Sponsored Special Report: E-mail marketing gets personal

To increase opens and conversions, tailor e-mail messages to be more personal and easy to act on.

Internet Retailer

When it comes to direct marketing, e-mail remains one of the most effective tools retailers have. Crafting an effective e-mail campaign that can cut through the growing clutter in consumers' inboxes, however, requires more than timely messages with the right content. Today's successful e-mail marketers speak to consumers in a personal, customer-focused way, just like an in-store sales representative.

Taking a personalized approach to e-mail messages eliminates the one-size-fits-all perception most consumers may have of e-mail and engages them on a deeper level. The payoff is higher open rates, more click-throughs and increased conversions.

"Personalized e-mail goes beyond simply featuring an assortment of random products and offers," says Jim Davidson, manager, marketing research, for marketing platform provider Bronto Software. "To grab a consumer's attention, an e-mail must speak to consumers in a relevant tone that creates a one-to-one connection and gets them interested in going down the path to purchase."

To personalize e-mail successfully, retailers must first understand their customers and what their customers want. Using in-house customer data alone is not enough for retailers to see the entire picture when it comes to understanding consumer behavior. Consumers today generate reams of unstructured behavioral data through a variety of sources, such as social media, customer reviews and blogs.

Cataloging and analyzing in-house data and mixing it with data from other sources, then linking that data together, allows retailers to uncover valuable insights into consumer preferences and the types of e-mail messages shoppers are likely to respond to. Retailers can use those insights to create relevant, timely and automated e-mail campaigns that are coordinated with marketing efforts in other channels.

"Retailers need to remember that their own behavioral data is not a silver bullet for e-mail and other marketing programs," says Jeff Hassemer, senior vice president of global product strategy and cross-channel marketing for Experian Marketing Services. "Cross-channel marketing platforms help to make behavioral [data] more valuable because they act as a hub for all communications across channels. Customer responses and behavioral data can be recorded in real time and then made immediately actionable to influence other communications."

Evolve messaging

Because the types of messages consumers respond to changes over time, retailers should constantly test their subject lines' content and length to match their target audiences' preferences and the types of devices they typically use to read e-mail. Many smartphones, for example, display about five or six words in a subject line, so it's important to make the subject line concise and to use keywords likely to spur consumers to act, says Tink Taylor, founder and chief operating officer of dotMailer, an e-mail marketing and marketing automation services platform provider.

"Subject lines should constantly be tested to see what is successful," Taylor says. "Spammers test their subject lines, why shouldn't retailers?"

Moving key content and offers above the fold so they are visible in the first one or two sentences of the preview pane is also for a good way to grab consumers' attention.

"Don't put images near the top of the message," Taylor says. "Not only do they take a long time to load, which can prompt consumers to move on to the next message in their inbox, it can mean consumers have to scroll down to see the call to action. If the consumer is scanning messages in the preview pane he won't necessarily see the call to action, especially on a smartphone."

One way to connect with consumers on a personal level is through triggered e-mails, which are messages typically sent automatically based on consumer behavior or an event, such as a welcome series for new subscribers, a birthday greeting or an abandoned shopping cart reminder. The power of triggered e-mails lies in their immediate relevancy, timeliness and ability to connect with the shopper on a personal level based on a mix of recent interactions with the retailer and any existing profile or behavioral data.

One of the most effective triggered e-mail types is the abandoned cart message. An e-retailer can send an e-mail follow-up reminder to a consumer after she puts products in her online shopping cart but then leaves the site without completing her purchase. Bronto's "Why We Don't Buy: Consumer Attitudes on Shopping Cart Abandonment" study of 1,000 U.S. consumers who had shopped online in the prior 12 months found that expectations for post-cart abandonment reminders differ based on a consumer's shopping frequency.

"Retailers shouldn't treat every shopper that has abandoned a shopping cart the same in a follow-up e-mail," Davidson says. "Cart abandonment reminders are more effective when retailers look at what motivated these shoppers to place items in the cart, what caused them to abandon their cart and which kind of calls to action will get them to complete the purchase."

The Bronto study found 59% of frequent shoppers, those that shop at least once a week, and 51% of occasional shoppers, those that shop at least once a month, consider cart abandonment reminders helpful. Further, frequent and occasional shoppers want to see details like order total, shipping duration and product photos rather than an incentive to complete their purchase. Utilizing this combination of abandonment data and shopping frequency data in abandoned cart e-mails can help retailers save potentially lost sales without sacrificing order totals.

What makes abandoned cart reminders and other types of remarketing e-mails so effective is that they are not only timely and relevant but use customer data to personalize every message. Experian Marketing Services data says open rates for abandoned cart reminders can exceed more than 40%. "That's a 41% lift over standard promotional e-mails," says Experian Marketing Services' Hassemer. "In light of these statistics, it is undeniable that abandoned cart e-mails should be a part of every digital marketer's e-mail program."

Benchmark data from Experian Marketing Services show that when retailers send a second abandoned cart reminder, they experience a 54% lift in revenue versus sending only a single message. "We also recommend that e-mails sent as part of a series have a consistent look and feel, and eventually include a discount. If the discount has been tested and proven effective, then it makes sense to send it from a ROI standpoint," Hassemer says. "It is best, however, to offer the discount in the last e-mail, because customers sent a remarketing message often purchase without a discount."

Indeed, leading with a simple abandoned cart reminder, then following up with a modest incentive in the second message and sweetening it in subsequent e-mails can help a retailer protect its margin, experts say. This strategy can also train consumers not to automatically expect a discount every time they abandon their cart.

"It's in a retailer's best interest financially not to go all out on the first attempt to pull a shopper that abandoned her cart back to complete the sale," dotMailer's Taylor says. "Another option for starting the process is sending accessories or add-ons in the first follow-up message, then offering free shipping before significantly upping the ante."

Rapid response

Other types of remarketing e-mails include marketing campaigns triggered by browsing behavior, such as when a user clicks through an e-mail to a web site, browses and then leaves the site. In these instances, a retailer can show the shopper the product she looked at in a note near the bottom of the e-mail, and then tell her whether the item is in stock and if it is on sale.

"The closer remarketing e-mails are sent to the time of the activity, the higher rate of opens, clicks and transactions," Hassemer says. "While most marketers send remarketing e-mails one to three days post abandon or activity, real-time remarketing—sending the message within minutes of an abandoned cart or other activity—has become increasingly popular over the past few years because of the increases in opens, clicks and transactions remarketing messages deliver."

Engaging shoppers who regularly open e-mails but don't buy is another major challenge facing retailers. E-mail marketers tend to feel more frustrated with this group of customers than those who do not open e-mail at all, experts say, because even though retailers are connecting with them, they are not converting these e-mail readers to buyers.

One solution is to survey these customers about their interests and the kind of offers they'd like receive to find out how to connect with them on a more personal level. "Retailers can also go back and identify the pages these customers have viewed in the past, the types of products bought, the brands they favor and the offers that prompted a purchase, and build a series of e-mails based on that information," Taylor says.

E-retailers can also use data like this to score e-mail accounts to assess the likelihood they'll be able to re-engage dormant recipients and craft messages to appeal to them, Hassemer says.

Data quality

Within every e-mail list there is a percentage of addresses that are wrong, and messages sent to those addresses bounce back to the sender. In fact, 67% of U.S. companies believe that inaccurate data within their e-mail lists caused deliverability issues during the past 12 months, according to Experian Marketing Services' Data Quality's research report, "The State of Data Quality."

High bounce rates indicate to e-mail system providers like Google, Yahoo, AOL, Microsoft and Comcast that the sender is sending unwanted e-mail, and can lead to more of the retailer's e-mail being routed to spam folders. E-retailers can lower their bounce rates and decrease the likelihood e-mail system providers will block their messages or shunt them into spam folders by carefully monitoring how e-mail addresses are added to their e-mail lists. Segmenting welcome e-mail messages based on how the e-retailer acquired the e-mail address can help retailers closely monitor performance without impacting the rest of their e-mail programs. For example, an e-retailer might segment addresses acquired verbally at the point of sale or through contest entries—channels that can be prone to collection errors—until they confirm those addresses are correct and their owners want to get messages.

"Onboarding high-risk acquisition sources in a quarantined environment will help to weed out the bad data," says Bronto's Davidson. "Point-of-sale data will be littered with typos. Contest entrant [e-mails may include those] who were only after the big prize and may take the lazy man's unsubscribe route and click 'spam' when you e-mail. Once these data hygiene measures have been taken, valid subscribers can be migrated to your primary subscriber lists."

Another way to validate e-mail addresses is to use hosted validation services that perform a series of checks to make sure e-mail can be delivered to the address. E-retailers should also strive to acquire e-mail addresses through opt-in, permission-based methods because addresses gathered through opt-in campaigns tend to be more accurate, Experian Marketing Services' Hassemer says. Retailers also shouldn't overlook validating addresses for consumers who haven't opened a message for months. These consumers can account for as much as 50% of an e-mail marketer's list, he says.

Make messages look good

With many consumers using multiple devices to check their e-mail, retailers need to make sure their messages look great everywhere they may be viewed. With this in mind, some e-retailers use responsive design, a technique that automatically adapts a message to the size and type of screen of the device the consumer is using to view them. However, e-retailers applying responsive design to their marketing e-mails need to consider more than what the e-mail message looks like; they also need to make it easy for the consumer to act.

Design tips for usability include writing style sheets for single-column layouts and including large links, buttons and fonts so mobile users can read and respond to messages without pinching and swiping their screens. Experts also recommend creating alternative images with dimensions that will fit mobile devices' smaller screens to maintain clarity and crispness. This helps avoid white screens that appear while a large image downloads to a mobile phone.

"E-mail is one of the top applications consumers access on their smartphones, so retailers want to be sure to create their e-mail templates using responsive design so content not only renders properly on smartphones, but other devices," Taylor says.

Another challenge retailers face in using e-mail as part of a personalized, cross-channel marketing strategy is determining how e-mail marketing contributes to sales in other channels, particularly if the consumer does not click through in response to a message. In these instances, retailers can link loyalty program activity data to e-mail to determine if a consumer who received an e-mail purchased in a store.

"Through linkage techniques employed by its database team, a retailer can link the purchaser to the promotional event and make a confident allocation of the sale," Hassemer says. That store transaction data adds another data point that e-retailers can use to personalize future e-mail messages.

Ultimately, striking the right personal and conversational tone in e-mail comes down to delivering compelling, relevant content in a timely manner. "Engaging consumers on a personal level is all about having the right package of design, subject line, content and call to action, and evolving that package as consumers' interests and behaviors change," Taylor says.



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