How to Send the (Almost) Perfect Email

The perfect email is like a mythological creature: Its existence is questionable; yet marketers continue to pursue it anyway. And while legendary best practices can guide marketers on their quest, these rules can also lead marketers astray.

Jerry Jao, CEO of marketing platform provider Retention Science, admits that there’s no such thing as perfection when it comes to email; however, he says tailored and timely messaging can get marketers close.

“I don’t think that there’s a perfect email,” he says, “but I think there’s an email that’s much more personable and much more relevant that marketers can present to [their] core audience to improve [their] conversion rate.”

With the goal of helping marketers send nearly ideal messaging, Retention Science analyzed one billion emails that resulted in 60 million orders. Based on its study, here are five tips that can help marketers become legendary senders.

Ditch the dollar signs.

Customers are susceptible to savings offers, but it’s how marketers convey these savings that lead them to act. According to Retention Science, 38% of customers are more likely to click on emails containing percent-off offers than on dollar-off deals, and 47% are more likely to convert in response to the former.

Granted, this messaging method might not work for everyone. Jao says that the percent-off tactic is better suited for big brands that offer an array of products and follow a “the more you spend, the more you save” approach. The dollar-off deals, he adds, work better for smaller companies with limited inventory because they generally offer customers greater savings.

Ask the right questions.

Who doesn’t love a little mystery? Subscribers certainly do. Including punctuation in subject lines in general can boost open rates by 9%, according to the study, but subject lines containing question marks, specifically, have a 44% higher open rate than those containing exclamation marks.

So, what kind of questions should marketers ask in their subject lines? Jao advises marketers to stick with questions that address customers’ personal needs, such as “Are you done with all of your holiday shopping?” or “Did you forget about your wife’s birthday?”

“It sparks an interest and it serves as a reminder,” he says.

Be concise.

Just because marketers can write lengthy subject lines doesn’t mean they should. In fact, Retention Science found that emails containing subject lines with six to 10 words generated the highest open rates, at 21%. Messages containing 11- to 15-word subject lines had a 14% open rate.

Brevity is especially important, Jao notes, because many consumers check their emails via mobile devices. “Customers want something that’s much more concise and they want you to get straight to the point,” he notes.

Still, subject lines shouldn’t be so short that they fail to convey what the email is actually about. Consider: Emails with subject lines containing up to five words experienced a 16% open rate. 

Timing matters.

With email marketing, it’s not just the what that matters; it’s also the when. Indeed, an email’s send time can play a significant role in terms of performance. This isn’t just about time of day, but also time of year. For instance, although Retention Science discovered that open rates are fairly consistent year round, click-through rates are highest during the early months of the holiday season, rising to 30% in October and 27% in November. 

July is the best time for generating conversion, according to the study, as the month’s rates are 21% higher than average—beating out December, a time when rates are 10% higher than average. Jao attributes this lower conversion rate to the heightened competition during the holiday season.

“Consumers have more things to choose from and more distraction,” he says.

The study also found that subscribers are more prone to drop off lists at certain times of the year. August is the peak season for unsubscribes, with a 28% rate, according to Retention Science. April and October experience above-average rates, as well, at 8 and 9%, respectively. Contrastingly, the holiday months of November and December experience the lowest unsubscribe rates, at 4 and 5%, respectively.

Jao’s advice for battling unsubscribes is to refrain from getting too aggressive with email outreach. For instance, he recommends that commerce companies send up to only two emails per week per recipient. “You need to pay close attention [to] your engagement frequency and make sure that you’re not bombarding your users too much,” he says. 

As for marketers figuring out their own ideal timelines, Jao recommends paying attention to seasonality, as well as to the typical number of purchases a customer makes over the course of his lifetime.

Stick with familiarity to drive clicks.

Marketers can capture consumers’ attention by citing a novelty item, like a TV, in the subject line. In fact, doing so can produce a 6% lift in open rates, according the study.  But when it comes to generating click-throughs, marketers should stick to familiar items. According to Retention Science, messages that feature necessities (e.g. facial products, groceries) in the email body experience a 10% higher click-through rate than those that feature novelty items—even if those specialty items are highlighted in the subject line.

Clearly, both types of subject lines offer value. When determining which one to should use, Jao notes, marketers should identify where customers are in their lifecycle and what their needs might be.

“It’s not a clear half-and-half split,” he says. “We recommend that brands have a strategy behind how they want to communicate with their customers.”

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