August 1, 2012, 12:00 AM

Special Report: Stretching e-mail marketing's utility

Retailers today can apply the growing capabilities of e-mail marketing programs to target customers across devices and venues.

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Retailers know that if their e-mails are to stand out in overcrowded inboxes, they must deliver messages with relevant subject lines and content that quickly conveys the value of their offers.

But that's just the tip of the iceberg. Retailers must also overcome myriad technical challenges when communicating with consumers through e-mail, such as formatting their messages for mobile devices, preventing slow message downloads and opens, leveraging social media sharing buttons in their e-mails and finding ways to tie their e-mails to retargeting campaigns, all while making sure their messages don't get tagged as spam by Google, Yahoo, MSN and AOL, the guardians of consumers' inboxes.

That's a lot to deal with, yet the savviest retailers understand that e-mail remains the most effective arrow in their quiver for communicating with consumers, boosting customer loyalty and driving sales through their online and offline channels. In 2012, every dollar invested in e-mail marketing will return $39.40 in sales, according to a forecast by the Direct Marketing Association, an industry trade group.

Because e-mail marketing is about delivering value and relevancy, one e-mail strategy retailers are paying attention to is e-mail retargeting, also called e-mail remarketing. This type of trigger campaign is applied to shoppers who have visited a web site, but have left without making a purchase.

"Retargeting can be an effective strategy to get shoppers to make a purchase after they have abandoned the shopping cart because they were most likely ready to purchase the items in the cart and need a reminder or incentive to make that happen," says Heather Blank, vice president of strategic services for marketing services provider Responsys.

Some e-mail marketing providers are embedding tracking cookies in e-mails to identify each customer who opens an e-mail. A retailer is then able to tie the cookie back to a customer ID and do retargeting based on e-mail activity and additional customer data such as customer value and purchase history. A retailer may also be able to identify the consumer and match an e-mail address to her even if she visits the site directly, based on information shared in prior visits.

"As the consumer moves through the site, the retailer can see what pages were visited and which products were viewed and can use that information for retargeting campaigns," says Blank, who adds the cookies are used in e-mail campaigns built from opt-in e-mail marketing lists. "The information gathered by the cookie can also be used to create more personalized marketing campaigns in general, because every time the cookie is recognized by the retailer's web site, the movement of that consumer across the site is linked back to a specific e-mail address."

Collecting data from across all customer touch points and leveraging that data to make it usable in a targeted way is important to online marketers' success today, says Nick Heys, founder and CEO of Emailvision, a provider of online relationship marketing software tools encompassing e-mail, mobile and social media marketing. "With the appropriate tools digital marketers can better understand their customer profiles to develop targeted, highly personalized communications that are both relevant and engaging," Heys says.

Time it right

The timing of messages plays a critical role in the success of an abandoned-cart reminder e-mail series. In a recent study, Bronto Software found that the average interval between a shopper abandoning his cart and a retailer sending its first reminder e-mail is 30 hours, though some retailers sent e-mails as soon as 45 minutes post-abandonment.

"Sending an abandoned cart reminder is great, but a series of messages can be even more effective at providing a positive customer service experience and driving sales," says Jim Davidson, manager of marketing research for Bronto Software. "The first e-mail can serve as a reminder and following messages can reinforce the urgency to complete the purchase. Abandoned-cart reminder e-mails have seen 20% conversion rates for Bronto clients."

The subject line should reference the cart or encourage the shopper to "complete your purchase" so the intent of the message is easily understood. The first message can use a customer service theme to remind the shopper that items were left in her shopping cart. Bronto found that 77% of brands took this approach and avoided including an incentive to complete the purchase. The second message can convey a greater sense of urgency, such as how many days have passed since items were left in the shopping cart. This message can also introduce a limited time offer, such as free shipping, or a discount to complete the purchase. The final message can balance the mix of customer service and promotion by informing the shopper that both the cart and the offer are about to expire.

"Retailers can include incentives like free shipping or a discount for making the purchase today, however a simple reminder can be enough to encourage the consumer to complete the purchase," Davidson says.

Retailers also should experiment with different messaging techniques and content to see which brings consumers back most often. Performance testing and message optimization should be routine, Heys says. "Retailers should always be managing a cycle of testing and learning for all their campaigns, doing more of what works best and less of what doesn't," he says. Some of the key things to test, he adds, are subject lines, send from addresses, message content, as well as offers.

Say it right

An effective subject line, for any type of promotional e-mail message, sparks consumers' interest by telling them the purpose of the message and, at the same time, enticing them to open it. Testing how consumers respond to different subject line strategies can be revealing. WagJag.com, a Canadian daily-deal retailer, for example, ran subject line tests using Bronto's testing platform and improved the open rate for its daily e-mails by 5% after the tests revealed that consumers responded better when WagJag replaced percentage-off savings messages with more intriguing language. WagJag.com says the tests showed that its customers already understood that WagJag messages contain money-saving deals, and WagJag had to pique their interest another way if it wanted consumers to open them.

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