September 11, 2012, 10:13 AM

How one online grocer finds the best e-mail recipes

Schwan’s Home Delivery sweetens its messages and perks up open rates and sales.

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E-mail marketing has been crucial to growth at Schwan’s Home Delivery, the online and catalog unit of nationwide frozen foods retailer and manufacturer Schwan Food Co. “E-mail is a key driver for us,” says Erica Webb-Belzer, director of marketing communications at the Marshall, MN-based company.

When it comes time to plan for its e-mail campaigns, particularly during the peak holiday season, Webb-Belzer and her staff  conduct a brainstorming session before firing up its final e-mail marketing strategy through its vendor Responsys Inc. Those sessions have paid off as more consumers are now opening messages and clicking through after opening to make a purchase on Schwan’s site compared with earlier e-mail campaigns, she says. A privately held company, Schwan’s doesn’t release specific sales or other financial performance figures.

During last year’s Black Friday and Cyber Monday, the Friday before and Monday following Thanksgiving, e-mails that ran with pre-tested subject lines produced sharp spikes in sales for Schwan’s compared with when recipients received untested subject lines. Before running holiday campaigns, Webb-Belzer’s staff came up with several e-mail subject lines and pinned them up for all in the marketing department to view. “People walked by and voted for the ones they liked,” she says.

The e-mail marketing team then chose the two most popular subject lines and conducted an A/B test between the two  to see which produced the best returns. The winner: “Save $2.” “We learned it was best to keep the subject line short, simple and sweet,” Webb-Belzer says.

When the retailer launched a midnight sale as the Sunday night after Thanksgiving turned into the morning of Cyber Monday, it didn’t take long to see the results, Webb-Belzer says. “When we launched the Cyber Monday sale at midnight, my team and I were on the phone for two hours watching the real-time report showing that this many customers opened the e-mail, this many clicked through and the number of sales. Watching it was extremely addictive. Within even the first 15 minutes we had received quite a few sales.”

Schwan’s continued to test after the holiday season, learning, for example, that an e-mail promotion for its loyalty program worked better with separate  pitches for existing loyalty club members and  prospective members. “We learned we should use certain words for members and for non-members,” Webb-Belzer says.

E-mail campaigns sent to loyalty club members produced strong results when they informed recipients about the volume of points they could receive in a new promotion, but non-members responded best to e-mails that mentioned the amount of money they could save rather than the amount of points they could receive. Armed with  that and other lessons it learns throughout the year as it continues to test new marketing strategies, Schwan’s will run with the most effective strategies during the fourth quarter. “We’ll be using of lot of that learning during the holidays,” Webb-Belzer says.

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