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Using email effectively

The effective use of email requires a combination of art, craft and guile – all guided by hard numbers. Martin Shaw outlines our latest research in this area

In an age when retailers are bombarded with advice about how to make the most of social networks, it’s easy to underestimate the importance of email. In part, that’s perhaps because a perception has grown that consumers too easily ignore emails. At best, this is an oversimplification. A carefully targeted email is a powerful and direct marketing tool.

So what makes for effective email marketing? Are there rules that cut across territories? Are there regional differences that retailers should consider when planning email marketing campaigns? Working in conjunction with our Knowledge Partner, Return Path, we set out to analyse how retailers use email, and with what results.

We considered a variety of behavioural metrics, which we outline below.

Read rates

This is calculated as the number of emails marked as “read” out of all emails sent. Typically, the quality of subject lines and timing have a big influence here, although read rates can be affected by deliverability issues. Currently, leading British retailers such as Debenhams, John Lewis, Tesco, Topshop and Waitrose generate the highest average read rates. These are retailers that utilise best-in-class email solutions that offer lifecycle automation, contextual marketing and responsive design to optimise for mobile. The evidence is that using such solutions contributes to high levels of subscriber engagement.

However, there are other themes that our research identified as contributing to email success:

  • Emotional impact: Waitrose employs embodied cognition techniques. To put that more simply, the retailer appeals to the senses by sending emails with, for example, a picture of rich red wine being poured in the foreground and a crackling fire in the background, an email that generated an average read rate of 121 against Waitrose’s benchmark performance of 100, a 22% improvement. Debenhams makes effective use of fear-of-missing-out offers, for example, money off vouchers, to drive a sense of urgency.
  • Events: an email from Asda promoting a Valentine’s day meal for two was highly effective (an average read rate of 167 against Asda’s benchmark performance) while Waitrose targets more niche events such as Burns Night.
  • Apologies emails: when something goes wrong, a retailer that laughs at itself sometimes has the last laugh as people engage with the email.
  • Feedback: offering retailers the chance to rate a service or provide feedback often prompts a response. Smart senders use this feedback proactively and create a virtuous circle by reducing the likelihood of negative metrics in future.
  • Service emails: these are routine, but the point is that customers open service emails (an average read rate of 175 against a marketing benchmark of 100). Clever retailers leverage the halo effect created by service emails to improve the performance of marketing emails by routing them through a common broadcasting platform and from a common sender domain.

Mailbox provider (MBP) marked spam rates

The spam placement rate is calculated as the number of emails delivered to the spam folder out of total emails sent. Typically, those retailers that performed poorly here fell into two categories: those utilising an insufficiently sophisticated email marketing solution, which can be compounded by other factors such as sending too many discounted offers; and where a company has been spoofed by fraudsters, which in turn makes consumers suspicious.

User-marked spam rates

The complaint rate is the rate at which subscribers report messages as spam. It is calculated as the number of “report spam/junk” complaints made against emails sent. Spam complaints send a direct signal from subscribers to mailbox providers that the content is unwanted. Sending an email with the “wrong” or vague messaging often increases these complaints.

User-marked not spam rates

This is calculated as the number of times a subscriber marks messages “this is not spam” or “not junk” out of the number of emails delivered to the spam folder. If a high percentage of a retailer’s mail is being sent to spam and the “this is not spam” rate is low, this could point to lack of permission, lack of awareness, or simply a lack of interest from subscribers.

Forwarded rates

Forward rate is calculated as the number of emails that are forwarded on to others out of total emails sent. A high forward rate shows strong subscriber engagement. M&S and Waitrose are strong performers here, with forwarded rates, respectively, of 442 and 631 against an industry benchmark of 100.

Deleted without reading rates

Otherwise known as the ignore rate. A high deleted before reading rate is often a sign of a failed campaign. However a consistently high deleted without reading rate may also be an indication of permission issues, or a lack of satisfaction with a wider email programme.

Deleted after reading rates

Deleting after reading indicates that subscribers are reading their emails for a few seconds before deleting them. A high deleted after reading rate can indicate a mismatch between expectations and the reality of what’s on offer. More positively, it means subscribers are reading the content and actively managing their emails.

Variations across Europe

The study we conducted with the help of Return Path revealed a number of regional variations that retailers should consider when planning email campaigns in the UK, France and Germany. We summarise these below.

Day of the week

In the UK, Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday are the best-performing days, while Saturday is the worst-performing day, perhaps because it’s a day for domestic chores. On Sundays, Waitrose often promotes gardening and sees exceptionally high levels of engagement. Note that while Germany broadly follows a similar trend to the UK, France delivers precisely the opposite results.

Time of day

In the UK, average read rates are highest during the 6am-noon morning window. This reflects the fact that retail email audiences are predominantly mobile (between 50% and 75% for the brands reviewed). Germans show a different profile, with the highest levels of engagement during the evenings.

Subject line length

We categorised subject line length by “short” (up to 35 characters, typically, after this, characters start to be lost on a mobile device), “medium” (up to 70 characters, typically where characters start to be lost on a PC/laptop), and “long”. By and large, here is an inverse relationship between length and engagement, which reflects the growth in mobile use. In Germany, however, medium-length subject lines perform best, perhaps because many German words are longer than their English counterparts!


Careful use of capitalisation can be used to highlight key elements of an offer, and will drive up engagement, although simply writing “FREE” may result in emails being classed as spam. In the UK and France, engagement decreases as the level of capitalisation increases. However, in Germany the opposite holds true. This may be because a comparatively high percentage of email accounts are operated by local providers and employ different filtering techniques to multinational email providers.

Discounting – use and size

For all three countries, emails that contained a percentage discount as part of their offer performed less well than those that didn’t. Many of the senders are premium brands, and it may be that the use of discounts is perceived as “cheapening” the relationship between brand and customers.

Where discounting is used, a small discount (1% to 25%) is generally seen as being most effective. This may be because they are perceived as more believable. While the data does show a rise for higher discounts, it should be noted that they do not beat overall benchmarks, so senders are effectively leaving money on the table.

Financial Amounts – use and size

For all three countries, offers that explicitly stated a financial amount performed more poorly than those that didn’t. It may be that promotions will only ever feature prices that are really competitive, and again this may create a perception of “cheapness”.

We only carried out this analysis for the UK market. As with discounts – smaller performs better, with amounts of between £1 and £25 generating the highest levels of engagement.

Offer poses a question

It is sometimes considered an effective engagement driver to position an offer as a question, for example, “Nothing to wear?” The downside of this approach is that it can also be considered to be a little aggressive. In the UK and Germany, emails that posed a question generated lower average read rates than those that didn’t, while France was flat.

Offer makes a statement

Email offers will often use an exclamation mark. The risk of this approach is that if the sense of urgency becomes too great, it can act as a disincentive. Subscribers may also associate this kind of language with fraudulent emails. In the UK, offers that use exclamation marks perform worse than those that don’t. However, in both France and Germany, this approach (as yet) generates higher levels of engagement when used.

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