One of email marketing’s great advantages is that it’s data-driven. You can modify what you send, when and to whom, based on the information you have about subscribers and their responses to your messages.

Segmentation and other targeting tactics become easier and more effective if you have relevant subscriber data. It’s tough to send a birthday email to a customer if you don’t know her birthday (you have a 1 in 365 chance of getting it right).

So where do you get the information you need to improve your targeting?

There are a lot of sources, but an obvious one is through the actual email sign-up form.

The only piece of information you absolutely must collect with this form is…(surprise!)…the email address. But a form’s a form, which means you can theoretically ask for other information, too.

Here are four tips for making the most of that opportunity:

1. Only ask for information you really need

The priority is the email address and completion of the sign-up process. As we mentioned in an earlier post, every additional piece of information you request adds friction to this process and likely reduces completion rates.

There are many ways to collect data after the initial sign-up (for example on the confirmation page), so limit yourself to requesting important information only.

Additional form fields don’t just affect completion rates, either. When you ask for information, it raises expectations in the subscriber: ask for content preferences and they’ll expect to see them honored.

So collect information you really will use, either in your current email program or in the near future, and avoid asking for information just for the sake of doing so.

It’s about finding the right trade-off between additional data and declining sign-up rates. If in doubt, conduct a few tests. See how additional form fields affect completion rates and then compare the loss with the expected gains through the richer data you can use.

2. Be explicit

Avoid collecting information that requires assumptions and interpretation on your part. If you want to know if people are in the market for SEO services, don’t ask if they’re interested in SEO: ask about their purchase intentions regarding  SEO services.

3. Give subscribers a reason to give you (accurate) information

The willingness to hand over accurate information is closely related to the perceived value of doing so. Two aspects help you here.

First, the more value you offer, the more the subscriber will be willing to “pay” in terms of information. So clearly communicate the benefits of signing-up.

Second, is it clear how that information will help subscribers? If you ask for a zip code, people are more likely to give it if you can say, for example, “We’d like to send you exclusive invites to in-store events.”

4. Demonstrate trust

With all the privacy concerns online, provide relevant trust signals to reassure subscribers their data is in good hands: a clear opt-in process, privacy or security certification, links to privacy policies, etc. can all help.

Be on the lookout for more data-collection tips in future posts!

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