3 Email Marketing Traits That Enhance Customer Engagement

Many email campaigns still lack the necessary elements that create enough relevance to keep customers engaged: personalization, timeliness, and appeal.

Think email marketing is easy. Think again.

Sure, anyone can use email to reach out to prospects and customers. And that's the problem: Open your personal inbox any morning of the week, and it feels like everybody is using email as a marketing tool. Distinguishing marketing signals from marketing noise grows more difficult every day. Worse, the more noise that email from other companies generate, the less likely that your targets will have the desire to open your signal-rich emails.

Much of the email noise is a cacophony of generic marketing offers. But email communication is about more than that. It's about engaging customers and prospects in a way that makes them more receptive to additional marketing communications, more likely purchase, more likely to increase the volume of their purchases, and more likely to become higher-value customers. The killer app in when it comes to achieving this is not a technology but a quality: relevance.

What enables relevance? A number of characteristics do; most important, how personal, timely, and appealing the email's message is.

Make it personal

Too many marketers are still sending "batch and blast" marketing emails. According to Neolane Vice President of Marketing Kristin Hambelton, this approach is highly operational and delivers limited results.

"Instead, marketers must take a more segmented, dynamic approach to communicating with recipients," Hambelton says. "By taking into consideration past purchase behaviors and expressed preferences, marketers can improve customer engagement by creating more personalized, targeted offers that resonate and inspire an action-or, even better, a transaction."

AT&T recently made the switch to a more personal approach to email marketing. The shift occurred after AT&T realized that its previous segmentation effort had fallen off; as a result, email messages were becoming less tailored to its customers' interests. Resolving the issue meant better understanding customers' expectations. So AT&T endeavored to drive 500,000 current customers to update their preferences regarding the email communications that they received from the company.

Working with Acxiom, AT&T developed a playful and highly personalized email script whose intent was to encourage customers to click through to their preferences page. Each email mentioned the customer's name 11 times with some silly variations, such as Bobby-licious and Betty-tastic, while encouraging Bobby and Betty to update their preferences so AT&T could send them more Bobby-esque and Betty-like offers in the future.

The campaign succeeded. Click-through rates on these emails were 140 percent higher than previous email click-through rates, including messages promoting new devices. And open rates increased 32 percent over previous email open rates, according to Acxiom. Best of all, the approach created a virtuous cycle: AT&T's future communications can be even more tailored based on customers' stated preferences.

Make it timely

Another aspect of relevance is timeliness. Customer engagement can happen, for example, when companies use email communication to be proactive, to respond to customer cues, to act on event-based opportunities. Timeliness can show customers that a company has their best interests at heart, is listening to them, and understands their needs or preferences.

When are customers particularly ripe for engagement? Often after purchasing a product or service; particularly when the offering requires even the slightest amount of technical savvy or instructions to use. "Post-purchase emails are a great example of boosting engagement through [timeliness]," says Responsys Research Director Chad White. Along with offering a polite-and brief, White suggests-"thanks for your business," post-purchase emails can provide set up or installation advice and support, promote useful accessories, and offer other useful information at a time when customers need it most. "All of which can drive deeper interactions, improve customer satisfaction, and drive repeat business," White adds.

Consider Best Buy's post-purchase email to customers, which automatically appears in the inboxes of loyalty card members shortly after they make an in-store purchase. The email, which includes a "thank you" subject line, encourages purchasers to "get the most out of your new" HDTV, Blu-Ray player, computer, tablet, or other electronic device. The email also includes basic guidance about the product, recommended accessories that complement the device, a website link and phone number the customer can use to have any questions answered, and a link to the customer's local Best Buy retail location (with hours and weekly specials).

Make it appealing

There are many reasons to communication with customers via email, but the biggest is still to send marketing offers. Why? Customers love specials, discounts, and sales. And if they've opted in, it's because they want to be among the first to know about or among the select customer who receive an offer.

For these reasons, emails containing free product or service offers, such as subscriptions to online services or access to useful content, are often especially appealing and actually can improve customer engagement, notes Ed Thompson, director of demand generation for The Pedowitz Group. In fact, the intent of these "freemium" offers is to have a person try the service, adopt it, and remain a long-term customer who ideally purchases a higher-level offering after a trial period.

"The key, however, is initial usage," Thompson explains. "Upon signup, a person typically receives a confirmation email. Sending additional emails based on their product usage, or lack thereof, can be very effective in driving initial usage, thereby increasing the chances of adoption."

But be forewarned about the risks of engaging through freebies. When too many companies give away free stuff, everybody starts expecting free stuff. This is not unlike the email marketing's primary problem: When too many companies abuse email marketing, customers stop trusting email marketing messages. To counter this risk, companies should ensure that their freemiums are targeted to customer needs. Targeted offers are more relevant; and relevancy is more engaging.

Engaging customers via email is not an easy endeavor. But it is possible. It requires the right timing, a personalized message, and some enticing calls to action.