June 26, 2009, 12:00 AM

Retailers upgrade technology as they send more e-mail

Retailers increasingly integrate e-mail programs with analytics to send more personalized messages.

Retailers have always relied on e-mail marketing to drive sales. As the economic recession continues to take a toll on overall retail sales, e-mail marketing conversion rates are doing well and the majority of retailers are planning to invest even more in e-mail marketing, according to a recent Internet Retailer survey.

For example, 55.2% of retailers say e-mail marketing will perform better than search during the severe recession, the survey finds. Many marketers are turning more to e-mail today because they know they can control the message better than they can with e-mail marketing’s rival for dollars, paid search, experts say.

As a result, 51.6% of retailers plan to increase their use of e-mail marketing during the recession, the survey finds. 43.7% plan to keep e-mail marketing volume about the same while only 4.7% plan to decrease it.

Beefing up

In response, e-mail marketing service providers are beefing up their offerings, primarily through enhancing their analytics offerings or providing tighter integration with analytics and other marketing technologies retailers have in place.

“One focus is on integration with other communication channels that help e-mail marketers extend their reach beyond e-mail-for example, interacting with social marketing and mobile messaging,” says Tanya Hyde, vice president of professional services at Yesmail Inc. “Retailers are beginning to expect this today so they can see a broader view of their communication strategies and how they are working with e-mail.”

Indeed, social marketing is becoming increasingly important to retailers, and e-mail marketing services providers have begun integrating social functionality in e-mails.

Such social sharing tools are augmenting the common Forward to a Friend function. Some providers have developed social interfaces in-house while others have partnered with third-party providers. E-mail providers can embed a third-party provider’s tools into messages; that then allows recipients to post some or all of e-mail content on their pages on dozens of social networks. Social sharing in e-mail is not yet common, but some experts believe it’s on the way.

On the analytics front, many e-retailers are making more use of the analytics programs provided by e-mail marketing service providers or those of analytics firms that e-mail providers integrate with to help make better decisions about e-mail marketing campaigns.

Rich data

“There’s a tremendous amount of deep, rich data from an e-mail response standpoint. We have many clients who rely on our technology’s databases as their primary source of e-mail response information,” says Hyde of Yesmail. “Easy access to this information allows them to use it in multiple ways to make decisions on the fly. They’re tracking deliverability and initial response rates, then making follow-up decisions based on early results.”

On the back end, she adds, retailers are gaining a deeper understanding of campaigns through analytics. “How is your e-mail database growing and performing,” she says. “And a step further, study revenue information and see how your programs are performing on ROI metrics to get closer to hitting or exceeding those metrics.”

Personalizing e-mails is one method to hit goals that more e-mail marketers are using. Personalized e-mails are more relevant and as a result boost conversion rates, experts say.

“If a retailer is using ratings and reviews, for example, they can include some of that information in an e-mail message to further inform customers-not in a big brother way but in a friendly way so you are the friendly local retailer to them and not some anonymous big store,” says Julie M. Katz, an analyst who specializes in e-mail marketing at Forrester Research Inc. “This really helps marketers build a deeper relationship with their customers.”

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