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GUEST COMMENT How email can play the role of your online shop assistant

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Online retailing is booming in the UK. According to research from IMRG and Capgemini, online sales grew by 12% year-on-year in 2013. During the recent peak trading period over Christmas 2013, IBM’s Digital Analytics Benchmark report found that online sales rose by 31.6% compared to the previous year. And Cyber Monday grew even more strongly, with mobile shopping growing by 94% year-on-year.

Despite this, some online retailers have not yet entirely embraced the digital age. At Lyris, we’ve been helping clients to manage their Christmas email campaigns for more than 20 years and there’s been a marked change in attitudes over this period, but some retailers remain hesitant about ramping up their campaigns over the festive season. Sometimes marketers worry that turning campaigns around too quickly will result in a poor customer experience that will impact their brand. Other marketers struggle with capacity, focusing their limited resources on their websites and overlooking their email programmes.

Our advice to retailers is as follows. Firstly, customers want their favourite brands to help them source purchases. They’re busy, so they appreciate hearing from you if you get your messaging right.

Secondly, focusing exclusively on your website is a mistake – at any time of the year. One of the secrets of successful offline retailing has always been the sales assistant. They can convert a browsing customer into a purchaser, by gently prompting them into action. Online retail stores don’t have this asset of course and that can prove a significant disadvantage. But by applying the right techniques, email can play the role of your online shop assistant. Here’s how:

A good retail assistant attracts in window shoppers and suggests product ideas to them that they may not have considered. In just the same way, email is an interruptive channel. It arrives unprompted in your customers’ inboxes with suggestions that attract them to your website. There are other channels that can play this role, including paid search and above the line advertising, but neither are anywhere near as cost effective as a good email programme, which is consistently shown to achieve the strongest return on investment of all marketing channels.

They welcome shoppers, introducing them to their product range and encouraging them to browse. A good email welcome programme can do just that. We recommend sending a series of welcome emails to new subscribers to make them feel valued, beginning as soon as they sign up. This provides an opportunity to engage customers with your brand early and to promptly trigger conversions. As the cliché goes, you don’t get two chances to make a first impression and it’s true in digital marketing just as it is elsewhere.

They understand customers’ needs by asking them what they’re interested in or why they’re purchasing. An email preference centre can accomplish the same thing. Our recent studies show that sending campaigns that take account of stated preferences and shopping interests can increase engagement by over 35%. Through segmentation, your digital sales assistant can provide timely information that is relevant to each customer – just like their human counterpart.

They sell, by suggesting products that are relevant to a customer’s in-store browsing behaviour or related to their purchase. Your digital sales assistant can do exactly this and more. By capturing the products that are browsed on your website, each customer’s purchase history and details of abandoned shopping carts, you can feature products and services in your emails that are tailored to each customer’s interests. You can send these emails as real time triggers and you can even insert tailored recommendations into your regular campaigns using dynamic content, so adding this value for your customers need not add to the workload of your marketing team. Our statistics show that inserting content that is derived from online behaviour can increase sales conversions by more than 50%.

They build loyalty through engagement with customers that drives repeat purchases.

We all enjoy going back to stores where we’re familiar with the sales assistant and know the service is going to be a good experience. Email can help you to drive loyalty even between purchases, by keeping your brand front of mind and updating customers on your new products and services.

The important role that shop assistants play in retailing is proven. Applied correctly, your digital shop assistant should be adding even more value because of the data that is available to your email programme and its ability to reach your customers wherever they may be.

Jon Maddison is VP of client services EMEA at Lyris

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