capabilities to create and
capitalise on customer knowledge and calculate a relevance indicator to automatically adapt message
form, content and frequency.
† Forrester Research, Inc., ‘Marketers: Stop the Abuse! Adopt Preference Management’, July 22, 2009
‡ Gartner, Inc., ‘Hype Cycle for CRM Marketing Applications, 2012’, July 27, 2012
§ A. Micheaux, ‘Getting to the bottom of Pandora’s Box—Three ways data driven marketing can go off the rails and three ways taking the consumer perspective can
get it back on track’, Journal of Direct, Data and Digital Marketing Practise, Vol.14 N° 3 (Jan-March 2013), doi dddmp 2012.38. Forthcoming.