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Email Preference Centers Explained. Here’s What It Takes

OK gang. Let’s talk Email Preference Centers: one of the many white whales of org email engagement.

What is an Email Preference Center?

In case you don’t know – an Email Preference Center is basically a mechanism for constituents to let you know when they want to hear from you. 

These webpages – typically hosted on an org’s email marketing platform – let email recipients opt in (or out) of different communications. Here’s an example of Fast Forward’s preference center, powered by Hubspot:

As you can see, Fast Forward puts out many emails. With this, I can choose the topics I want to hear about (and presumably, Fast Forward’s marketing guru will honor that preference!)

Why have an Email Preference Center at all?

The main draw is they can reduce unsubscribes. Remember, US law requires that people have a way to opt out of your org’s emails. This is usually the unsubscribe link you see at the bottom of every marketing email.

The link in Fast Forward’s newsletter that takes me to their Email Preference Center

With an email preference center link, you give folks another option. It’s like stopping someone before they opt out to say “hey, before you go away and we never email you again, see if there’s something else here you like.”

In some cases, that will help you retain subscribers. Other perks of EPC’s:

  • They can be a good tool to segment your audience
  • They can help you better maintain your lists
  • They can create a better email experience, by giving your audience a choice to “opt-down” instead of just opting out
  • They’re a passive way of promoting your different email programs

So does your org need one?

If your org only sends 1-2 kinds of emails, then you’re probably okay to wait on this one.

But if you’re working with a sizable email program, consider adding this project to the list. (Think if your org sends multiple announcements or newsletters, on top of your fundraising appeals.) You may also want to consider an EPC if your subscriber base is massive, or if you send many emails per month.

p.s. While most email preference centers are content-based, it’s totally possible to have an EPC that’s frequency-based. Check out the examples in this SendGrid article.

What does it take to set up an Email Preference Center?

If you’re thinking “this seems like a slam dunk”, it may very well be! But I’ve found that actually implementing an EPC isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. And here’s why.

When it comes to managing people’s communication preferences generally, we need to have systems & processes in place that allow us to collect & routinely act on that information. Otherwise, it’s just a well-intentioned mess.

Where EPCs are concerned, you need to run a fairly tidy email marketing ship for the tech to translate. Those logistics look like this.

1) Your org knows its audience(s)

Say you want to show certain preference options to certain groups of constituents (for ex. donors vs students). Or, maybe you need preference centers available in multiple languages. Maybe some constituents should be opted into specific preferences by default, so that those are reflected when they first land on your EPC! This is a lot to consider.

The best EPCs are thoughtful and relevant. That comes with understanding each of your different types of constituents.

For orgs that need multiple EPCs, half the battle will be remembering to include the correct links in all your outgoing emails 😌

2) Your org has clear & reliable preference categories for every type of email

Depending on how cut-&-dry your lists are, these options could be the lists themselves. (Think “newsletter 1” and “newsletter 2”). But maybe your org is like most, and you send one-off emails that don’t fall into neat lists.

To build a content-based EPC, you’ll want to identify the full universe of email categories & decide which are preference-worthy. (At that point, someone else will have to work on coming up with external-friendly preference names & descriptors!)

3) Your org’s marketing function can comply with these preferences

Let’s say I receive an org’s newsletter. Using their EPC, I opt out of the newsletter and I opt in to event announcements. Two things should happen going forward: 1) I should be excluded from receiving newsletter emails AND 2) I should start getting event announcements. Right?

If that sounds simple, keep in mind that some orgs take a de-centralized approach to email marketing. Maybe different people are doing that work, or maybe those lists are maintained separately. To reach that seamlessness, your systems (and people) need to talk to each other. Which brings us to the next point….

4) There’s synchronicity between where you pull lists and where you store preferences

If lists are borne in the same place where preferences are stored, then this is easy. But let’s keep this interesting/realistic & assume otherwise.

Maybe your lists regularly come from one (or several) spreadsheets. Or event forms. Or your CRM, because that should have the best data on your constituents anyway. Yet all preference data lives separately in your email marketing platform.

Sticking to our example…When x email goes out, we need to 1) remove or suppress people who have opted out of preference x AND 2) add folks who opted in to preference x, but are missing from that original list. Your org simply can’t do that if there’s no way – manually or automatically – to account for missing preference data within those email lists. Which brings us to the last point.

5) Your email marketing platform has solid functionality to meet your EPC needs

If you take away anything from this post, I hope it’s this: setting up an EPC isn’t one obvious answer. It can take a bit of tech architecting to come up with the right solution. (Remember, we haven’t even started to discuss what actually happens in the backend to honor all these preferences! )

So it helps when your email platform has robust EPC features to help you consider those options. Here are some good things to look out for include:

  • General Email Preference Center support
  • Suppression lists
  • Assets that can be translated to multiple languages
  • Dynamic preference categories
  • Custom fields (for segmentation)

Good luck, social impact fam.

May this info bring you ever closer to that white whale.

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