Email, Like Fine Wine, Gets Better With Age

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Email continues to be a marketing staple because it works without busting the marketing budget—and marketers continue to reinvent it.

Wine has been produced and enjoyed for millennia. In digital marketing years, email is just as old. It is at once a stable, mature technology built on underlying tech principles that haven't changed much since being codified in the 1980s, and a moving target of evolving devices, deliverability standards, and communication strategies.

With traffic up 16% year-over-year, according to Experian Marketing Services, email continues to be a staple of ongoing customer communications. It is universally understood, cost-effective at scale, and can be made relevant at any stage of the customer journey. “Email remains one of the primary, foundational channels to walk the customer down the path to purchase and repeat purchase,” says Ryan Hofmann, chief brand strategist at Listrak.

When email marketing was first finding its legs in the early 2000s, there were justified fears that customers would tune out. But the industry responded and made necessary course corrections, and today email is more popular than ever. Consumer survey data from MECLABS Institute shows that 72% of consumers value hearing from brands through email. The next highest channel, postal mail, couldn't muster a simple majority at 48%. The strong affinity for email was consistent across demographic groups in the survey, where email is in first place or tied for first in every age and gender category.

That attitude is just a moment in time, however. Brands must find new ways to stay focused and relevant, with new media and more detailed insights. Here are several campaigns that produce results by taking a fresh approach, not by simply blasting customers with more messaging.

Inbox video (kind of)
As video surges in popularity among consumers online, it remains a tricky challenge for email marketers. Although officially supported in modern email standards, most mobile email readers, as well as some prominent desktop clients such as Outlook, will not display embedded video content, so a click-to-view approach is still necessary for most audiences. “There's no disadvantage to using it,” says Justin Foster, VP of market development at Liveclicker. “It doesn't deliver a broken email, but the recipient just doesn't see the video.”

Marriott International found great success with video by making it personal and enticing. The hotel brand is always looking for new ways to engage members of its Marriott Rewards loyalty program, and email is an important centerpiece. The organization wanted to find new ways to apply consumer data and insights without incurring a privacy backlash. “Marriott being a slightly conservative organization, we have worried in the past about people getting freaked out,” says Clark Cummings, senior manager of member marketing at Marriott International. “But the pendulum has swung, and people are expecting us to use their data. It's been liberating.”

The month of December is a persistently low-water mark for hotel bookings, so it was chosen as the testing grounds for a new concept. Working with Yes Lifecycle Marketing, Marriott devised a month-long campaign for December 2014 designed around highly personalized messages, including custom video content. “We wanted to offer something that would use what we knew about their stays in a way that would be fun and interesting, not just look like a chart,” Cummings says.

As the month advanced, Marriott included increasingly personalized content in the body of the email, alongside standard newsletter items and other loyalty offers. The campaign culminated in an end-of-year report on December 30 with bright graphics showing personalized details for each member, including the number of nights stayed, free nights redeemed, and different hotel brands visited. These figures were put in perspective against the aggregate global points earnings and redemptions for all members, including their most popular destinations and cocktail choices.

The capstone of the email was a personalized video with a click-to-view link, which put an animated spin on these insights. To drive home the individual touch, the subject line put it simply: “We Made This Video Just For You.”

Customers responded strongly. The innovative campaign produced 86% more revenue than December campaigns of the two previous years. Open rates were up 20% and conversions nearly 10% higher. It didn't take the “conservative organization” long to recognize that it needed to quickly double down on its success. “By January 5, we decided we were going to do it again this December. Everybody was excited about the execution and the results,” Cummings says.

Moment-of-open elements earn engagement
However pretty its design may be, email is traditionally a static medium—just a new spin on an old message in a bottle. Spicing it up with elements generated at the moment the email is opened, rather than the moment it was written and placed in a campaign queue, creates a sense of urgency that can produce rousing results.

Since creating a formal email program 14 years ago, AAA Ohio has gradually moved from generic newsletters to targeted, triggered campaigns. Newsletters were popular in terms of open rate, but rarely inspired action. “We prefer things that are more actionable—not necessarily sales, but we want to drive the member to engage with us in some form,” says Nancy Weaver, senior manager, e-Business, at AAA Ohio.

The service club holds a travel expo in Columbus every January, when the weather in Ohio strongly favors an island getaway. Working with Liveclicker, AAA Ohio added a real-time weather comparison between Columbus and featured vacation destination Punta Cana, where temperatures were about 50 degrees warmer during the promotional period.

With no other substantial change in artwork or content year-over-year apart from the weather information block, the 2015 emails produced a 22% gain in click-through rates. That doubled Weaver's expectations and earned the comparison tool another engagement during the spring vacation sales campaign. With weather comparisons to warm locations such as Orlando, click-through rates improved more than 75%. 

Pulling the trigger
Targeted, segmented campaigns offer a significant improvement over generic messages. But when constructed manually, they create a labor burden on the marketing organization that hurts efficiency and turnaround time. “You may have the resources to get batch-and-blast emails out seven times per week, but often those resources spend 90% of their time getting the emails out the door,” Listrak's Hofmann says. “If you don't invest in the right human capital, agency, or provider to automate some behavior-based emails, you will forever spin your wheels on them.”

Today it's possible to define automated trigger campaigns on a variety of consumer actions, including search-and-abandon, browse-and-abandon, and cart abandonment. Plus, some platforms can integrate with site data and generate automatic email campaigns based on events such as in/out-of-stock, new reviews, and significant price changes.

Sporting goods vendor evo has an extremely large catalog and a heavily seasonal business. During peak ski season, consumer interest and product availability fluctuates rapidly, and evo has a narrow window in which to earn most of its annual revenue.

Since opening in 2001 the company has gathered a great deal of consumer behavior data, but had limited ability to convert those insights into action. “We could easily pull reporting to show how many people were interested in a ski in a given week, or how many added skis to a cart,” says Nathan Decker, evo's director of e-commerce. “But we had a difficult time marrying that up to actionable messages. The timing wasn't very close to the action, and performance was poor, both in terms of the number of messages sent and the revenue [generated].”

Working with Bluecore, evo created a series of automated email trigger campaigns. A price drop of $20 or more automatically sends an email alert to customers who have expressed interest in that item, without manual intervention. Cart and search abandonment emails are automatically sent one hour after a session ends. To keep the emails from seeming too omniscient, evo deliberately salts the abandon emails with items related to the search, as well, so consumers are not confronted solely with the specific item browsed.

The triggered emails have shown substantial improvement over evo's conventional campaigns. Standard evo email outreach generates between 10 and 30% open rates, with click-through rates of 1 to 3%. The triggered emails have a 60% open rate and 10% a click-through rate. Most important, evo customers reached with trigger emails consistently generate 20% more revenue against control groups who do not. 

Softer calls-to-action
Wine merchant Naked Wines operates a hybrid subscription model, built around a platform that resembles a mainstream social media site. Member accounts are automatically funded with a minimum of $40 per month, but the company does not automatically ship wines. Instead, members are encouraged to socially follow the independent winemakers featured on the site, and order when the mood strikes or their cellars run low. Inviting engagement for every order helps Naked Wines promote more up-and-coming winemakers, and keeps consumers invested in the process.

Email would seem to be a natural channel to nudge members to return to the site and place an order, and Naked Wines makes frequent use of its relationship with Adestra to stay in touch with customers. When Naked Wines grew large enough to do detailed segmentation on its audience, it learned that strong sales messages produced only short-term benefits. “We found that by talking about ‘discounts' or ‘free,' we would get the order, but we wouldn't drive loyalty,” says Julia Fox, Naked Wines marketing manager.

Instead of pushing for sales, Naked Wines now asks members to rate a recently received wine. The thumbs up-or-down interface is shown in the email body, which then redirects members to a landing page where they can rate more selections. The real payoff isn't just site engagement, but ongoing loyalty. Shifting away from sales email to ratings emails increased the likelihood of customer ratings five-fold. And the segment of Naked Wines customers who rate wines is 2.4 times more loyal to the service than those who don't.

Stay alert
Regardless of technology or campaign tactics, the most important thing to remember about email strategy is that it's constantly vulnerable to disruption. Automatic filtering of social and promotional notices into separate inboxes by Gmail, and comparable features in Outlook, have substantially altered the way email is delivered and read. More changes are inevitable.

“As the technology companies behind email readers improve machine learning, they will be able to better predict what customers want to see, and customers will trust them and not be satisfied with inboxes that show email sorted simply by the most recent,” says Daniel Burstein, director of editorial content at MECLABS Institute. “That will make it all the more important and vital to deliver what customers actually value by learning about their preferences, diving into analytics, and, heck, even talking to them and asking.”

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