September 2, 2014, 12:14 PM

Season's greetings

Retailers this holiday season will optimize their e-mail campaigns for mobile, adjust how often they reach out to consumers and make their content more social.

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During the 2013 holiday season, online and broadcast-based retailer Jewelry Television discovered a new way to drive revenue via e-mail.

Like many retailers it had always sent extra promotional e-mails targeting major holiday shopping days, particularly Black Friday and Cyber Monday, says Craig Shields, the retailer’s vice president of e-commerce. But last year, Jewelry Television tested similar promotional e-mails on other days between Thanksgiving and Christmas, like a non-hyped Wednesday in December, and found that an e-mail could generate a significant revenue bump on any day of the week if the message was well-crafted and well-timed, he says.

The results were so good, in fact, that he anticipates Jewelry Television will send different promotional e-mails on 50 to 60 days in the final two months of 2014—nearly every day in November and December. And on some of those days, a distinct promotion could include sending multiple e-mails to consumers throughout the day reminding them of limited-time sales.

“Everyone waits for Black Friday and Cyber Monday,” Shields says. “But last year we learned: all those other Mondays and Fridays? You can be highly promotional and move the needle there, too.”

Jewelry Television’s plans to build on those findings this holiday season, and it is hardly alone. Merchants large and small and across most product categories are in the midst of preparing their holiday e-mail marketing strategies. And like Jewelry Television, they are looking back on what worked last season and throughout this year to choose which strategies to keep, tweak or toss. Whether they’re going with responsive web design or another technique, nearly all are focused on optimizing e-mails for mobile devices.

Jewelry Television’s high-frequency e-mail success didn’t arise from simply sending more messages—though it is one of just 12 retailers in the Internet Retailer 2014 Top 500 Guide that sent more than 50 separate e-mails to a new e-mail subscriber during the 2013 holiday season. Since January, the retailer has refined its strategies, including the time of day it sends e-mails (afternoon is best) and the frequency of its messages (if a customer responds to a promotion in the morning, she won’t receive a reminder in the afternoon), Shields says.

What’s inside the e-mail counts, too. “Without a good offer, just throwing an e-mail out at 4 p.m. might lead to a little [site] traffic, but otherwise it’s a waste,” he says. For Jewelry Television, which sells high-end items and charges for shipping, the offers that generate the most sales are shipping discounts, followed by financing options, such as paying in three installments, and other limited-time sales and promotions, he says. Among Top 500 retailers, 319 offered free shipping during the 2014 holiday season, with 123 requiring a minimum order value of $50 to receive it, according to Internet Retailer’s Top500Guide.com.

Jewelry Television has also streamlined its messages to better meet the needs of its increasingly mobile customers, Shields says. More than 50% of its customers open its e-mails on smartphones and tablets already, and that percentage is growing. So rather than sending one e-mail featuring three promotions as it did in the past, for example, the retailer now usually sends three separate messages, each featuring a single promotion, he says. That makes it easier for a consumer reading the e-mail on a smartphone to digest and respond to each deal.

The retailer also tests the links in its e-mails to ensure they work equally well regardless of whether they lead to the retailer’s mobile or desktop site—an especially pertinent consideration as Jewelry Television is in the process of moving all its e-mail templates to responsive web design. With that, a single set of code automatically adjusts which e-mail elements display and how depending on the screen size used to open it.

Most young consumers read e-mails on their smartphones. Among consumers between the ages of 18 and 30, 88% read e-mail on smartphones and 52% name that as their primary device for doing so, according to a study of 1,497 consumers by marketing technology provider Constant Contact Inc. and research firm Chadwick Martin Bailey. That data is a year old and the habits have since become more pronounced, says Julie Niehoff, Constant Contact’s director of education and development.

Mobile marketing became increasingly popular during the holiday season last year, and that will still be the case for 2014,” she says. “Businesses need to make sure the e-mails they send can be easily read and acted upon via a mobile device.”

Daily-deals retailer LivingSocial Inc., for one, lifted its revenue from smartphones and tablets in 2013 by 102% year over year between Black Friday and Cyber Monday in part by optimizing for mobile all its e-mails that feature gifts items for the holidays—a new, more “retail-like” strategy the company, known mostly for selling vouchers, began testing last year, says vice president of e-mail and customer relationship management Alan Clifford. LivingSocial was also one of the 12 Top 500 retailers that sent more than 50 e-mails to new subscribers during the 2013 holidays.

Skin care products seller Naturopathica Holistic Health, which sells online to North American consumers and spas, has also started to optimize all its e-mails for mobile, although it’s not yet rolling out a responsive design, says director of online marketing Sarah Falcon. For one thing, Naturopathica makes sure the buttons in its e-mails work on smartphone and tablet touchscreens and that all images are resized and display well on smaller screens. Those moves are based on heat map analyses of where shoppers click and tap most in Naturopathica’s e-mails. The most-clicked and tapped areas in each message now are on the Shop Now button and the main image, Falcon says.

Getting e-mail formatting and messaging right is especially important for Naturopathica. During the holidays, e-mail drives about 60% of the retailer’s sales, Falcon says.

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