Optimizing email marketing

PhD student Nell Putnam-Farr’s research investigates more effective email marketing techniques

February 26, 2014

PhD student Nell Putnam-Farr and her daughter (Photo: Frederick Bolzan) PhD student Nell Putnam-Farr and her daughter (Photo: Frederick Bolzan)

Program marketers can increase participation rates by simply giving people a chance to say “yes” or “no” on email solicitations, MIT Sloan School of Management PhD candidate Nell Putnam-Farr, MBA ’10, has found.

Putnam-Farr teamed with Jason Riis, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School (now visiting the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania), on a study focusing on how a “yes” or “no” email response option affected participation rates in corporate wellness programs offered by RedBrick Health, a health engagement and behavior change technology company.

In conducting the study, Putnam-Farr and Riis aspired to determine whether giving people the option of clicking “yes” or “no” to enroll in either an online activity tracker or digital coaching program resulted in greater participation than the standard “click here to enroll” format. After two large field experiments involving nearly 40,000 people, the “yes” or “no” option was a clear winner in generating clicks and new enrollments. And the implications for both the population health management industry and the email marketing industry are potentially profound.

“We’d done a lot of reading about email optimization and nobody was talking about this sort of thing in email marketing,” says Putnam-Farr in explaining the genesis of the project. “So it was interesting to us that here was something practitioners weren’t really doing, but which builds on the research done in related choice processes.”

A large sample size

Putnam-Farr and Riis connected with RedBrick through a professional acquaintance and met with representatives from the company to discuss doing studies about the relationship between email marketing and response rates. With its large client base, RedBrick provided a great opportunity for the pair to conduct the study.

RedBrick offers a personalized approach to improving one’s health, by first identifying the health status of participants through an interactive health assessment; then by providing relevant program recommendations, tailored to each individual, that leverage the latest clinical and behavioral insights to help participants shape sustained healthy habits. Corporate clients, meanwhile, have a vested interest in offering the programs. As RAND Health concluded last year in a report sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, more than 60 percent of the companies in a large national survey stated that wellness programs had reduced health care costs and around four-fifths reported that they decreased absenteeism and increased productivity.

In one of their email studies, Putnam-Farr and Riis examined the outcomes of messages—either in a “yes” or “no” or opt-in format—sent to 25,282 employees of companies that offer RedBrick health and wellness programs. They found that the “yes” or “no” option resulted in a 40 percent higher response rate—13.5 percent to 9.5 percent—than the opt-in method.

Furthermore, they found that the superiority of the “yes” or “no” option was even more profound when examining ultimate enrollment. While 2.2 percent of the people who received the opt-in message enrolled in a wellness program, 3.8 percent of the employees receiving the “yes” or “no” invitation enrolled.

“There’s something about giving people a yes or no choice that makes people want to click yes,” Putnam-Farr says. “What’s interesting is trying to think about why that happens. What’s going on in people’s heads as they click ‘yes’?”

Putnam-Farr intends to conduct more research examining how companies and marketers might devise improved methods for increasing enrollment rates and program participation.

“We came into this thinking about it from a health perspective,” she says. “But we’re also trying to think about what the implications may be in other areas.” Those areas could include savings programs or gym memberships, and they are in the process of starting a new project to test the effect on charitable donations.

Charting a change of course

A New York native, Putnam-Farr received an undergraduate degree in economics from Williams College. After a few post-college years spent working for a hedge fund, she realized that the world of finance wasn’t really what she wanted in a career. She loved the business world, but found that spreadsheets and stock market prices didn’t interest her nearly as much as the impact of human behavior on the corporate bottom line.

She enrolled in the MBA program at MIT Sloan and developed an interest in energy efficiency. But Putnam-Farr once again realized that her real interest lay in studying human behavior.

“It seemed like energy efficiency is all about technology-based solutions,” she recalls. “But in health, it seemed like there was this huge problem in how you get people to change their behavior.” She decided to pursue a PhD focusing on that very subject.

“Before I came to the MBA program I had no idea that my life would go in this direction, but I’m glad it did,” she says. “I like being able to say that I’m going to do this project with this company and study questions of mutual interest to gain knowledge that the company can use on a practical basis.”