August 28, 2008, 12:00 AM

SPONSORED SUPPLEMENT:E-mail marketing: Sweating the details to create success

Sponsored Supplement: E-mail marketing: Sweating the details to create success

Little changes-more relevant content, focused subject lines and careful attention to images and text-can dramatically boost e-mail campaign performance.

Developing successful e-mail marketing campaigns is tougher than ever for retailers: Consumers are getting more e-mail than ever, Internet service providers are enforcing stricter rules on e-mail campaigns to reduce spam and messages sent to non-deliverable addresses, and consumers are becoming more finicky about the messages they open.

While the fierce competition to gain prominence in consumer mailboxes may at first appear daunting, the good news is that retailers don’t need to overhaul their e-mail marketing strategies. Instead, they can make adjustments to e-mail campaigns, such as developing subject lines and content relevant to shoppers, including control groups in A/B tests, and meeting shoppers’ expectations about frequency of mailings.

“The noise in e-mail marketing is only going to grow and as it does, retailers need to pay more attention to fundamental best practices if they want their e-mail marketing messages to effectively drive sales,” says Joe Colopy, CEO of e-mail marketer Bronto Software Inc. “Focusing on the fundamental best practices can greatly improve the execution of an e-mail campaign.”

Change of mindset

That focus requires retailers to change their mindset about e-mail marketing. Many retailers have moved away from personal campaigns to mass mailings sent with greater frequency.

“Most retailers have adopted the view that e-mail marketing is for mass promotion and they send e-mail blasts that treat every subscriber on the list the same,” says John Harrison, senior vice president of product strategy, client services for e-mail marketer Yesmail, part of InfoUSA Inc. “Retailers need to think of e-mail as more than just a push marketing mechanism using only weekly promotions such as free shipping or a percentage off a purchase as ongoing drivers. E-mail is a bi-directional communication stream that can deepen customer relationships and generate brand loyalty through relevant messages.”

Creating relevant messages begins with the sender’s address.

“Consumers will look at a sender’s e-mail address to see if they know it before making the decision to open the message,” says Mike Adams, president and CEO of Arial Software LLC, developer of personalized e-mail marketing software. “Including the retailer’s brand in the sender’s address seems obvious, but the sender’s address does not always clearly convey the brand name. A good return address creates brand familiarity which serves as a bridge to getting the message opened.”

The next step is subject line relevancy-an e-mail marketing 101 topic, but a critical component of a successful e-mail marketing strategy.

“Consumers like subject lines that are relevant and to the point,” says Scott Olrich, chief marketing officer for e-mail marketer Responsys Inc. “The more targeted and pertinent the message to the customer’s behavior patterns and interests, the more relevant the subject line will be.”

Avoid Big Brother

Olrich cautions that retailers ought to avoid creating subject lines-and content for that matter-that are too specific to a customer’s behavior, as such level of detail can seem like Big Brother is watching.

Striking the right balance with the phrasing of the subject is key: It should concisely state the purpose of the message while providing an enticement to open it.

“Retailers can put a reference to the message content in the subject line, such as ‘New Titles’ or ‘Reviews of New Titles,’” says Ryan Deutsch, director of strategic services for e-mail marketer StrongMail Systems Inc. “Giving customers an idea of the content in the message can make the messages more meaningful.”

Including teaser phrases, such as “Sneak Preview,” “Advance Sale” or “Customer Product Reviews,” in the subject line can also improve open rates. “The idea is to create a sense that the customer is getting an inside deal or access to information no one else is getting,” says Colopy of Bronto Software, which provides such features as advanced reporting, web analytics integration, and dynamic content that enable retailers to deliver relevant, timely e-mail messages. “Subject lines need to convey a sense of compelling value.”

The next step in improving the relevancy of e-mail marketing campaigns is upgrading the content of the message so it appeals to the recipient’s interests. Achieving this goal requires access to more behavioral data from customer relationship management applications, customer service departments and offline sales channels.

“Customers like relevancy even if the offer is being sent to a large audience with the same or similar preferences,” says Olrich of Responsys, which provides on-demand e-mail applications and marketing services that include strategy, program design, creative, campaign execution, and campaign management. “Having a vendor that supports a fully relational data model will make it easier to get at this information and create more relevant marketing opportunities.”

Another opportunity to enhance content is to leverage transactional e-mails, such as confirmation of a purchase or notification an item has shipped. These messages have traditionally not been under the control of the marketing department, but they represent a tremendous opportunity to communicate with customers as they have a 70% open rate compared to 27% for promotional e-mail, according to Deutsch of StrongMail, which provides commercial-grade, on-premise technology ranging from the building blocks of an e-mail delivery platform to a pre-configured, turn-key e-mail marketing solution.

Rotate offers

“Retailers have a lot of e-mail contact with customers that their marketing departments don’t have their arms around,” says Deutsch. “Having the marketing department more involved with transactional communication streams can make those messages more meaningful by delivering cross-sell or add-on promotions.”

A marketer should rotate the types of offers presented in transactional e-mails based on the customer’s purchases or on a merchandising strategy, as opposed to a specific customer attribute.

“It is a matter of building rules into the e-mail template to generate this type of dynamic content,” says Deutsch. “Retailers are certainly getting more excited about the prospects of creating transactional messages with dynamic content because of their open rates.”

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