March 3, 2014, 12:50 PM

Sponsored Special Report: E-mail marketing gets personal

To increase opens and conversions, tailor e-mail messages to be more personal and easy to act on.

When it comes to direct marketing, e-mail remains one of the most effective tools retailers have. Crafting an effective e-mail campaign that can cut through the growing clutter in consumers' inboxes, however, requires more than timely messages with the right content. Today's successful e-mail marketers speak to consumers in a personal, customer-focused way, just like an in-store sales representative.

Taking a personalized approach to e-mail messages eliminates the one-size-fits-all perception most consumers may have of e-mail and engages them on a deeper level. The payoff is higher open rates, more click-throughs and increased conversions.

"Personalized e-mail goes beyond simply featuring an assortment of random products and offers," says Jim Davidson, manager, marketing research, for marketing platform provider Bronto Software. "To grab a consumer's attention, an e-mail must speak to consumers in a relevant tone that creates a one-to-one connection and gets them interested in going down the path to purchase."

To personalize e-mail successfully, retailers must first understand their customers and what their customers want. Using in-house customer data alone is not enough for retailers to see the entire picture when it comes to understanding consumer behavior. Consumers today generate reams of unstructured behavioral data through a variety of sources, such as social media, customer reviews and blogs.

Cataloging and analyzing in-house data and mixing it with data from other sources, then linking that data together, allows retailers to uncover valuable insights into consumer preferences and the types of e-mail messages shoppers are likely to respond to. Retailers can use those insights to create relevant, timely and automated e-mail campaigns that are coordinated with marketing efforts in other channels.

"Retailers need to remember that their own behavioral data is not a silver bullet for e-mail and other marketing programs," says Jeff Hassemer, senior vice president of global product strategy and cross-channel marketing for Experian Marketing Services. "Cross-channel marketing platforms help to make behavioral [data] more valuable because they act as a hub for all communications across channels. Customer responses and behavioral data can be recorded in real time and then made immediately actionable to influence other communications."

Evolve messaging

Because the types of messages consumers respond to changes over time, retailers should constantly test their subject lines' content and length to match their target audiences' preferences and the types of devices they typically use to read e-mail. Many smartphones, for example, display about five or six words in a subject line, so it's important to make the subject line concise and to use keywords likely to spur consumers to act, says Tink Taylor, founder and chief operating officer of dotMailer, an e-mail marketing and marketing automation services platform provider.

"Subject lines should constantly be tested to see what is successful," Taylor says. "Spammers test their subject lines, why shouldn't retailers?"

Moving key content and offers above the fold so they are visible in the first one or two sentences of the preview pane is also for a good way to grab consumers' attention.

"Don't put images near the top of the message," Taylor says. "Not only do they take a long time to load, which can prompt consumers to move on to the next message in their inbox, it can mean consumers have to scroll down to see the call to action. If the consumer is scanning messages in the preview pane he won't necessarily see the call to action, especially on a smartphone."

One way to connect with consumers on a personal level is through triggered e-mails, which are messages typically sent automatically based on consumer behavior or an event, such as a welcome series for new subscribers, a birthday greeting or an abandoned shopping cart reminder. The power of triggered e-mails lies in their immediate relevancy, timeliness and ability to connect with the shopper on a personal level based on a mix of recent interactions with the retailer and any existing profile or behavioral data.

One of the most effective triggered e-mail types is the abandoned cart message. An e-retailer can send an e-mail follow-up reminder to a consumer after she puts products in her online shopping cart but then leaves the site without completing her purchase. Bronto's "Why We Don't Buy: Consumer Attitudes on Shopping Cart Abandonment" study of 1,000 U.S. consumers who had shopped online in the prior 12 months found that expectations for post-cart abandonment reminders differ based on a consumer's shopping frequency.

"Retailers shouldn't treat every shopper that has abandoned a shopping cart the same in a follow-up e-mail," Davidson says. "Cart abandonment reminders are more effective when retailers look at what motivated these shoppers to place items in the cart, what caused them to abandon their cart and which kind of calls to action will get them to complete the purchase."

The Bronto study found 59% of frequent shoppers, those that shop at least once a week, and 51% of occasional shoppers, those that shop at least once a month, consider cart abandonment reminders helpful. Further, frequent and occasional shoppers want to see details like order total, shipping duration and product photos rather than an incentive to complete their purchase. Utilizing this combination of abandonment data and shopping frequency data in abandoned cart e-mails can help retailers save potentially lost sales without sacrificing order totals.

What makes abandoned cart reminders and other types of remarketing e-mails so effective is that they are not only timely and relevant but use customer data to personalize every message. Experian Marketing Services data says open rates for abandoned cart reminders can exceed more than 40%. "That's a 41% lift over standard promotional e-mails," says Experian Marketing Services' Hassemer. "In light of these statistics, it is undeniable that abandoned cart e-mails should be a part of every digital marketer's e-mail program."

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