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.

Internet Retailer

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 Shop.org, 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.

What shoppers don't like is struggling to read an e-mail on their smartphones that was designed for the larger screen of a computer. Smartphones' small screens pose problems when it comes to reading e-mail because they can cut off images and display text and links that are too small to read without manually expanding the screen. With so many consumers reading e-mail on their phones, retailers must address this issue.

A newly emerging technique for doing that is known as responsive design, which automatically adjusts web content and images to the size of the screen on the device used to view the e-mail. It is one of the best options retailers have to meet the needs and expectations of mobile users.

The benefits of responsive design to retailers are twofold. First, consumers get what appears to be an e-mail designed to fit their device, and don't have to scroll down the page to see key information. Second, retailers don't have to design e-mail templates for each of the many mobile devices consumers use, avoiding another layer of cost.

"People tend to make faster decisions about what e-mails to read and keep when viewing e-mail on a mobile device," Grant says, describing the practice as e-mail triage. "E-mail design that highlights key, relevant information without the need for a lot of scrolling stands a better chance of surviving e-mail triage."

As a provider of software-as-a-service-based analytic software, CQuotient mines consumer data from all of a retailer's customer touch points to identify the messages most likely to resonate with each customer. Armed with this information, retailers can create highly relevant, personalized e-mails that promote products or offers likely to entice the recipient to open the message and click a link that transports her to a landing page.

Responsive design, however, can be a complex process to master, and not all retailers view it as a panacea for formatting e-mails to mobile devices. Alternatively, retailers can design e-mail templates specifically for mobile devices or optimize their existing e-mail templates so that they render well on many devices. The latter is a better option for small and mid-sized retailers that don't have the resources to design e-mail templates for the wide array of mobile devices on the market, as well as for personal computers.

The primary rule of thumb for designing a universal e-mail template is that less content is more. Using a one-column design, as opposed to multiple columns, prevents content from getting squashed together when rendered on small screens and ensures that content will clearly appear front and center regardless of the device used to view it. Eliminating large images that can take several seconds to download significantly shortens the time it takes for a message to open, and paring down content by using bullet points and short sentences makes it easier for consumers to get key information above the fold. Larger type sizes further enhance the readability of content on smaller screens and make it easier to press on links embedded in the message.

"Increasingly people who open e-mail on mobile devices tend not to go back and view it on a personal computer, so optimizing the content in the message for mobile devices so that key information appears in the preview pane and above the fold once the message is opened is important," says Responsys' Hotz. "The easier it is to read and navigate through an e-mail on a mobile device, the better the customer experience."

The Responsys Interact Marketing Cloud provides retailers with the ability to build a complete profile of their individual customers, design highly personalized digital interactions and orchestrate sophisticated marketing programs across digital channels such as e-mail, mobile, social, web and display.

Although mobile users don't yet expect all e-mail messages to automatically format to their devices, that day is fast approaching. "Retailers looking to get ahead of the curve on this trend should start testing mobile-friendly e-mail templates now," recommends Bronto's Pfeiffer. "Once mobile users come to expect e-mails to format to their devices, retailers don't want to be scrambling to play catch-up."

Improving opens

No matter how well retailers design an e-mail, it won't deliver sales if the recipient never opens it. Sending messages to customers that have not opened an e-mail in months can be a waste of time, as they have likely lost interest in the retailer's e-mail. And retailers whose e-mails rarely get opened are more likely to have future messages shunted to junk mail folders. Regularly performing mailing list hygiene allows retailers to identify inactive e-mail subscribers and segment them out of the list for a reactivation campaign.

On average, retailers should comb through their mailing list to identify inactive subscribers once every six months. Pfeiffer, however, recommends identifying subscribers who have not opened the last 20 messages sent to them be targeted for a reactivation campaign.

Once an e-mail subscriber becomes unengaged, retailers need to keep in mind that the customer is not likely to jump at the first offer she receives as a part of a reengagement campaign. Creating a series of offers that increase in value with each e-mail can help get inactive subscribers off the fence and opening messages again, according to Listrak's Kramer.

If the subscriber remains unengaged as the value of the offers grows, retailers can position the next offer as a last-chance deal before they are removed from the mailing list.

"This creates a sense of urgency that can nudge people to take action," Kramer says. "If a subscriber hasn't opened an e-mail in a year, then the retailer can consider removing her from the list, but retailers need to remember that once a consumer is removed from a mailing list, they will no longer be marketing to her through e-mail."

In some cases, inactive e-mail subscribers become disengaged because they prefer to communicate through other channels, such as social media and text messaging. Sending an e-mail informing customers they can indeed communicate with the retailer through these channels and offering an incentive for taking advantage of them can lead to reengagement. "Surveys are another good way to reengage inactive subscribers," Pfeiffer adds. "If a retailer has a mobile app, they can let the customer know that is available too."

While retailers don't want to keep uninterested consumers on their lists indefinitely, just before or during the holiday season is not the time to hastily delete lots of consumer e-mail addresses. "Retailers want to give an inactive subscriber multiple chances to start opening e-mail again or start communicating through other channels before the holidays, which is a key selling season," Pfeiffer says.

If nothing else, Pfeiffer says retailers can always send an inactive subscriber a message asking what type of content and offers she prefers to receive and the frequency with which she prefers to receive e-mails.

Bronto's cloud-based marketing platform provides campaign management, life cycle marketing, list segmentation and transactional messaging, such as order and shipping confirmations. Bronto also provides such features as dynamic content and advanced automation that enable retailers to deliver targeted, timely messages and campaigns through e-mail, as well as SMS and social media.

Get delivered

With subscriber attrition a given in e-mail marketing, retailers need to continually find new and creative ways to sign up subscribers. Displaying a pop-up window on the home page featuring a special offer for new e-mail subscribers and requiring the customer to opt in to the retailer's mailing list as part of the offer can quickly boost the size of a retailer's e-mail list, according to Listrak's Kramer. "We've seen small retailers double the size of their mailing list in a year using this technique," he says.

Listrak's e-mail platform uses analytics to segment and personalize e-mail campaigns based on consumer behavioral data, such as clickstream, purchase history and e-mail engagement levels, to help retailers create triggered e-mail campaigns that can be wrapped around batch-and-blast promotional campaigns. Triggered e-mail campaigns, including birthday greetings, back-in-stock product updates and product anniversary e-mails, are great ways to add even more relevant messages into an e-mail marketing campaign.

For all the care retailers put into drafting relevant subject lines, poignant copy and designing templates that render beautifully on personal computers and mobile devices, their e-mails can still wind up in a consumer's junk mailbox, never to be seen.

The growing sophistication of spam filters used by the e-mail inbox providers like Google Inc., Yahoo Inc. and Microsoft Corp., often called Internet Service Providers or ISPs, requires retailers to pay attention to avoiding spam traps. "The days of being able to blast away with e-mail campaigns are over," says CQuotient's Grant. "ISPs are paying closer attention to the relevancy of e-mails and what gets deemed irrelevant now automatically bypasses the inbox and is sent straight to the spam folder. The consumer never sees it and the retailer may never know about it."

In order to avoid getting their e-mail tagged as spam, retailers should maintain good image-to-text ratios, as too many images and too little text is a red flag for ISPs. Purging inactive subscribers from the mailing list is taking on greater importance as ISPs are closely tracking the number of unopened messages an e-mail marketer sends.

"The higher the number of unopened messages, the more likely an ISP is to flag future mailings as spam," Kramer says. "ISPs are basically forcing e-mail marketers to mail only to their active subscribers."

Other best practices that can help retailers avoid falling prey to spam filters include sending a follow-up message to customers who have just opted in to a mailing list to confirm they want to receive e-mail, regularly asking subscribers to update their preferences for e-mail frequency, giving customers the opportunity to opt out of the mailing list, and immediately honoring a customer's request to unsubscribe.

"It all goes back to making e-mail as relevant as possible by not pushing messages on people they don't want so that open rates remain high," explains Responsys' Hotz. "High undeliverability rates hurt an e-mail marketer's reputation. The key to successful delivery is to send quality e-mail."

With more retailers increasing their e-mail volume, those that take the time to remember what they have learned about their customers' browsing and buying behavior, and the types of e-mails they open and click through, stand a much better chance of breaking through the clutter in consumers' inboxes.

"As sophisticated as e-mail marketing has become," says Bronto's Pfeiffer, "customer engagement comes down to the relevancy of the message. And that starts with how well retailers know their customer."