How often is too often to send an e-mail to someone? What’s the magic number of e-mails per day/week/month that defines the border between Helpful Communication and everyone’s nemesis, Spamistan?

That magic number is three.

Oh, was that not enough information for you? Oh, okay, I’ll spell it out. 

First of all, let’s all embrace the idea that one person’s spam is another person’s (um, your and my) job. Yes, there are messages that are always spam, like the ads for Canadian Viagra, Lovely Ladies Looking for Me (ladies, do you get spam about hunky guys who are new in town? Just wondering), Foreign Exchange Investing, and Re-growing Hair (huh… I just realized that a huge percentage of the spam we get is tangentially pharma related. I wonder what that means? Anyway…). 

But if these messages are spam for everyone, no one would ever make a dime from those e-mails. And if there wasn’t any money in it, no one would be spending money on sending them. Thus, there are people out there who believe that that pill is their long-lost answer to male pattern baldness. Even Viagra spam is someone’s idea of an interesting message.

So there’s no such thing as perfect spam (i.e. an e-mail message that has no value to anyone ever). That also means that there’s no such thing as a message that’s 100 percent interesting to everyone. Even e-mails I normally look forward to getting might feel like spam if I don’t have the money to spend on them today.

So everything is on a “spam spectrum,” as it were. A good marketer’s job is to position all the elements of an e-mail campaign to make the message feel relevant and useful to all the recipients (relevant and useful being the opposite of spam). This involves designing the e-mail to be readable, even if images are turned off, removing as many spam-flagging words as possible, picking a time to send when it won’t get lumped in with the rest of the early-morning or lunch-time spam waves, and doing the technical work to make sure e-mail servers don’t think it’s been mass-mailed from Russia. 

And good marketers will make sure that the content of the e-mails is actually useful to as many people as possible. 

I know it’s a given that we think that HCPs need to be sent an e-mail every X days or else they’ll forget about our brands. We think that if HCPs don’t see our logo every day, they’ll assume the brand is gone and never prescribe it again.

I’d like to challenge that assumption. I believe the if we sent an HCP five e-mails in a row, say, once a week or so, to explain the value of our brand, to show off its method of action, how it’s different, when to prescribe it, its safety record, you know, the entirety of our brand’s value proposition, we should stop and get out of our own way. Thereafter, just send news like new research, label changes, formulary changes, etc. Oh, and maybe an occasional “thanks.” And that’s it. 

As we get closer to better managed and used CRM systems we should be able to do this very easily. But instead, we take a few dozen messages and send them out every X number of days like clockwork. It doesn’t matter if there’s something useful or relevant to HCPs for us to send, we just send it because our instinct says a semi-worthless message is better than no message at all.

Which brings us back to the magic number three. No, what I’m about to say has not yet been tested. I’m basing it off my experience and some basic sociology and psychology. So here it is.

When your audience gets the third message in a row that it doesn’t see value and relevance in, they reach for the spam button. 

Of course, the issue is that what’s valuable to one person (male-pattern baldness cures) is worthless to many others. So a marketer’s goal is to build more and better high-value e-mails, ones that don’t invite spam complaints.

So you can see why I’m intrigued by the idea of short-course e-mail campaigns instead of year-long clockwork campaigns. By distilling your best content into a five-message run, you might have a more powerful campaign on your hands – one that actually costs less because you’ve stopped building and sending fluffy content that serves no purpose other than to count as a “touch” in your (okay, our) metrics. You’re able to focus on building a handful of killer messages instead of thinking up ways to spread your messages out even further. Remember, Apple built the capping to remake itself as a home-computing expert with a single ad that only ran once. Quality, not quantity, will put your message into your audience’s mind.