August 1, 2013, 3:48 PM

Special Report: How to make marketers' e-mails relevant to consumers

To get opens and clicks, retail marketers must make e-mail messages more relevant to consumers.

Lead Photo

E-mail remains among retailers' most effective marketing tools, but only for those that keep up with rapid changes in consumer behavior and technology. While e-mail lets a retailer present a compelling one-to-one message to a consumer based on her past behavior and recent activity, it's only effective if she reads it. And getting read amid the digital marketing din these days is not easy.

That's especially true because many consumers are flicking through e-mail on smartphones throughout the day—28% of retailers' e-mails are opened on a mobile phone, according to a recent survey by Forrester Research Inc. and, the digital arm of the National Retail Federation. On-the-go consumers are less patient than those sitting in front of a computer, making it more important than ever that e-mails quickly grab their attention.

"Cutting through the clutter, especially on mobile devices, remains the biggest challenge retailers face when it comes to e-mail marketing," says Graeme Grant, chief operating officer for personalization technology provider CQuotient Inc. "The most effective way to meet this challenge is by making the message as relevant as possible to the consumer. When e-mail is irrelevant, the consumer tunes out the retailer's e-mail because it is no longer deemed to be of value."

Crafting e-mails that connect with consumers on a personal level requires a retailer to analyze lots of information about shoppers' purchasing, browsing and site search habits to gain insight into their interests, brand and product preferences. Retailers also should pay attention to the content and design of e-mails consumers have opened in the past, as well as the types of links within the messages they click on.

By taking a deeper dive into what they know about their customers, retailers can write subject lines that entice consumers to open their e-mails and deliver content that prompts them to click on links that transport them to landing pages on their sites.

"Behavioral data can provide a lot of insights into the kind of content consumers consider relevant," says Mike Hotz, director of strategic services for Responsys Inc., a provider of cloud software and services. "Retailers can use that knowledge to create subject lines and e-mail messages that trigger e-mail campaigns that tell a compelling story."

A children's apparel retailer, for example, will want to track the ages and genders of its customers' children. That way the merchant can tailor the subject line and e-mail content to the individual shopper, Hotz says. For example, a mother of two girls is more likely to open an e-mail with a subject line featuring a sundress, while a mother of two boys is more apt to respond to a promotion for a superhero outfit.

Retargeting e-mail

Retailers can also use behavioral data to trigger e-mails that are automatically sent to customers, such as when they abandon their shopping cart with items left in it. Sending a follow-up message reminding the customer he has items in his cart and offering him a discount to complete the purchase can prompt him to hit the Buy button before he forgets about the items left in his cart.

One way retailers can set up this type of triggered e-mail campaign is to attach a tracking cookie to the customer's browser when he opts in to the retailer's mailing list. That links the consumer's e-mail address to the tracking cookie, and lets the retailer send follow-up messages based on what the shopper does when visiting the web store.

"With up to 75% of shoppers that put items in a cart abandoning it, follow-up e-mails after the shopping cart is abandoned are a good way to get a sale completed," says Ross Kramer, CEO of online marketing solutions provider Listrak. "Consumers' time is stretched, and sending e-mails that serve as reminders around the usual batch-and-blast campaigns can boost the overall effectiveness of e-mail."

Creating a sense of urgency also leads to higher open rates. A retailer can present an exclusive offer good only for a few hours or remind consumers that it may be time to renew a product they regularly purchase, such as cosmetics. "There are a lot of behavioral triggers that retailers can use to send a relevant e-mail reminder," Kramer explains. "The more personalized and relevant the message is, the more successful the campaign."

Retailers must keep in mind, however, that there is such a thing as going overboard with personalization. Even though most consumers are happy to receive personalized content in marketing e-mails—and to a certain extent expect it from retailers they shop with regularly—many consumers are concerned about how marketers use the personal information they leave behind on the web. Referencing a specific product that a shopper browsed in an e-mail can create the sense Big Brother is watching, which can prompt him to unsubscribe from a retailer's e-mail list.

"Retailers walk a fine line when using consumers' browsing behaviors on their sites for e-mail marketing because it can be viewed by some consumers as intruding on their privacy," says Anna Pfeiffer, marketing strategist for marketing platform provider Bronto Software. "Retailers need to think deeper about how they can use behavioral data in more subtle ways to connect with consumers through e-mail."

Intelligent implementations

Using behavioral data at the category level is an effective way to connect with consumers on a more personal level without raising concerns that the retailer is watching every online move. "If someone was looking at a specific pair of running shoes, send them an e-mail promoting the category as opposed to the actual product," Pfeiffer recommends. "Retailers can also send e-mails promoting brands that a consumer favors."

Retailers that use behavioral data intelligently are apt to be rewarded with higher open and click-through rates in their campaigns than those that don't, adds CQuotient's Grant. "Consumers like when retailers figure out what type of content and products they want to see as opposed to their having to tell the retailer, because it means the retailer knows them on a personal level and consumers respond more favorably to that," he says.

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