Hot List: Four ways to optimize email performance

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Beware the complacency that can set in with the common message-segment-send cycle of email marketing
Beware the complacency that can set in with the common message-segment-send cycle of email marketing

Despite the excitement around social tools today, businesses of all sizes continue to leverage email as a way to engage, teach, excite, and delight. Those who do it well—that is, use email to enhance marketing performance and build customer engagement—stay on a path of continuous improvement.

“Lazy organizations that abuse this channel are doing a disservice to their customers and not respecting them,” says Mary Wardley, program VP, CRM and enterprise applications at IDC. “Informed targeting based on segmentation and customer insight…has to be the standard that organizations use in their marketing.”

Savvy direct mMarketers understand that email isn't about shilling products or blasting their entire list with every promotion. There's an art to creating a powerful email campaign, and it should start with compelling, relevant content. That's why marketing today is as much about listening to customers as it is about anything else.

In terms of email marketing, “listening” means understanding customer behaviors and preferences by tracking customers' actions and campaign results, and then using that information to improve everything from deliverability and clickthroughs to segmentation and measurement.

But just because email is a marketing staple doesn't mean it's easy to optimize. If a company's email marketing isn't performing as well as expected, it's possible that there's a hiccup in its approach, or complacency is settling in and marketers aren't making changes based on what they're learning. Even the fundamental elements of email marketing, when tweaked, can make a significantly positive impact on its performance.

The following lists explain how marketers can optimize email marketing in four critical areas: increasing clicks and opens, testing and measurement, improving deliverability, and optimizing segmentation. Mastering these areas allows marketers to create a cycle of improvements to individual email campaigns, and email marketing overall, that will capture customers' attention, drive action, and boost marketing results.

1. Increase clicks and opens

In this age of email overload it's more challenging than ever to get customers to click on a call-to-action. Andrew Bonar, deliverability director at Emailvision, encourages marketers to “implement action-driven or trigger-based campaigns.” According to the Direct Marketing Association's Email Experience Council, triggered email messages have 96% higher open rates and 125% higher clickthrough rates than other messages, yet they comprised only 2.8% of the total email volume measured in Q4 2011.

Bonar recommends leveraging “Welcome” emails sent soon after a completed sign-up or registration, and “Thank you” emails after a purchase. “Other occasions for a triggered message include abandoned baskets, birthdays, and product-lifecycle based messages,” Bonar says. To increase clicks and opens:

  • Do approach content with a less-is-more philosophy. Write shorter emails to increase the likelihood that customers will read the offer and not delete the email.
  • Don't forget social sharing options. According to a study by Econsultancy, emails that include just one social sharing option generated 30% higher click-through rates than emails without any social sharing links. Rates jumped to 55% with three or more social sharing options.
  • Do create content targeted to specific recipients. Include content that's relevant to an individual or customer segment. This will not only differentiate the messaging, it will also help increase the likelihood of customers taking an action, like clicking through or sharing.
  • Do personalize your emails. This isn't just about using the recipient's name. It's about including content and offers based on customers' past behaviors, including their recent purchases or downloads and what areas of the company's website they've visited.
  • Don't send emails during “off” hours. Send email campaigns when customers are most likely to read them. Sending email during peak reading times (such as morning) will generate the maximum opens and clickthroughs—especially when it's announcing something that's happening soon.
  • Do remove distractions. It's important to keep the copy simple. Focus on the goal of the email, and provide clear and succinct content that reflects it.

2. Test and measure

Marketers focus on what gets measured. So make sure to test aspects of email campaigns and track related metrics that support the organization's business goals. “We don't test nearly enough in email marketing—especially on the retention side,” says Quinn Jalli, SVP of Epsilon's Strategic Initiatives Group. Before sending email campaigns, determine what to test and what will define success.

Testing by device has also become imperative. “It used to be: Who are you emailing and at what domain,” Jalli says. “Now, it's also on what device are customers viewing the email?”

To improve testing and measurement for email campaigns:

  • Outline objectives. Once the goals of a campaign are clear, it will be easier to determine what to measure. According to Jalli, there's a shift to tracking engagement via clicks and opens as a key metric.
  • Consider the influence of images. Customers' email viewing habits, especially on mobile, has changed the click-to-open ratios.
  • Use A/B testing. It may seem like email marketing 101, but this staple is often overlooked. This should include testing areas like personalized elements and subject lines.
  • Only test one thing at a time. The only way to accurately know if the item that you're testing is, in fact, the item that created the change in results, is to limit what you're testing to one item.
  • Timing matters. Jalli recommends that direct marketers track not only the time of day that customers are most likely to open an email or click through, but also on which device at a given time do they take those actions.

3. Improve deliverability

While many direct marketers are mainly interested in opens, clicks, and transactions when reviewing campaign reports, delivery is no less important. The first step to getting stronger results on email delivery is sending specific email campaigns to the customers most likely to be interested in viewing them. Customer data is essential to this.

After gaining a thorough understanding of customer preferences, the next step is to analyze campaign results in terms of delivery. Compare each campaign to the delivery percentages of past campaigns to determine whether there's a problem, and, if so, act on it.

“Stop emailing people that don't respond to you and you'll get better delivery,” says George Bilbrey, president of Return Path. “These are people who are never going to buy from you.”

To improve on email deliverability rates:

1. Don't assume an opt-in. This may seem obvious, but never send commercial email to customers or prospects who haven't specifically consented to receive it. A one-time purchase, for instance, isn't an opt-in to an email list. Sending email communications that customers didn't sign up for sends a bad message and prompts opt-outs and complaints.

2. Keep email volume low. Today's spam filters make it difficult to send a mass amount of email at one time. Throttle the flow of email communications sent.

3. Optimize for mobile. Research from HubSpot shows that of the 70 million U.S. consumers who access email via mobile device 43% do so four or more times a day.

4. Test across service providers. It's essential to test email deliverability with a variety of email providers (e.g., Yahoo, Gmail, and Hotmail).

5. Choose words wisely. Avoid using words and phrases that are fodder for spam traps, like “free offer” or “buy now.”

4. Optimize segmentation

Segmentation is essential to relevance and targeting. Providing an offer created for a specific group of customers can significantly increase the likelihood that recipients will be engaged enough to take action. According to HubSpot research, marketers who segment their lists garner 18% more transactions, 24% more sales leads, and 24% greater revenue.

“If you define the ‘right' segmentation in terms of customer satisfaction, response, and spend [or] revenue, then it's important to get it right because consumers and business professionals interact with our brands across a constantly evolving mix of digital channels, time spans, sessions, live events, in store, and social networks,” says Stephanie Miller, VP of digital messaging solutions at Aprimo. “Plus, they interact using multiple devices and in varied environments. Marketers who do segmentation from a combined marketing database have a single source of truth for understanding customer status and interest.”

To optimize segmentation:

  • Know your customers. Customer data is the key to segmentation—thus, message relevance. Determine which customer data points will best align with the messaging and goals of the campaign. Then use that information to inform segmentation and list selection.
  • Get social. Add customers' known social media profiles and activities into the mix to build a more complete view of the customer.
  • Create a single version of the truth. A holistic view of the customer that includes such data as behaviors, channel prefereFources, and past transactions will help improve the accuracy of customer segments and the ability to build ultra-current, unique segments.
  • Keep data fresh. Miller emphasizes that “segmentation is a snapshot of the customer's interests and value” at a moment in time. This means that marketers have an opportunity to act on that information (e.g., customers' actions) in near real time, rather than reacting to outdated information.
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