July 2, 2012, 10:55 AM

E-mail Benchmarks

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While consumers have grown to expect these discounts, they're less of a differentiator because they are so common. Retailers can still distinguish themselves by increasing the sophistication of their e-mail programs through tactics such as behavior-triggered messaging. Offering content that's more personal, more targeted and more relevant is how you create value and beat the competition.

For two years, this study has evaluated the types of discounts offered, and in both years many retailers offered a mix of three major types of offers: percentage off, free shipping and dollars off. The Top 500 brands offered subscribers all three incentives much more frequently (36%) than the remaining group (23%).

Offering a combination of discount options is the best way to appeal to the largest possible audience. Consider calculating the math for your subscribers, presenting them with their exact savings. Keeping their experience as simple and streamlined as possible will help improve the customer experience and close the sale.

More social sharing

In 2011, more Top 500 retailers included social links in e-mails, and this remains a key differentiator between this top group and the others. While eight of every 10 Top 500 retailers include a social link in e-mail, only half of the retailers within the remaining group do so.

What's more, 2011 showed a shift in how retailers used social links, with the majority now using both the "Share" and the "Like/Follow" option, whereas in 2010 most retailers only offered subscribers the ability to "Like/Follow" their brand. Almost three-quarters of those who used social media at all offered subscribers the ability to both share the e-mail and "Like" or "Follow" the brand on their social network page. This indicates that retailers are gaining confidence with social media, recognizing its importance in increasing message reach, and looking for new ways to build social connections with subscribers.

Now that marketers are using these social tools more frequently within e-mails, we recommend focusing on using them more strategically by creating stand-alone e-mails designed specifically to be shared. Testing the various components of social-sharing initiatives—such as potential offers, language and location—will yield strong data for how to proceed.

Unsubscribe options

Although directing consumers who click on the unsubscribe link to a combination preference page/unsubscribe page can salvage many relationships, even fewer retailers did so in 2011 than in 2010. Of the Top 500, only one-third offered their subscribers the chance to update preferences, and that figure falls to 19% among the remaining retailers.

While we encourage retailers to offer opt-out alternatives, it's important to make the unsubscribe language and process clear and simple. Keep the tone service-oriented. Give subscribers the choice to change the frequency of e-mails and the channel by which they hear from you, but don't make the process unnecessarily complicated. Providing them the opportunity to tweak can ensure you keep the relationship.

As communication channels evolve along with how consumers use them, it's more challenging than ever for online retailers to differentiate themselves. Those that prioritize the long-term relationship with their subscribers stand to gain the most. Even in this digital age, retailers will benefit by taking a few cues from the old-fashioned retailers' guidebook to personalize with customers. Capitalizing on every opportunity to engage and learn what these customers value will help ensure more relevant messaging that builds brand awareness and appreciation, solidifies relationships, and drives revenue.

Greeting new customers, for example, makes good business sense, as does taking the time to find out what they're interested in. Reminding them when a sale or reward certificate's deadline is approaching is both courteous and potentially beneficial to your bottom line. Ensuring volume is balanced with a valuable, improved experience overall will safeguard you from overwhelming subscribers. And offering subscribers more choices at opt-in, throughout the relationship and at opt-out will make their shopping experience more pleasant, decrease churn and boost revenue.

By continuing to harness e-mail's full potential, retailers can step up their odds of success.

Loren McDonald is vice president of industry relations at Silverpop.

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