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While the mobile channel and social media represents new and sexy ways to reach consumers through e-mail, retailers should not forget the fundamental blocking and tackling techniques that have made e-mail one of the most reliable forms of marketing.
Creating lifecycle campaigns that maintain steady contact with consumers is a core strategy. Starting with welcome messages when a consumer opts in to a retailer's e-mail list and continuing with birthday greetings, post-sale follow-up and product care tips, there is no shortage of messages that can be sent to customers over the course of the relationship.
"Lifecycle campaigns are set up according to specific triggers, so opportunities are not missed," says Bronto's Gregory. "Lifecycle messages speak directly to the consumer in very targeted and timely ways so the open rates tend to be in the 30% to 80% range, usually significantly higher than regular broadcast sends."
Another basic of e-mail marketing is to use images wisely. While images can sometimes slow downloads, a few well-placed images can greatly enhance an e-mail's effectiveness. In terms of placement, images put off to one side allow for text and image to share the prime space above the fold.
"All the pertinent information should really be put in the preview pane," says Gregory. "There has to be a good balance between HTML text and images so that consumers scanning their e-mail understand what you're trying to convey—even with images off."
Bronto provides such features as dynamic content and advanced analytics that enable retailers to deliver relevant, timely e-mail messages, as well as delivering e-mail and social media messages and SMS texts to mobile phones.
Just for you
Personalization is another critical element of e-mail marketing, and one that offers even more potential today because consumers reveal more information about themselves via social networks. Retailers have more opportunities than ever to accumulate information about consumers to segment their e-mail marketing lists. Two key segments include their best customers, those that represent the greatest lifetime value, and evangelists, shoppers who are anxious to proclaim their appreciation of the retailer's merchandise.
Thanking high-value customers and brand evangelists for their loyalty by offering exclusive deals or sneak previews of incoming merchandise speaks to them on a personal level and can significantly increase future open and click-through rates for a retailer's e-mail.
"Once the decision to segment the list is made, retailers need to decide how finely they want to slice and dice it," says StrongMail's Trivunovic. "The goal is to identify segments that retailers know the most about, and express that knowledge in a way that creates a very personalized experience. The more personal the e-mail the better the response to it will be."
Better segmentation not only leads to higher open rates, it can open the door to more opportunities to communicate with consumers through e-mail. "A lot of retailers don't e-mail with enough frequency because they overlook opportunities to send an e-mail," says Emailvision's Heys. "Using customer intelligence applications can help them unearth new up-sell and cross-sell opportunities."
Customer intelligence is a segmentation practice based on consumer behavior. For example, a retailer of outdoor apparel and gear might want to reach out to customers that have purchased hiking boots in order to offer them related accessories, such as socks, rain gear and water bottles. The retailer can filter out those consumers who purchased their boots at least six months ago, then segment by gender, in order to send out well-targeted e-mail offers that will not seem overly intrusive.
"Customer intelligence used to be for identifying which customers not to (snail) mail to, but by reversing its use for e-mail, retailers can identify new opportunities to reach out to customers," says Heys. "Customer intelligence is bringing more of the discipline used in traditional direct marketing to e-mail."
In June, Emailvision acquired smartFocus, provider of multichannel marketing and analytics software, for its customer intelligence capabilities.
One fundamental that should not be forgotten is the need to test all aspects of an e-mail campaign. "Everything from what's in the subject line and its length to layout and timing of the message should be tested," says Trivunovic. "E-mail best practices evolve, so retailers need to constantly test to find out what is working now for their customers."
StrongMail's Message Studio platform enables marketers to create and deliver batch and event-triggered e-mail campaigns. Features include drag-and-drop lifecycle marketing program design, automated real-time or batch delivery, multivariate and A/B testing, social marketing capabilities, real-time reporting and sample best practice e-mail templates.
The value of video
With consumers becoming accustomed to watching video on web sites of all kinds, adding video to e-mail can greatly enhance its appeal. The mere mention of video in the subject line can significantly boost open rates, according to Bronto's Gregory. Deciding what type of video to include, however, poses a serious challenge, because it must be relevant to the consumer.
While many retailers opt for videos that educate consumers about a product, the entertainment value can be just as important in attracting and maintaining the consumer's interest. Apparel retailers, for instance, can create video fashion shows, complete with models walking down the runaway to display the coming season's fashions.
Potential drawbacks to video are that image quality and the ability of the consumer's e-mail program to quickly download and play the video significantly influence how consumers respond to it. These problems are magnified for consumers that read their e-mail on a mobile phone, as video-playing technology readily available on personal computers may not work on certain mobile phones.
For example, while a Flash video may play on some mobile devices, it will not play on such popular Apple Inc. devices as the iPhone, iPod Touch and the iPad. "If the video doesn't play or isn't playing properly, retailers lose their opportunity to communicate with the customer," says Ability Commerce's Buzzeo. "Without knowing what type of device the e-mail will be opened on, it is becoming more difficult to confidently embed video in an e-mail. The safest bet is to leave video out of the message unless it has been extensively tested on different mobile and desktop operating systems."