6 Tricks for Creating a Best-in-Class Preference Center Experience

Sometimes as marketers, we get so caught up in the latest and greatest day-to-day tactics that we forget to take time to plan. And when we don’t plan, we end up trying to hit a moving target. By starting with your customer’s wants and needs and working backward to your business goals, you can create a strategy for capturing the right information in an email preference center.

But why is capturing the right subscriber information important?

My colleague, Jeremy, just traveled to New York for a few days to provide some client training. To get some pep in his step the morning of day one, he walked across the street to an unnamed mega-chain coffee shop for his cup of jo and went on with the training session. The next day, in his pre-caffeine grogginess, he opened the door to the same shop. “Hey Jeremy, having that venti half-caff two-pump extra foam soy latte like yesterday?”

We all have a story like Jeremy’s, whether it’s a hotel we frequent on business travel, our favorite restaurant, or the local watering hole where “everyone knows our name.” And what’s the moral of that story? In the age of bumping into people on the sidewalk while looking down at our smartphones, someone cared enough to learn our name and something personal about us.

That’s effective with face-to-face interactions, but does it translate to digital marketing? The answer is yes, but…

Just like Billy the Barista (in a horrible twist of fate, Jeremy didn’t remember the barista’s name), digital marketers have to make an extra effort to create that personal connection. When we’re talking about email, an effective preference center can help. But where do we start?

What is it that you’re trying to accomplish? More importantly, what do your customers want from you and what do you know about them already? If we don’t answer those questions first, we can’t ask the user for the right information.

What are those tricks to getting subscribers to self-identify? Keeping the user front-and-center as we create a new preference center, we can follow some general guidelines for collecting valuable, actionable customer data and begin building true 1-to-1 relationships.

Here are a few recommendations for creating a meaningful and useful preference center, along with some examples of marketing teams that are doing it well:


1) Capture email address first, but immediately ask for preferences

A website visitor saw something that caught their eye. They’re picking up what you’re laying down. They found the email sign-up form and gave you their address. Psychologically, now’s the time to ask for more information. Form conversion specialists like Leadformly regularly see conversion rates improve by 200%-750% by asking few simple questions first, then asking for more detailed data. And if a user abandons the form without providing their preferences, you have their email address to ask them at a later date.

Online news and entertainment content producer Medium uses this tactic well.



2) Use a single-page form for updating preferences over time

Subscriber preferences change over time, and when they do, we need to direct them to a clean, single-page form. We should make this type of page easy to access from every email we send and even create email campaigns specifically directed at driving subscribers to this page on a regular basis.

The strategists at nimblejack love REI, and the outdoor gear company happens to do a fantastic job with its email marketing program. Here’s an example of a simple, one-page preference center that makes the user the center of attention. After being asked to help REI “dial it in” through the welcome email, the subscriber is routed to this screen:



3) Make most fields optional

Site traffic analysts, Quicksprout have found that conversion rates can double when adding the word “optional” to a contact form field. When we require answers in a preference center, a user can feel trapped. The relationship can feel a little one-sided in favor of the company, which breaks down trust.


4) Be transparent and set expectations

You’re selling me shoes, why do you need to know my birthdate? I’m not sure if I want to sign up for your newsletter and get spammed 4 times a week with irrelevant coupons. Preference centers should help build trust. Transparency about how often you’ll communicate and what you’ll be talking about will help. A good preference center should never feel like it’s hiding something.

Video hosting company Wistia, tells subscribers how often they’ll be getting certain emails and what they’ll read in each communication.




5) Avoid turning the preference center into a survey

Only collect data that you can and will actually use. Subscribers expect marketers to use the data they have at their fingertips. But not all customer data should be collected in a preference center. Some marketers try to capture deeper insights in a web of complex forms that can massively increase the abandon rate of a preference center. Customer feedback and free-form fields are helpful, but leave those to a standalone survey campaign. Decide whether or not a subscriber would be able to make a quick connection between the question you’re asking and the emails you’ll be sending. If not, don’t ask.


6) Utilize an ‘opt-down’ alternative

Break-ups are hard. Turns out that 3 of 4 users trying to unsubscribe from emails don’t really want to end things completely. They’re just not getting what they want from the relationship. What if you could convince just half of those to-be exes to stick around? CAN-SPAM requires U.S. companies to make the unsubscribe process clear and easy. But you can do that in a way that gives the subscriber options.

Refinery29 does this incredibly well. The tone of the copy is on-brand while using a human voice. It’s friendly, empathetic, and provides a couple different paths to solve a problem. It provides information on the current subscription and how they can change settings going forward. A soft guilt-trip there at the end doesn’t hurt either.


The ultimate objective here is to personalize each customer’s email experience and delight them with information, recommendations, and incentives that mean something to them. Personalized customer experiences, email and otherwise, build trust. Trust breeds loyalty, and over time loyalty becomes advocacy. That’s what every business really wants from its customers, right?

In Jeremy’s words, “I didn’t know that guy in the coffee shop from a ham sandwich, but you better believe I went back in there the next day.”

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6 East Washington St. #200
Indianapolis, IN 46204