Customer engagement vital to email strategy

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Email marketing retains an important position in overall marketing strategy. It is often the central component within digital plans as marketers across all industries rely on the medium for gaining and, particularly, retaining valuable customers. In addition, syncing email with social media marketing has become a topic of conversation among marketers as many have begun to test and develop social media marketing tools.

Direct Marketing News convened a diverse group of email marketing executives in April for an editorial roundtable discussion, sponsored by StrongMail, to talk about several facets of email marketing strategy. In addition to social media, the group discussed issues around optimal frequency and the segmentation of customers, as well as challenges in data integration, the merits and pitfalls of behavioral triggers and impending legislation around privacy and data collection, and how that might affect the email marketing ecosphere. 

Click image to see names of roundtable attendees.
Direct Marketing News: What does your email program look like? What is its purpose, its frequency and how often are you sending content driven email versus commercial email?

Nicole Delma (RCRD LBL): Our site is a music discovery site. We push free music content from new and emerging artists.  We actually send email every day. Everything that we send includes some content in the form of a download. We're seeing open rates in the 33% range. That's before we've done any optimization. The list is about nine months old. Our premise is that we are never going to send anything that's not got the content. It's really an advertiser-supported model that's all about delivering content to our subscribers.

Jason Berman (Denihan Hospitality Group): We actually do quite a bit of email marketing because of our different hotels, brands, and markets. Everything is very segmented. Our contact strategy really depends on the brand.  Some brands we do twice a month, some we do once a month. It also depends on the market segment.  We speak to travel agents, meeting planners, and we do those more quarterly with more content and newsletter types of things about building the relationship, where the consumer ones tend to be more offer-driven types of communications with occasional news, but not necessarily a long newsletter. We also do stay-related emails, so when you book a stay and after you checkout.  Those are two areas of our email programs.

Larry Wasserman (Really Good Stuff): We probably email on average about four times a week, but that will vary based on the season. We will do anything from three in our slow season to as many as six per week during the busy season. We do a content newsletter right now once a month, but we are talking about potentially increasing that. It's tied to our blog and our social media strategy and really is about relationship building.  We also have a program around transactional emails. Our frequency can vary based on where you are in terms of your lifecycle, what you've done with us in terms of the site.  We've increased the frequency quite a bit over the last two years, but we are very conscious in trying not to get to the point where people are saying “uh oh, we don't want to see emails from Really Good Stuff.”

Jeffery Kissinger (Scripps Networks): I'd say there are two pieces of the business: there is obviously content with the brands, and we have varying degrees of sending schedules. The other piece of it is a sweepstakes … for acquiring customers. The big sweepstakes that we have are tied to the [television] network, which have a lot of content associated with them. The sweepstakes are something that drives the business. 

Stephanie Jackson (Zinio): We look at email in a number of different ways. We are selling content essentially, so we don't do a lot of content-based emails. We do a huge amount of transactional emails to let people know their issue is available. We send a volume that is astounding; I think it's 11 million messages a year related to that, and that number is growing. We do a lot of email marketing that is offer driven. That's really where our focus is. We're shifting into a much more cohesive strategy where we are looking at tying in the transactional messages with what offers, deals, and personalized messaging makes sense to receive.

Direct Marketing News: What are some of your best practices to prevent list churn and keep engagement high?

Peter Berol (Eastern University): For us, it's the combination of transactional and content. Even when we are in the transaction process, there are still content-driven pieces. Maybe somebody goes through the traditional signing up for school part of it, but there is content for the different segments they are in.  If they are traditionally-aged students, we also want to kick some things in there that the parent needs to see. If they are an adult student who's going to grad school, it might be connecting to Facebook so that they are a part of that community as soon as possible.

Ryan Deutsch (StrongMail): From a frequency perspective, I'm curious, have any of the brands done any testing?

Amie Ray (National Hockey League): We are actually setting up a program like that right now.  We are going to do a bunch of different testing programs ongoing for several months at the start of the season, holding out different groups for different amounts of times.  We're giving each group a different frequency, and then monitoring their buying behavior based on how many emails they received in that time.

Gretchen Scheiman (OgilvyOne Worldwide): One of the things that we have worked with our clients on is understanding how engagement plays into this and the idea that somebody who is frequently opening or responding to your emails probably is able to absorb more frequency or higher frequency, and somebody who is maybe never opening your emails is probably not willing to see as frequent communications.

Delma: The first couples of weeks at my new job the CEO said “there's something wrong with the email; I didn't get my email today,” and [what happened was that] we had pulled him off of the list because he wasn't opening his email. Since then he has reengaged and we've added him back in. [laughter]

We started to notice that we were pushing out the newsletter with the same content as the website. We decided to push the content -- because music is so timely for this particular audience -- first through the newsletter, so that they truly feel like there is an exclusivity to being on the list. This is a very young audience, it's very social and viral, so we hope that they will push it out to try to be the leader of their peers and say that they heard something first.  That's our strategy as far as seeing if they will tolerate more frequency, as long as we truly give them more value.

Direct Marketing News: Since you brought up your boss, how are you all proving to your bosses that email is a vital and profitable channel?

Jackson: For us it's all about the associated revenue.  As an email marketing person, I love to talk about engagement, but for our executive team its revenue and we have to show the real results in each campaign.  It's pretty simple for us: we have one basic KPI.

Berman: We look basically at all the metrics, but … we definitely focus in on revenue.  We don't really don't have to do a lot of selling internally to the organization on the value of email.  We have to show that we are constantly improving, but I think everyone's pretty much bought in. It's very simple for us; we send an email, and the next day we've booked thirty thousand dollars. It's just so instant and is one of our strongest performing channels on an ROI basis.

Scheiman: Some of our clients are CPG brands, and they can't get to revenue, they cannot, there is no way to do it. There is this intermediary between them and the person actually buying the stuff, and it's very challenging trying to understand how to motivate people to buy.  We definitely look outside the [email] channel for other indicators like website interaction, things like that. Coupons are great, but you don't want to over coupon, so you wind up looking at other stuff.

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