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Sending The Right Message

Understanding which emails are most likely to be read can make all the difference to campaigns

AMAZON AND M&S led the field in analysis of email campaigns carried out in partnership with InternetRetailing Knowledge Partner Return Path . The study took into account inbox placement, read and deletion rates and what percentage of a campaign was marked as spam in order to judge which retailers’ messages were connecting most successfully with their recipients.

Return Path analysed emails sent by selected members of the IRUK Top500 2018 between July and September 2017 in order to find out how widely read – or deleted – their messages were. From that, it’s possible to infer how receptive customers were to these emails. This will be an interesting metric to track over the next year, in light of the GDPR directive from the European Commission, which comes into force on May 25. The incoming legislation will mean that retailers must get full consent from each shopper before including them in their database for purposes that include sending emails. One expected potential outcome of this is that retailers will get better results from their campaigns, since they are only sending them to customers who have already shown an interest.

The study found that read rates reached 23.4% in the latest research, up by 1.5 percentage points from 21.9% in 2016. Emails were more likely to reach inboxes (93.4% from 85.8%), suggesting that these brands are less likely to be filtered by their ISPs (Internet Service Provider). Those emails marked spam by their end recipient fell to 6.6% from 14.2% in 2016. “On the whole, companies are doing better,” said Guy Hanson, senior director, professional services at Return Path. “Inbox placement is up compared to last year and filtering by ISPs is down. I think companies are more aware of ISP filtering and are working harder to be more engaging with the ISPs and end recipients.”

The study also showed some distinct changes in the way different types of emails were received, while the way emails were designed also changed.


The study found that more retailers sent emails with longer subject lines, and that ISPs appeared to be more likely to accept those subject lines. In 2017, the difference in the read rate for emails with longer and shorter subject lines closed to 1% from 1.5% in 2016, when shorter subject line emails were more likely to be read.

The move towards longer subject lines might be, said ReturnPath’s Guy Hanson, because companies are putting more information in their subject lines in order to drive up open rates. However, he warned, this might have a negative effect on those reading emails on mobile devices since it could cut off the end of the line. He also noted that ISPs may now be accepting longer subject lines because customers are engaging with them in a more proactive way.

Despite longer subject lines, retailers are tending to put any discount rate at the beginning of the line, thus ensuring that even those on mobile see this message first. Many retailers are not using financial amounts in their offers and that may be preferred by ISPs, said Hanson, since they appear to filter those emails less. Read rates for emails that contained a discount moved closer to those that did not in 2017. There was also less of a spike for emails marked as spam among messages with an offer, compared to those that did not. Offers that contained a question enjoyed more engagement than in previous years. They were read by 1.2% fewer people than emails without a question in 2017, compared to 7.8% fewer in 2016. Emails containing an exclamation mark seemed to be less widely used in 2017, when they were received by 17% of subscribers, than in 2016 (20%).


In 2016, Tuesday saw the highest read rates compared to any other day, albeit a marginal advantage at +0.3%. In 2017, Friday and Wednesday had the highest read rates, although Friday scored higher because it had a lower rate of messages marked at spam. It was not clear whether emails sent in the first or second fortnight of a month were more successful. “You would think the second half might do better as it’s nearer payday,” said Hanson. “However, not everyone will have the same payday, since some will be weekly and others bi-weekly rather than monthly.”

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