You Don’t Have a Preference Center Yet?

How letting customers managing their messaging preferences can boost retention and strengthen their relationship with your brand

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Messaging is a powerful marketing tool. Used wisely, it can boost customer engagement and retention, and support the creation and maintenance of durable customer/brand relationships. But given the sheer number of messages many customers receive and the rise of new messaging channels like web push and in-browser messages, it’s in every brand’s interest to ensure that customers aren’t being overwhelmed with outreach—after all, 78% of users will opt out of push notifications or uninstall an app completely if they receive push they don’t like.

One of the best ways to do that? Create a preference center and let customers decide for themselves how they want your brand to communicate with them. To help you get started, we’re going to take a look at:

  • What a preference center is
  • How creating a preference center can benefit your brand
  • How to organize your preference center
  • Common preference center issues to watch out for
  • How to get customers to use your preference center
  • And more…

Let’s get started!

What a preference center is

Essentially, a preference center is a page within an app or website that allows customers to adjust elements of their user experience with that brand. For many brands, the major function of this feature is to give customers the ability to weigh in on the outreach experience they prefer: what kinds of messages, on what subjects, and how often.

Preference centers are commonly associated with email—in part because laws like the U.S.’s CAN-SPAM Act and Canada’s CASL require that customers be able to opt out of receiving commercial emails—but preference centers can also cover other messaging types, such as push and SMS, as well as customer permissions like access to location data.

How creating a preference center can benefit your brand

At first glance, it’s understandable if preference centers seem like a bad deal for brands. You’re making it easy for customers to dial back how many messages you can send them, or even restrict your ability to reach them through some of your most powerful outreach channels. But the truth is, customers who don’t want to hear from you already have an easy way to make that happen—all they have to do is uninstall your app and unsubscribe from your emails.

Strong engagement, retention, and monetization don’t come from forcing your outreach down customers’ throats; they come from reaching your customers in ways that speak to them. And preference centers make it easier for marketers to do that. How?

1. Preference centers give dissatisfied customers choices beyond opting out or uninstalling

Imagine that you’re using an app that you like, but that sends you way, way more messages than you’d prefer. An email every day. 10 push notifications a week. A push and an email and a text message every time you make a purchase. Maybe you’ll stick around and weather the flood of outreach because you just love the app that much. But probably you’ll move on, uninstall the app, unsubscribe from its email list, and try out its competitors.

But what if you had other options? With access to a well-designed preference center, you could set limits on the number of messages that the app sends—for instance, no more than one message per day, and no text messages at all. If a customer is otherwise satisfied with a brand and the experience an app offers, a preference center can make the difference between a loyal user and an uninstall.

2. Customers who use preference centers are self-personalizing the outreach they receive

Brands spend a lot of time and money trying to understand their customers. Like collecting detailed demographic and behavioral information. Paying outside vendors for install attribution data. Tracking the outcome of every push notification, every campaign. All so that they can do a better job sending messages in the right channel at the right time with the right content.

But if your customers use your preference center, they can fill in a lot of that information themselves. If they’d rather get a push notification than an email, they can indicate that. If they’re only interested in hearing about sales and events, they can let you know. The closer your outreach matches what a customer is looking to get from your brand, the more relevant and valuable it’s going to feel.

3. Preference centers make customers feel like equal partners in the relationship

A successful customer/brand relationship is built on give-and-take. A customer who feels like your brand understands their preferences and works hard to honor them is going to be more invested than a customer who thinks that you just see them as a wallet. Sending customers messages that they’re not interested in is a quick way to undermine your relationship with them, and it’s an error that a lot of brands make—more than three-fourths of people say that most push notifications they receive are irrelevant.

When you provide customers with access to a preference center, that gives them the opportunity to explicitly express their preferences—and signals that you actually care what those preferences are.

How to organize your preference center

Preference center examples

There’s no single right way to do it. But however you choose to set things up, it’s important to give your customers the ability to meaningfully impact the way you reach out to them; otherwise, most of the benefits of a preference center will be lost.

In general, when putting together a messaging-focused preference center, there are three factors to keep in mind:

1. Messaging channel

If your brand only sends messages using a single channel (email, for instance), there’s no meaningful difference between a preference center that gives customers the ability to opt out of receiving emails from you and one that lets customers decline to receive any outreach. For brands that have a multichannel approach to their customer engagement, however, it makes sense to get more granular. By allowing customers to easily opt in or out of of each channel you use, you’re making it more likely that they’ll find the messages they DO receive from you appealing and worth engaging with.

2. Message frequency

Sometimes a customer’s frustration with a certain channel is really about how often they’re getting messages via that channel, rather than anything intrinsic to the message type. Someone who opts out of push notifications after receiving 10 push in a single week might have chosen to remain opted in if they were allowed to set a cap on how many times they heard from you in that channel. By letting customers control how frequently you message them in a particular channel (or across all channels) you can improve their experience of your brand and gather valuable information about how often your audience is interested in hearing from you.

3. Message topic

If your brand only send messages when you’re announcing a sale, there’s no benefit to letting customers determine what kind of outreach they get from you—either they’ll opt in and get sales announcements, or they’ll opt out and won’t. For brands that send a variety of different sorts of messages, allowing customers to determine what kind of content they’re interested in can be a powerful tool. A news app could allow customers to choose between breaking news alerts or highly granular topic-specific notifications; for instance, a customer might choose to only receive messages about entertainment and business news. With this kind of self-personalization, customers can get the content they want and brands can be confident that the messages they do send will be well-received, supporting a strong customer/brand relationship.

Common preference center issues to watch out for

A well-designed preference center should reflect your brand’s current outreach efforts and how they’re likely to evolve, but it also needs to take into account how your customers think and act. Finding the right fit for your brand and your customers will likely take time and it makes sense to keep iterating on your preference center as you learn more about how your audience actually uses it.

That being said, there are a few potential issues to watch out for:

1. Giving customers too many options

Some brands need a preference center with deeply granular options. Maybe they send a lot of messages on a number of different topics, and want to let their audience fully customize that intensive messaging. Maybe they’re a financial brand and it’s essential that customers feel in control of all aspects of their account, messaging included.

But for most brands, it’s important to make sure you’re not giving customers more options than they need. When people are presented with an excessive number of options, they’re often paralyzed and find it hard to make a choice. That means that a preference center that gives customers too much control might ironically end up being used less, reducing its value to your audience and your brand.

2. Giving customers options that don’t connect with your actual messaging

You want users to customize their experience of your brand’s messaging, but that customization will only pay dividends if it matches the outreach your brand actually sends. Letting a user indicate that they only want to receive emails on Monday makes sense if you send out a weekly newsletter on that day; it makes a lot less sense if you only send two or three messages a week on a variety of days, since that may mean that weeks pass without customers hearing from you. Make sure that the messaging options you give your customers actually reflect how you message them—otherwise, your preference center may do more harm than good.

3. Not respecting the preferences that your customers indicate

Your preference center can only serve its purpose if your brand is willing and able to implement the preferences that members of your audience express. A customer isn’t going to feel like your brand respects them and values them as a customer if you send them more messages than they indicated they want, or deliver outreach on topics they’ve said they’re not interested in. Even more seriously, continuing to send commercial emails to customers who have indicated they don’t want to receive them can damage your brand’s delivery reputation, making it hard to reach even highly-engaged users via this channel, and opens you up to millions of dollars in fines.

4. Forgetting that customers have other ways to indicate their preferences

A customer who has access to your brand’s preference center but doesn’t opt out of receiving emails from you might be interested in that outreach—or they might just be too unengaged with your brand to bother visiting the preference center in the first place. A preference center can be a great way to gather information about how your customers want to be engaged, but creating one doesn’t reduce the need for brands to be on the lookout for disengaged or lapsing users by other means.

How to get customers to use your preference center

Some particularly motivated users will explore your app or website so completely that they’ll find your preference center on their own. But for everybody else, you’re going to need a strategy if you want your audience to actually use your preference center.

For new app users, consider including information about your preference center in your onboarding process. By educating customers about it as they learn how to navigate your app, you can make setting messaging preferences feel like a normal part of the in-app experience, and ensure that even users who don’t use it right off the bat know where to find it later.

You could stop there, and hope that’s enough. But to ensure that older users know about the preference center—and given that it’s not unusual for customers to change their minds about how they’d like to be reached over time—it’s smart to reach out to them periodically to encourage them to update their preferences if they’ve evolved. In-app messages and News Feed Cards are good channels for this kind of campaign, since they don’t require customers to opt in and only reach people when they’re already using your app or website, making it easy for them to access the preference center.

Similarly, you may want to consider prompting customers to revisit their preferences if their engagement with your app or website changes significantly. Imagine a customer who indicates that they’re interested in messages related to wedding planning when they first download your app, but later begin engaging primarily with your brand’s pregnancy-related content. A campaign asking them if they want to update their messaging preferences could go a long way toward ensuring that the messages they’re receiving are the ones they’re really interested in.

What if you create a preference center and customers still opt out?

A preference center isn’t a magic bullet against messaging opt-outs. For customers who like your brand but have issues with your messaging, a preference center can be a good way to keep them from cutting off contact. But it won’t work for everyone.

Once a customer has opted out of receiving push notifications or unsubscribed from your email list, you do have the option of using push re-permission campaigns or email re-subscription campaigns to get them to change their mind. But it’s always better to keep customers from opting out in the first place. That means priming for push and explaining the value of joining your email list before asking customers to do so.

That being said, if even customers who have the ability to adjust the frequency, channel, and content of the messages they receive invariably opt against hearing from you, that’s a major sign that something has gone wrong with your messaging. To reduce the chances that you’re sending messages that customers won’t appreciate, use frequency capping to ensure that customers aren’t overwhelmed with outreach, make sure that you’re taking steps to understand your brand’s user experience, and don’t send messages unless you’re confident that recipients will find the outreach relevant and valuable.

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