October 1, 2012, 12:00 AM

Mail call

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While it's common for retailers to send more e-mail during the holiday season, Shea says he also tests how consumers respond to changes in frequency. "You can get to a saturation point where consumers will just move your e-mail into their spam filter," he says. He declines to say how often Wine Country sends e-mail before or during the holidays. According to the Responsys study, the average number of weekly e-mails sent per e-retailer during the 2011 holiday season peaked at about 5.6 during the week before Christmas, up from about 4.4 a year earlier.

The Responsys study, which surveyed 100 leading retailers by annual online sales, notes that e-mail frequency from January through October last year was between 12 and 15 per month, or 2.5 to 3.5 per week.

Wine Country also tests how well consumers respond to offers. One common mistake retailers make, Shea says, is sending e-mails with subject lines that overpromise, then disappointing customers that open the message. "You don't want to send an e-mail offering 70% off, and then let customers find out that only one item is available at that discount," he says.

Wine Country e-mails have produced better conversion rates, he adds, when they over-deliver, such as by putting 40% off in the subject line and offering several products in the body of the e-mail, each discounted by 40% or more.

A deal a day for holidays

E-mailed promotions are getting fine-tuned at Delta Apparel Inc., where e-mail marketing generates from 20% to 25% of sales for its three consumer e-commerce sites: Soffee.com for activewear, SaltLife.com for beachwear, and JunkFoodClothing.com for T-shirts and accessories licensed with images from the worlds of professional sports, musical groups, Hollywood and the like. "E-mail is producing much bigger sales growth than other areas of marketing," says Nathan Maxwell, Delta's manager of e-commerce marketing. By comparison, other forms of online marketing produce closer to 10% increases in sales. "The standard growth through other marketing channels is maybe double digits."

Delta recently figured out how to kick up e-mail marketing performance even more by using e-mail to alert customers of online daily deals. "The conversion rates have been tremendous—200% over the normal conversion rates for other e-mail marketing campaigns," Maxwell says.

Heading into Delta's always busy fourth quarter, however, he's not sure yet how well these alerts will hit home with busy holiday shoppers. "We can't wait to see how well daily-deal alerts work for us over the holidays," he says.

Delta typically ramps up its e-mail marketing during the holiday season to as often as three or four e-mails per week, a conservative number compared to the average of more than five weekly e-mails in the Responsys study, but still higher than Delta's average of about 1.5 e-mails per week outside of the holiday season. "We're definitely very cautious, making sure we don't hammer our customers too much," Maxwell says.

Retailers face a balancing act finding the right e-mail frequency without oversaturating recipients' inboxes, though there don't appear to be any hard and fast rules. While Maxwell says increases in the number of e-mails almost always lead to increases in sales, he's concerned that more than four e-mails per week could result in some customers unsubscribing from Delta's e-mail marketing list.

Still, Delta will increase its weekly frequency beyond four weekly e-mails under special circumstances, such as when it lets customers know it will be sending daily deal alerts over a series of five to 10 or even more consecutive days. This holiday season, it plans to launch its first extended campaign of e-mail alerts of gift-giving ideas through much of November and December.

A boost from texting

That many alerts, of course, will step up e-mail frequency to unprecedented levels for the retailer. The challenge isn't so much that holiday shoppers will get annoyed by the alerts—after all, they opt in to receiving them—but whether they will even notice them every day in their crowded holiday inboxes.

But Delta may have found the answer through its Bronto Software Inc. e-mail system. The system provides a single computer interface for sending SMS text messages to customers' mobile phones as well as e-mail in coordinated marketing campaigns, giving Delta's e-mail recipients an option to receive daily-deal alerts both ways. Although Maxwell can't yet comment on how well the text messages convert recipients into buyers, he says early responses to the service are encouraging. "A high ratio of customers sign up for SMS daily-deal alerts, which have an almost 100% readability rate," he says.

With that kind of extra attention from customers during the hectic holidays, combined with the already strong performance of Delta's traditional e-mail campaigns, Maxwell can look forward to a cheery holiday marketing season.


E-retailers' advice for happy holiday e-mail results

  • Test subject lines and promotions early in the year
  • Check competitors' e-mails to see which messages resonate with your staff
  • Consider coordinating e-mail with text messaging to boost overall open rates
  • Don't run pitches that overpromise what's actually offered
  • Test for the right e-mail frequency that customers will accept
  • Constantly monitor e-mail open rates and sales
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