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.

Kissinger: We look at revenue. Since we're publishers, we're out there sponsoring the newsletters, so there's a direct revenue. Then we look at all the engagements when people come to the website and how many pages they consume, how many videos they consume,  because there's advertising in all of those. We can track that.

Direct Marketing News: We are sort of dancing around this idea of pulling data from other areas in your businesses. How are you doing that? Are you able to achieve a single customer view?

Berol: Our sales cycles can be anywhere from three months to eighteen months.  It's never, “hey, somebody just bought a record.” That's not how I prove ROI. I don't know if you're ever really going to truly get to individual personas, but you'll get to the psychographic segments that are moving through the [enrollment] process. The more that we can drill down based on the psychographic personas, the more effective the whole trail is. [Email] is one piece of the pie.

Ray: We can't track everyone's revenue on every possible interaction they could have with NHL, but we can track them on more than one. If there is revenue associated with it, we use that to extrapolate a lifetime value for that fan.

We have some pretty big numbers as far as people who are worth a lot of money and are only using a few of our revenue channels. The biggest thing we do is combining of sources. If someone came in through one channel, they are generally only worth this amount, but if they've interacted on four or five of the channels that we actually bring into our database, then they are proven to be a lot more valuable.  We use that in our segmentation, and then the analysis is the type of thing that we take to our executives.

Direct Marketing News: What are you doing with your automatic, behavior-triggered emails? 

Berol: We are trying to do less and less automated, purely because it's a really personal decision around doing education particularly in the adult market where you have a lot of folks who are fearful about going back to school. To make it impersonal works against us. We do have a traditional CRM chain where they get the information they need to get, but that is always followed up by a human being. It's always playing off the automated with the real.

Colleen Sugarman (Healthy Directions): We're now developing our contact strategy to do more around the trigger. We are trying to look at engagement and behavior and break out segments. Who are our new to file and what does that on-boarding strategy look like? We want to really engage with the consumer early on, before we just start blasting them with content and product. As they stop buying, how do we then win them back? We are developing a win-back strategy; we definitely want to move more towards triggers. We know that you've got a one-month supply of our vitamin supplements. We want a trigger knowing that that's about to run out to give you a refill reminder. 

Wasserman: We look at our emails in terms of three buckets: it's acknowledge, it's promote and its dialogue. The transactionals for us are acknowledgement. When you come in, we want to send you a welcome and say thank you. When you submit a product review, we want to acknowledge that and say thank you. The idea there is to really just let them know that you are listening. 

Kissinger: We are definitely looking to increase triggers. We are not really doing that at all right now. Our fan base wants certain things from us, so the fan of Paula Deen [for example] wants to know when a new Paula Deen recipe is put on the website. The fan of Candace Olson wants to know when we put a new room of hers up on the website. It's getting those things in place that our fans normally engage with, the things they love about us, then broadening out to the topics they might be interested in. We see this as a huge opportunity to really increase that engagement with the fans that like certain things about us, and then we can super serve those things they want from us. 

Deutsch: What's happening on the consumer side is a lot of ISPs that our recipients use are starting to make decisions for the consumer in terms of what's important and what's not important based on engagement and how frequently they open. I think what we are going to start seeing is the trigger audience now is going to be more important than just making it easier and faster and more relevant.  We have to make sure that our consumers are engaging … with our mail, because if they don't, we are going to get dropped down to the bottom of the priority inbox in Gmail, or in Yahoo's similar program.

Direct Marketing News: Let's talk about the impact of the recent Epsilon security breach? What does this say about the security of your programs?

Berol: We are a highly regulated industry much like hospitals as far as personal data is concerned. I don't have an answer, but it does make us nervous. I think there is a growing concern about a certain CEO from a certain website named Facebook who is more than willing to throw your data out there, and I think that is making people nervous. I don't know if there is going to be a backlash from that.

Jackson: There's a true fear. We had a site outage two weeks ago and the first thing that all of our customers started freaking out about was: were you hacked?  That was immediately where they went, not the million of other things that cause site outage, so I think security is key. We [sent] a letter from our CEO that we posted in email that explained in as much detail as we could share as to what exactly happened.  From a technical perspective, I didn't truly even really understand it myself, but they wanted that understanding because they wanted to know what happened.

Deutsch: I think the really scary part about this data breach was not the data breach itself, but on the front page of The Chicago Tribune yesterday in the business section was an explanation of email phishing. The entire front page explained to consumers what email phishing is, how people just with your address and understanding that you are part of, say, Citibank's email program … can now target you with a phishing scam. What this does unfortunately for the entire industry is it lessens trust in the channel. It will be very interesting in the next couple of months to look and see, in the general promotional emails streams, what is happening to click though rates and engagement due fear caused by this.

Wasserman: I'm not quite sure what the impact of this is going to be.  I think it's still TBD. Most consumers don't have any idea who Epsilon is or what they do. I think if it's just limited to your email address and you don't see an increase in spam or phishing activities, then you're not going to remember that this even happened. However, I do think it points to a longer term solution which is verified sender programs. I think that is something the industry as a whole is going to have to address.

Scheiman: I see the potential impact from this being more along the legislative and privacy aspects. We have this incredible tension right now in marketing where consumers absolutely want all of the benefits that accrue with giving out their personal information. At the same time, they are very concerned with privacy and this is going to heighten that concern because they know that people can't be trusted to keep the data secure. I almost wonder if in addition to potentially a verified sender, some of the things that banks are doing now where they have little boxes with last four digits of card number thing or even a version of TrustE, for personally identifiable information, if some things like that are going to start to come together, in order to forestall some fairly draconian legislation that is poised to happen.

Direct Marketing News: What are some of the ways you are acquiring new email addresses?

Wasserman: We just started doing some ECOA, which frankly I've done list appends in the past at other companies and have not really felt it's a best practice for the industry. I was sort of nervous going into the ECOA piece of this, but we did it in a way where we made everybody feel comfortable. We looked at people who are active within a certain time frame.  We went through a firm, and they came back with matches that we reengaged with an email saying that “we noticed you've not been opening our emails; would you like to continue to receive them?”  I was pleased with the results. We had a very, very tiny opt-out.  We are in the process now of doing a longer term study to see how they perform as a separate list. That was a nice way to reactivate the list.

Berman: When people make a booking, whether it's by phone or website, they usually want a reservation confirmation. We get emails pretty quickly that way. I think the hardest thing for us is one of our biggest market segments is business travelers, and a lot of times we set up with a company, where we will get into a corporate travel program and we have a relationship with a corporate travel manager who may never actually travel. They may have hundreds or thousands of employees who we have no relationship with. How do we prospect those people? We haven't really figured it out. We are trying a couple of things virally to see if we can encourage people who are loyal guests of ours to be willing to share and potentially even try to get some of their coworkers to be aware of us.

We are going to be using points for our points-based program to try to incentivize people to share their colleagues' email addresses.

Kissinger: We've really started to look at that contextual way we can bring people in. If you're on the outdoor section of HGTV, you're going to get an outdoors newsletter. With those people, open rates are much higher. The other thing that's been really successful is we put a tab on the Facebook page that was in our newsletters and made that the default tab for different time periods and then drive to it at times. It's a much younger audience versus our network or our websites. 

Sugarman: Our market is sixty, sixty-five plus and there is that trust factor that we struggle with. They are still very leery, so we are concerned about what's happening with Epsilon.

Delma: Providing content immediately upfront is a great way to get people to provide their email address. People aren't likely to share an advertisement with their friends, but they will share a playlist. We are now doing a function where they can come up with their own playlist of their own favorite songs that they can download and keep. Then we are just powering and white labeling behind it, and we're working with Facebook and a couple of ESPs to provide this.

Sugarman: We have free reports that are dealing with [specific] conditions.  I think that is a great idea, and maybe we can offer that as an incentive. You can get a free report.

Deutsch: Mint.com ran a program about a year and a half ago where they asked their customers to share the Mint.com experience with them. They did two tests, and they offered as a reward two things: One was a free iPod Nano. The other was access to beta features on the site that allowed you to do financial planning. The access to the features for financial planning outperformed the iPod by about three to one because the customer base was much more interested in content, access and insight to financial services information than they were free stuff. I think that's an excellent idea.

Direct Marketing News: How are you integrating social media with your email marketing strategy, and what has worked and has not worked?

Jackson: Twitter is huge for us. We find that's a highly responsive audience to email type offers. Not only do we do the share icons and all of that on our email campaigns, but we actually post every email offer on Twitter. We also do things where we'll monitor our Twitter feed and if people are saying great things about us, we will match them up manually with our data and try to find out who they are, so we can engage with them directly to share with them great news and information and give them something to use. We also do the opposite: if people are very unhappy with us, for whatever reason and voicing it on Twitter, we will find there account and direct message them or email them and try to resolve the situation so that we can in some cases turn them into advocates through customer service. That's been really successful.  

Wasserman: One thing that has worked for us is we have a TGIF promotion. We put that up and promote that on our Facebook page and get that word out. When it's not Friday, that link is still there and people come through there and we actually take them to an email signup so they can take advantage of that promotion and they can get it the next time. 

I can say one thing that hasn't worked which was, we've done a nice job about creating content on our blog and that's been part of our strategy for about a year now and we did have an easy way of creating a daily digest. We wanted to be able to sort of recap what was happening on the blog daily. We didn't want to add to the workload, so we used one of these third party email sign-up tools and digests.  Interestingly enough, the response on that email list has been very small. We are looking at potentially switching out that email sign up and integrating it back into our full list file.

Direct Marketing News: Amy, you have such a rabid fan base, and the sports folks are really active on social.  What does NHL do to integrate social with email?

Ray: We do have active social platforms. Sports lends its self to that. All day, you have the water cooler effect, people wanting to talk about last night's games and debate. Then at night the games are actually happening, so people are talking about that.

We are able to use our Facebook page to keep people talking pretty much constantly about content, and then very strategically we throw in marketing messages.  We don't want to do too much because it is obviously supposed to be a forum for fans, but it does lend itself to passing on offers that are going on in email or other places. We are implementing a lot more “like” buttons on our site, so that then we can see that activity between what they're interacting with on our site and then remarketing to them via email depending on certain things that they like. Lots of times the [social media] offers will be different from the email, because you want something that is Facebook only or Twitter only but they are generally in line with the campaign. 

Direct Marketing News: Is everyone else doing that too?

Delma: It all comes back to music; “like” us and get a free track. Then when they go to sign up for the track, they have an option to opt in to our newsletter. As soon as you like us, you get something immediately. We don't do that in email.

Scheiman: We've been talking about how to share content across both channels and integrate that.  Has anyone thought about integrating data back into the customer database from these channels and from some of the listening tools that are out there in order to positively impact the content that goes out in your emails?

Kissinger: The one area where we have been doing it a lot is with our younger audiences. We are really interested in how the Facebook audience engages with their content, what content they like. We definitely do see differences in channels. The Food Network Twitter feed is much more a gourmet audience and The Food Network Facebook audience is much more the mac and cheese comfort-food type crowd.

Deutsch: I think brands are starting to put Facebook applications up specifically to capture data.  If you don't have app engagement on Facebook, you are really very limited in the data you can internalize outside of the Facebook platform. For example a hotel chain might know that 40% of my friends are in Cincinnati, because that's where I grew up. When I get the daily deal or the travel offer, the property in Cincinnati is going to be at the top of my email message because I'm probably much more likely to book a last minute trip Cincinnati than I am somewhere else.

Direct Marketing News: It's interesting we have had some generational conversations.  Targeting an older audience at Healthy Directions and Nicole you have mentioned a younger audience, while others have a corporate audience. There was a study that came out recently about how the younger generation just wants to talk to you on social media; they don't read email. Is that true?

Berol: I think the major operating rule is I want what I want when I want it and I want it without all your propaganda, thank you very much.  I think that operating rule regardless of the tool is going to continue because it's definitely going to be a me-centric conversation initially until they can convert and become more engaged.

As I look at the cross-generational world in my home and I look at a friend of mine's eleven year old daughter who loaned me her phone. My phone had died and I was using her phone and I said how do you make a phone call?  She said I don't know.  I said seriously she said I've never used it to make a phone call. I've had it for a year.  I don't know that that's not unique. I think there is going to be some generational shifting in terms of what tools get used, what tools get adopted, what tools get abandoned.

Delma: Our audience is actually super sensitive. We are starting really around the age of 13.  [When we did] subject line testing, we got the most backlash from changing the formula, which had been the artist names. Teenagers were like, “oh, you sold out to the man.”

We switched back to the prior subject lines. We are implementing required registration this week for the first time in our three or four year history of the site and we are very nervous about it because I think that this is the first time that we are going to ask them for that information that they're not accustomed to. 

Direct Marketing News: What spurred the move to requiring registration?

Delma: You know we just see that there is ten times the traffic on the site; they're accessing the content for free. One of the goals of the company is to create a more personalized experience for everybody on behalf of our consumers and our advertisers, in the Pandora-esque model, and we can't do that right now except for a select few whose email addresses we have. Once they log in, they will be able to access anything they want and they will stay logged in, but we need to be able to also provide the feedback back to the providers and the labels and the artists who are giving us the free downloads to be able to say who is listening to your music and then retargeting. 

They are super vocal and they want to be heard and we get lots of submissions, but again we know that we are dealing with a very sensitive, very viral group of people that we don't want to upset.

Direct Marketing News: What is one way that you are looking to improve your email marketing in the next year? What are some of your goals?

Wasserman: More data, smarter targeting, better lifecycle messaging. It's really about continuing to improve in those areas.

Jackson: It's going to be a combination of new automated emails, a new campaign strategy for promotional emails and then secondarily we are looking to utilize new ways of messaging, including for multiple devices that are out there.

Berman: I think for us and we talked about it a little bit earlier is the viral piece of it.  Of course we want to have stronger brand voice and things like that in our communications and do a better job of targeting, but really it's about trying to identify those advocates and help them spread the positive word. We're using a number of channels including email.

Deutsch: I think one of the things that we are seeing our customers do this year and it goes back to your question about what's going to win.  Is it going to be email in the future or text or social media?  It's the investment in multichannel campaign management. We usually decide what is real and what's not real based on the amount of money large enterprises are spending. That's usually a good gauge. What we are seeing is investments in things like Unica, Aprimo, Teradata, SAP, SAS; big investments in systems that are pretty much geared to create a campaign that can be executed in email, mobile, social. it's kind of breaking down the silos that we've traditionally seen at a campaign level and trying to execute across those.

Scheiman: I'm hearing some of the same things from our clients and seeing some of the same activity and realistically, it comes down to how can you get more data in, not just how do I share stuff across the social channels, but give me the data, let me get it in, so that I can share more intelligently. Then how do I go back to some more rigorous testing? I know in recent years there have been so many new things thrown at us that we've been doing a lot of trial and throwing spaghetti against the wall and seeing what sticks. I think we need to start moving back to the rigor that all of direct marketing is built on.

Ray: We will continue to add new data sources and segment deeper and test.  I think the biggest focus this year is going to be around reactivation and engagement, looking at some of the people who haven't engaged, and also the ones that are engaging and trying to move them to engaging on multiple channels.

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