March 31, 2008, 12:00 AM

Putting Pitches to the Test

Marketers may think they have crafted the best e-mail message, but first they have to prove it.

It turns out Bluefly Inc.’s animated customers spend more money. No, not Mickey Mouse or Bugs Bunny, but real people who received a new kind of message from the fashion and accessories e-retailer. Bluefly crafted an e-mail marketing pitch that included animated text and tested it to see how customers would respond.

The text in question was “Shhhhh,” which scrolled across the message. The marketing team decided on a light-hearted approach to promote a private sale for select Bluefly customers, 35% of the e-retailer’s e-mail list.

Bluefly used web analytics to parse the data from the test and found a 5% increase in the click-through rate for recipients of the animated version of “Shhhhh” over recipients of the non-animated version. But more important: Animated shoppers who clicked through generated a 12% increase in dollars spent compared with non-animated shoppers who clicked through.

“It’s something we’ll send again coming up with another sale,” says Joellen Nicholson, director of marketing at Bluefly. “And we’re going to change the percentage, giving more people the animation to see how the metrics play out to see if it’s a clear and distinct winner.”

Web analytics is crucial to understanding the success of such campaigns, and Bluefly greatly relies on the technology, from analytics vendor Coremetrics Inc. and its e-mail marketing services firm, e-Dialog Inc. “We use web analytics extensively, looking at daily, weekly, monthly and quarterly reports to track e-mail performance,” Nicholson says. “It’s continual analysis.”

Test and analyze

Many e-commerce marketers cannot stress enough the need to test e-mail pitches and the value of web analytics technology in determining the best message. Constant testing ensures e-mail marketing success, they say, and informed and thorough use of web analytics ensures accurate readings of tests.

“We test everything in a pitch, even down to things like do you spell out the number five or put the numeral 5, and when to use an exclamation point,” says Glenn Edelman, vice president of marketing at Wine Enthusiast Companies.

One of the best places to start testing a pitch, some retailers say, is where customers start: the subject line. When Nicholson joined Bluefly, one of her top priorities was testing the success of subject lines in getting customers to open e-mails.

“We had a debate about being more creative and fun in subject lines,” she says. “In one case we tested ‘Gotta Have Gucci’ versus ‘Gucci Now Up to 40% Off.’ We saw up to 20% more opens with the fun subject line. And now we try to add more of that fun voice to our subject lines.”

Compelling text

Wine Enthusiast also repeatedly tests subject lines, taking a similar approach to Bluefly. The subject line is key to success, Edelman says, because it begins the process of e-mail marketing. He compares the qualities of an e-mail subject line to the cover of a catalog, saying if a catalog’s cover is not compelling, shoppers may never open it.

Edelman begins the process by asking his e-mail copywriter to give him 10 subject lines for one e-mail. The marketing team will study those and toss some more ideas around, eventually whittling the list to two or three.

“We’ll do A/B or A/B/C tests, generally taking up to 25% of our list and splitting that for a test,” explains Edelman, who uses e-mail services provider Responsive Email Inc. and web analytics vendor Omniture Inc. “We have a lot of our own branded products, and in one case we tested ‘Wine Enthusiast Wine Refrigerators’ versus ‘Our Wine Refrigerators.’ The ‘our’ registered as more personal to customers, and it won out.”

The subject is search

While fun or more personal subject lines may prove winning, there is an element of e-commerce marketing, some experts say, that many retailers may be overlooking when crafting subjects: search engine marketing.

“You can use e-mail marketing and search together,” says Chad White, director of retail insights at the Email Experience Council. “You can use popular keywords to help form subject lines. So if you know certain terms are getting lots of hits, those are some of the terms you want to use in your subject lines to boost open rates.”

After the subject line comes the meat of a pitch. Retailers can test everything from different offers to different content to different placement of content to see what makes customers go from their inboxes to e-commerce sites, and what makes them buy.

Living up to its name, e-retailer Discount Dance, which uses e-mail marketing services company Bronto Software Inc. and Google Analytics, recently tested a money-saving offer and was surprised by the results.

“We did an A/B test with a 20% sample of our list where one group of customers got $5 off $50 and another got $10 off $75,” says John T. Miller, I.T. director at Discount Dance. He also heads e-mail marketing efforts. “It was odd-we actually got more response off the $5 off $50, even though the other is a higher discount percentage. Since then we’ve stuck with $5 off $50.”

Bluefly, meanwhile, which positions itself as a fashion retailer atop the latest trends, was busy testing a pitch based on the dream of many clotheshorses-gaining access to the closets at fashion magazine publishers that contain all the freebies sent to magazine staff from designers. The e-retailer calls this sale The Blue Room.

“The Blue Room offers merchandise at a deeper discount, and the only way to get to it is through e-mail,” Nicholson explains. “We’ve gotten a 20% lift in click-through rates, and the dollars per thousand and orders per thousand are significantly higher than regular e-mails.”

More, more, more

While an e-mail pitch may contain highly coveted merchandise, what happens if the customers on the receiving end simply are not interested in that particular merchandise? Focusing an e-mail entirely on one product or offer may not always be the best route. This is what wine retailer Vinfolio learned after running some tests.

“If we’re marketing a Burgundy one day, for instance, but customers are more interested in other things that day, we need to give them ways to get to other things on the web site,” says Rachel Blatt, vice president of marketing at Vinfolio, which uses e-mail marketing services firm Aggregate Knowledge Inc. and Google Analytics.

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