August 1, 2012, 12:00 AM

Special Report: Stretching e-mail marketing's utility

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"A strong subject line can significantly impact open rates. Retailers should test subject line content, tone and length, because consumer responses can vary among brands. You need to see what works for your brand and your products," Davidson says. "It also helps to pay attention to what competitors and other e-mail marketers are doing with their subject lines."

Mobile messaging design

The near ubiquity of smartphones today also reinforces the need for retailers to regularly test and adjust their e-mail strategies. The majority of consumers with smartphones use their devices to read e-mail. 76% of smartphone users in the United States read e-mail on them, according to a 2011 survey by Pew Research Center.

Despite smartphones' immense popularity, their small screens pose problems when it comes to properly displaying all the content within an e-mail. Unlike the large screens on desktop computers, the smaller screens on smartphones can cut off images. Failing to properly size the typeface of the content to the screen size can result in text too small to read or links too small to press without expanding the content displayed.

"Graphics and content have to be optimized to properly fit the size of the mobile device's screen, otherwise the content and images won't render properly and can become unreadable," Blank says. "While consumers can scroll on their phones to view content and expand the screen size to zoom in on content, retailers want to avoid those extra steps as they can be a barrier to reading the message."

Best practices for improving the readability of e-mails on a mobile device include testing e-mail templates on multiple mobile devices, such as smartphones and tablets, testing how those templates display graphics on mobile devices, and testing how long it takes to download images on mobile web browsers.

Animation can significantly drive up an e-mail's file size, for example. This can result in a slower open time or the animation not playing immediately. This is especially important to consider if many of your subscribers view e-mail on mobile devices. Davidson says decreasing the area that is animated or using fewer frames can help decrease both the file size and download time.

Retailers also need to consider other design elements that can create barriers that hinder mobile consumers from easily responding to the message's call to action, such as requiring a consumer to log in to her account to view an abandoned shopping cart, Davidson adds.

Following good mobile e-mail design practices are important, too, because smartphone users tend to be on the move and want to find what they want quickly, so a personalized, easily read message is optimal, Heys says. Emailvision has an e-mail message preview capability that lets e-mail managers see exactly what their messages will look like rendered by different web browsers and mobile devices.

While the use of e-mail templates specific to the myriad mobile devices is a common solution for retailers to ensure proper formatting on smartphones, advances in e-mail technology also are making it possible to embed programming codes in e-mail templates that adjust the amount and size of the content to the screen size of the device on which it is opened, regardless if it is a mobile device or desktop computer.

"E-mail marketers like this technology because they don't have to create individual templates for multiple devices and it creates consistency in formatting across devices," Blank says.

The Responsys Interact Suite provides retailers with applications to create, execute, optimize and automate cross-channel marketing campaigns across key interactive channels, such as e-mail, mobile, social, web and web display.

The social web

One trend which retailers are still getting their arms around is integrating social network sharing buttons into e-mail. So far, only about 25% of large retailers use this practice, according to Blank.

"There is a perception the practice is more commonplace, but what we've found is that the inclusion of social media sharing buttons is much more commonplace on web sites, because on web sites consumers tend to be engaged to the point they want to share information," she says. "E-mail is more about enticing the customer to open the message and come to the retailer's site to learn more, rather than to share information in the message."

But the social web and social networks are also great ways for retailers to connect and interact with consumers in a friendly way, and also to use the information they have about customers to make every interaction count. "It is very important that retailers embrace all things social in their online marketing strategies," Heys says. "Not only is it a fantastic way to engage and communicate with customers, but with the ability to coordinate cross-channel campaigns it is possible for marketers to provide customers with a better and more engaging experience, which in turn supports the development of cross-channel referrals and advocacy."

Emailvision's cloud-based online marketing platform, Campaign Commander, lets marketers run coordinated campaigns across e-mail, social networks and mobile, both through mobile-optimized e-mail and geo-targeted SMS campaigns. For example, if ABC Outdoor Clothing, a national retailer, heard that the Midwest was expecting severe winter weather conditions it could use that information to create a geo-targeted campaign advertising its Extreme Cold Mittens to customers in the affected areas that reminds them to pick up a pair before the blizzard arrives. The retailer might also target those consumers on Facebook with an ad featuring a similar message. Campaign Commander collects and processes how consumers respond to the various campaign elements so that retailers can understand their customers' behaviors and optimize future campaigns.

Bronto also provides such features as dynamic content and advanced analytics that enable retailers to deliver relevant, timely e-mail messages, as well as delivering social media messages, e-mail and SMS messages to mobile phones.

By taking the time to learn how best to use e-mail technologies to improve their marketing effectiveness, retailers can create relevant e-mail campaigns that boost sales and customer loyalty.

"For e-mail marketing to remain effective at driving revenue, it must evolve, based on learning from what works and what doesn't, so it is important to analyze past results," Davidson says.

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