Christina Tosi built an empire of sugar in the bakeshops and e-commerce business known as Milk Bar. In an interview with the Female Founders Fund, Tosi talked about the “goodness” inside of Milk Bar. It’s a business built with people for people. Everything about the brand is human from the range of product pricing to the design of the bakeshops. The goodness that radiates from the Milk Bar brand has made it beloved amongst home bakers and its community in NYC.

Milk Bar celebrates people and cake is the medium. Their motto, “everyone deserves celebration”, is simple and distinctly human. Tosi’s team believes that everyone deserves to be celebrated no matter their circumstances, so it partners with nonprofit organizations such as The Birthday Party Project to bring joy to children experiencing homelessness.

In March 2020 while we all sat at home unsure where the world was headed, Christina Tosi showed up for us on Instagram with a daily bake club for over 440,000 home bakers. We made popovers, pancakes, and cheese crackers. She played music and celebrated our birthdays while we used our hands, escaped reality, and simply baked. Bake club is now a weekly event in its third year. Tosi posts recipes on her website, sharing in a way that no other bakeshop does because Milk Bar is all about building a community of people.

It was no surprise when a note arrived in my inbox straight from the Milk Bar team a month before Mother’s Day. 

They understand that Mother’s Day isn’t all flo(urs) and sugar, demonstrating its empathy for that position in its invitation to opt out of Mother’s Day email messages. The small sacrifice of a few eyeballs leading up to a holiday reinforces a brand that proves their empathy to us over and over.

Why should we choose empathy over eyeballs? With an average open rate of just over 22% and a CTR of just under 3%, we are putting our eggs in a pretty small basket when we rely on transactional email marketing. Email marketing gives us a megaphone to shout our message to as many people as will open the email. It’s measurable and pretty low-effort. Transactional email does not build great brands. Empathy through all channels, including email, does build great brands.

A survey by Capterra indicates that consumers might reward us for the privilege of opting out of select subscriber lists. 81% of consumers in the study were inspired to purchase from a brand after seeing holiday opt-out options. Brand authenticity is increasingly valued by consumers. 

The simple act of recognizing that a holiday email might be painful is a step toward building a relationship with consumers.

What if we allowed consumers to opt-out of email that they don’t want or email that they won’t open? What if we considered the implications to our brand of consumers receiving an email on a personally painful topic? What if we didn’t equate the size of our email subscriber list with affinity and stopped using that metric to define ourselves? And what if we decided to develop our own “goodness” to use the email to reinforce an empathetic brand?

The stationery brand, Papier, has measured their holiday opt-out efforts. A spokesperson reports that between 1.8-2.5% of subscribers have declined specific holiday email messages. When you take a percentage as low as 2% of a subscriber base and layer on an average of 3% click through rate, the effort to build empathy with an entire subscriber list equals very little loss in the size of that list.

Empathy doesn’t cost much.

Furthermore, brand empathy is on the rise as user experience becomes central to brand building. Empathy takes many forms as brands seek to share in the human experience. Study after study tells us that Gen Z values authenticity and seeks to align with brands that they perceive to be authentic. The holiday opt-out is one way that personalization meets humanity. A great email list is a well-segmented one that ensures consumers are getting everything they need without anything they don’t at every stage of the customer journey. But, it doesn’t end there. Empathy is something that your brand shows up for every day through its actions.

Before you go out and send your subscriber list an invitation to opt-out, consider how to be an authentically empathetic brand. 

  1. Listen: Your data is telling you something. If consumers do not open your email, they are not compelled by it. Find out what compels them instead. Instead of always adding, what can you remove from the customer experience?
  2. Connect: The value exchange with your brand is for a feeling or association. Instead of maximizing for a single transaction, use email to connect with consumers for the long game with messages and actions that show your brand’s humanity.
  3. Amplify: Consumers have reasons and stories that shape their actions and decisions. Amplify those stories as a brand that cares about its consumers’ lived experiences.
  4. Facilitate: If a consumer opts out of a type of email message, use your CRM and social tools to ensure that you don’t serve those messages on social media or through text messages.
  5. Thank: Treat the opt-out like any other customer experience. Thank the consumer for opting out in your brand’s authentic voice. Give them a way to reconnect when and if they are ready.

The size of your email list does not determine your brand’s worth. Repeat that. One more time for good measure. Rather, email can reinforce brand and not diminish it if you consider how to use the opt-out strategically to reinforce empathy.

Cover image source:  Gajus