September 1, 2009, 12:00 AM

Sponsored Supplement: Increasing the potency of e-mail marketing

Competition in the inbox is fiercer than ever, but there are still plenty of ways retailers can use e-mail to deepen their ties with customers and boost sales.

Retailers may be relying on e-mail marketing more than ever during the recession, because it`s so cost-effective. But that doesn`t mean it`s any easier to convince consumers to open those e-mails or to click through to the merchant`s web site.

With open rates on retailer e-mails averaging about 20% and click-through rates about 5%, according to reports from e-mail marketing vendors, retailers recognize that sending more e-mail without increasing the relevancy of messages will only turn consumers off. That`s why retailers are striving to create more compelling e-mail without necessarily increasing frequency.

"Effective e-mail marketing is about engaging the consumer so that they interact with the retailer," says Scott Voigt, vice president of marketing for e-mail service provider Silverpop. "One of the keys to engaging customers is to get the right message in front of them at a time when they are likely to open and read their e-mail."

Sending the right message at the right time starts with understanding how your customers use e-mail. Are they most likely to open e-mail during mornings, afternoons, evenings, weekdays or weekends? And are they more likely to open an announcement about a sale or about new arrivals in a category they like?

"Retailers need to look at consumers` response patterns to determine the right mix of frequency, message relevancy, and timing," says Yun-Hui Chong, vice president of strategic services for e-mail service provider Experian CheetahMail. "As retailers decrease direct marketing activity in other channels, having this kind of information becomes more crucial to creating successful e-mail campaigns."

Relevant subject lines
Part of tracking consumer response patterns includes identifying which links consumers click on once they open an e-mail. Doing so helps retailers determine which elements of the e-mail recipients find relevant, enabling marketers to tweak the subject line to highlight the most popular element of the message. They can then resend it to consumers on the mailing list that did not click through to the merchant`s web site the first time.

While subject line relevancy is e-mail marketing 101, it remains a critical component of a successful e-mail marketing strategy. A subject line that speaks directly to a consumer`s interests can make all the difference.

"We had an apparel retailer that did an e-mail blast promoting free shipping and returns in the subject line, but most of the clicks were on a box promoting a new designer brand," recalls Julie Waite, e-mail marketing specialist for e-mail service provider Bronto Software. "When we highlighted the new designer brand in the subject line and remarketed the message to consumers that did not open or click through the previous version, open and click-through rates jumped significantly."

Marketers can also boost open rates by personalizing subject lines so they appeal directly to the preferences a recipient has shown or indicate that the content is related to products the consumer already owns. For example, cost-conscious shoppers might receive a subject line saying "Laptop computers on a budget." Retailers looking to engage consumers that own a specific product might say "Climbing skins for Kastle MX88 skis."

The aim is to create a subject line that is personalized, pertains to the recipients` interests, tells them exactly what`s in the e-mail, and does not use marketing hype. "Many e-mail marketers tend to use one subject line for the campaign rather than creating and testing multiple subject lines that will have a stronger appeal to specific segments of the mailing list," says Mike Hilts, president and general manager for e-mail marketer Yesmail. "Subject lines can be determined by A/B tests. But even though testing will determine a clear winner, there may be other subject lines that played well with large portions of the test audience. It is worth using those subject lines to reach those respective segments."

Hilts recommends retailers avoid using a recipient`s name in the subject line as that technique is becoming less effective since spammers have latched on to it. "The inbox is getting more crowded and personalization strategies have to change," Hilts says. "The intent of the subject line is to get consumers to open the message, not necessarily to sell. Creative, dynamic subject lines are going to appeal to consumers on a more personal level."

The right stuff
Just as the right subject line can encourage consumers to open e-mail, the right content is decisive in determining what the recipient does next. Retailers are sending more follow-up e-mail to consumers who have abandoned a shopping cart in an attempt to save the sale. Since retailers do not know the reason why the shopping cart was abandoned, experts recommend a helping-hand tone to the follow-up message.

"Sometimes shoppers may accidentally close the shopping cart window, lose their connection to the site or have some other issues that prompt them to abandon the cart before completing the sale," says Silverpop`s Voigt. "Asking the shopper if there was a service or technical problem that prevented them from completing the sale and offering to help them resolve it is a good messaging approach."

Voigt recommends that retailers include a sentence apologizing for the intrusion in case the shopper simply changed her mind and decided not to make the purchase. "Retailers want to close the loop as fast as they can in these instances, but they need to come across as being helpful and understanding rather than intrusive," adds Voigt.

In addition to enabling retail e-mail marketers to analyze, segment and build on their marketing data and customer attributes to drive relevant marketing efforts, Silverpop also provides meaningful reports that help to quickly analyze the performance of individual mailings, triggered messages or campaigns.

Market research
Analyzing customer feedback is an excellent way for retailers to collect information that can help them run their businesses more effectively. But retailers do not necessarily have to conduct an e-mail survey to obtain this information.

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