September 4, 2014, 9:55 AM

The latest developments in e-mail marketing and how they will impact the holiday season

E-mail expert Chad White of Salesforce ExactTarget discusses the big trends in e-mail covered in his new book in an interview with Internet Retailer editor in chief Don Davis.

I’ve been turning to Chad White for insights on e-mail marketing since I joined Internet Retailer in 2007. By then he was already closely tracking the e-mail marketing practices of leading online retailers, and he always was on top of the latest e-mail trends. It didn’t surprise me, therefore, when he wrote a book on e-mail marketing last year, “Email Marketing Rules: How to Wear a White Hat, Shoot Straight, and Win Hearts.”

White, now lead research analyst at Saleforce ExactTarget Marketing Cloud, recently issued an updated version of the book, which takes up such recent developments as mobile-friendly e-mail design and the impact of changes by leading e-mail inbox providers. (The new edition is available on I recently interviewed White on what’s new in the book, and how new developments are likely to show up during the upcoming holiday season. Here are his answers.

Q: What are the most important changes in e-mail marketing since the first edition of your book?

A: Engagement-based e-mail marketing has become firmly established since the 1st Edition was released. There was a healthy amount of skepticism about whether inbox providers like Gmail, and Yahoo Mail factored engagement metrics into their filtering algorithms and whether marketers should eventually purge inactives. Few people have serious doubts about those issues now, and it’s a topic that’s woven throughout the 2nd Edition of E-mail Marketing Rules.

Another huge change has been the rise of mobile-friendly design. Mobile devices are changing e-mail content, e-mail design, and how and when consumers interact with commercial e-mails. There’s a fuller discussions of mobile e-mail design in the 2nd Edition—plus in the final part of the book, which looks at the future of e-mail, I predict what’s likely to be the next stage of responsive design: audio transcription.

Q: E-mail inbox providers are making it easier for consumers to divert marketing e-mail to a separate folder, which they may rarely if ever view. What can a retailer or brand do to maximize the number of consumers who see its messages?

A: While it’s a difficult thing to do, marketers need to start ignoring new inbox organization functionality. Gmail Tabs is a great example of what a huge distraction these announcements can be. Marketers got very worked up about this new feature in Gmail and some sent out re-tabbing requests, but ultimately it’s been a benefit to the vast majority of marketers. Marketers need to stay focused on deserving the attention of their subscribers, and worry less about the tools inbox providers give their users.

Relatedly, one undeniably positive development very recently was the announcement of Office 365’s Bulk Complaint Levels, which is a feature that allows users to set their own spam thresholds. This move acknowledges that “spam” is a continuum, and lets users decide where in that spectrum their own personal definition of spam lies.

Q: How is e-mail marketing likely to be different this holiday season from last?

A: First, a sizable majority of retailers will be sending mobile-friendly e-mails this holiday season. On Black Friday last year, only 32% of retailers were using e-mail mobile-aware or responsive design for their e-mails, according to research by the Salesforce ExactTarget Marketing Cloud. This Black Friday I’ve been predicting that 70% of brands will be using mobile-friendly design techniques.

Second, more brands will be sending triggered e-mails such as cart abandonment and browse abandonment e-mails. On Cyber Monday last year, we found that only 21% of retailers sent a cart abandonment e-mail to a subscriber when they clicked through an e-mail from that day and filled up their cart with more than $100 of merchandise. I expect that to double to around 40% of retailers on Cyber Monday this year. Browse abandonment e-mails will also be more prevalent this holiday season.

And third, to power more segmented messaging, I expect more retailers to send progressive profiling campaigns, particularly in mid-November. These campaigns collect in-market information about what subscribers are interested in, which can be extremely helpful going into the holiday season when once-a-year gift-buying makes subscriber interests a little schizophrenic. Zulily, BaubleBar, and Lowe’s have all used progressive profiling effectively in the past.

Q: Consumers now view most marketing e-mails on smartphones or tablets. How much marketers adapt their tactics to this shift?

A: We’re just scratching the surface of mobile’s impact on e-mail marketing. Mobile-friendly design is the most obvious ramification of this shift in e-mail reading to mobile devices. Although there’s a strong gravitation toward responsive e-mail design, mobile-aware design techniques—such as using a single-column design and large images and text—can be a very effective intermediary step to get retailers through the holiday season.

Beyond design issues, mobile is speeding up the time to open, since consumers check their e-mail multiple times a day on their mobile devices. Mobile is also changing the context in which e-mails are read. Now a consumer can be reading an e-mail from you in your store or outside waiting in line on Black Friday, which means that store coupons are even more effective now. Also, mobile apps can be used as landing pages now instead of webpages.

So we’re still relatively early in the mobile transformation of e-mail—and really for the mobile transformation of the web. Smartphone conversion rates will be significantly higher in the years ahead.

Q: What’s likely to be the next big change in e-mail marketing?

A: I think the next major disruption will be rich e-mail content, which will allow subscribers to watch videos, enter survey selections, browse assortments of products, and even make purchases without leaving the inbox. When this happens, e-mails will act similar to microsites.

We’ve seen glimmers of rich e-mail content over the years, and more recently the arrival of HTML5 video and the in-e-mail functionality of Google+ notification e-mails in Gmail are indications of where things are headed. Unfortunately, it’s going to be a very patchwork affair because of the lack of universal e-mail standards. But there are going to be some exciting opportunities for e-mail marketers to bring interactions forward into the inbox where the barriers to act are lower.


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