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Which email marketing strategies work best? Martin Shaw, InternetRetailing’s head of research, outlines the lessons to be learnt from IRUK 500 research.

In the age of Facebook and Instagram, and when team collaboration platforms such as Slack that emphasise sharing and instant messaging are gaining traction within the business world, email is coming to seem archaic. As we were reminded recently when its inventor, Ray Tomlinson, died, the idea of sending personalised electronic messages from one network to another dates back to the internet’s stone age, 1971.

Nevertheless, even as many of us grumble about email overload, it remains a powerful tool for retail marketers. Not only is email direct, in that messages are delivered to individual consumers, it’s also a hugely useful tool for joining together different channels. Just as TV commercials haven’t gone away in the age of more personalised advertisements delivered via the web, email is here to stay… at least for

the foreseeable future.

It follows that it’s important for retailers to use email both efficiently and imaginatively; and there’s a vast literature around when it’s best to contact customers, what kinds of messages work best, how many emails to send and so on. What’s sometimes opaque when looking at this advice is the evidence on which it’s based.

Accordingly, working in conjunction with Knowledge Partner Return Path, we looked in detail at the effectiveness of retailers’ email marketing strategies as part of our research for the Brand Engagement Dimension of the IRUK 500 2016. We measured the proportion of emails from leading retailers that were read, deleted or marked as spam by either the ISP or the recipient.

Looking at the overall results, Argos emerged as the retailer that’s found the most effective email marketing model. It sends a relatively small number of emails, but 34.8% of these emails are opened and only 8.5% of these opened emails are then deleted. In terms of emails reaching recipients, 3.8% of emails from Argos were deleted without being opened, while only 0.7% were marked as spam by ISPs and 0.03%

by users.

What’s impressive here is Argos’s sheer consistency. While recipients open 35.4% of emails from Debenhams, for instance, 28.5% of these emails are then deleted. Turning to emails being deleted without being opened, the figure for Debenhams is 10.8%, although it did better in terms of emails marked as spam by ISPs (1.2%) and users (0.02%).

That’s not to be critical of Debenhams by the way, the retailer performed impressively, but incremental improvements here make a big difference. Just how big a difference is a subject we intend to investigate further through the year as we refine our research. In the meantime, some indicators around best practice are already beginning to emerge from our collaboration with Return Path, as detailed below.

  • Don’t over-punctuate: leaving aside the long-established convention that exclamation marks within emails signify shouting, analysis shows that 25.6% of emails without an exclamation mark are read as compared to 22.4% of emails that do.
  • Don’t include a financial amount in the subject line: users open just 20.8% of emails that contain a figure. This rises to 25.2% for emails that don’t contain a number.
  • Pre-dawn and evening emails: these are three to four times less likely to be marked as spam than emails sent during work hours, and emails sent pre-dawn and in the evening also enjoy the highest open rates, 28.1% and 30.8% respectively. Pre-dawn and morning emails are the most likely to be deleted without opening.

Other findings from Return Path’s research are less conclusive, but nonetheless intriguing for the way they challenge received wisdom about effective methods:

  • Find the discount sweet spot: emails offering discounts of more than 50% or less than 25% have the highest open rates at, respectively, 24.2% and 24.1%. Offer a discount of between 25% and 50%, and the open rate drops marginally to 22.1%. How to explain this? It may be that customers see big discounts as representing big bargains and smaller discounts as suggesting a keen price on a popular item. Emails that don’t offer any discount have a slightly higher open rate – 25.2% as opposed to 23.4% for those that do.
  • CAPITALISATION may not put shoppers off as some within the industry suppose: perhaps counter intuitively, users are less likely to read emails with low levels of capitalisation when compared to emails with high levels of capitalisation, with figures of 24.6% and 25.3% respectively. There is a happy medium here, in that 25.4% of recipients answer emails with medium levels of capitalisation.
  • Short subject lines: emails with short subject lines are more likely to be deleted without being opened, with 9.2% of users deleting such emails as opposed to a 7.4% figure for emails with a longer subject line. Against this, emails with short subject line lengths are also more likely to be opened, 26.2% against 20.6% for those with longer subject lines.

As many of these statistics suggest, refining email marketing techniques sometimes doesn’t lead to huge uplifts in open rates or sales, but incremental increases are still important. In addition, it shouldn’t be assumed that only small improvements can be made. As we enter an era of personalisation, retailers will increasingly be able to target marketing messages based on the information held about customers – whether that be shared directly or even through social media and the trails we all leave online. A recent study by personalisation specialists Barilliance suggests there’s much work to be done here. It found that just 32% of IRUK Top100 retailers contact customers with product recommendations via email, and of these only 6% personalise product recommendations. To understand why retailers may be missing a trick here, the example of clothes retailers Lands’ End is instructive. As long ago as 2013, the company achieved a 362% increase in its conversion rate because of an email personalisation programme. It seems distinctly possible other companies could also make big gains.

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