Seven Secrets to Increasing Email Marketing Performance

Companies sending mass emails without a well-conceived strategy are bound for the spam filter. It's time to think outside the email (in)box.

Email marketing success takes more than a clean mail list and responsibly processing opt-ins. Those are simply table stakes to being a serious email marketer. To achieve standout success with email campaigns today means thinking outside the inbox. Consider these seven strategies:

1. Trigger campaigns reward the diligent

To be sure, trigger campaigns are more complicated than conventional batch-and-blast messages. Between the effort required to track customer activities, identify interesting triggering behavior, and understand the results (did the email sent in response to the triggering event actually cause the sale?), the challenges may appear to overwhelm the advantages. But they should not be ignored, as they can produce astonishing results.

Printer manufacturer Epson worked with Responsys to develop a trigger-based campaign for registered users spotted on Epson's digital imaging websites. Dubbed the "Browse" campaign, it sends tailored offers and reminders based on the products viewed by the visitor within the past week. Timing proved to be crucial to the success of the trigger campaign. Epson's initial trigger campaign was run on a monthly basis, but the results were not nearly as inspiring.

By running trigger campaigns on a daily basis and relying only on very recent visits, Epson has achieved substantial incremental results. Open rates are more than twice as high for trigger-based emails than they are for conventional messages, which on its own would be a commendable achievement. But conversion rates are so much higher that the revenue from a trigger-based email is roughly 10 times as great as revenue from a conventional email. In just a short time, trigger-based emails have come to account for 10 percent of Epson's overall email revenues, despite the fact that the Browse campaign accounts for less than 1 percent of Epson's overall email volume.

2. Not all data is good data

Customer segmentation, behavioral triggers, and personalized messages are all laudable goals. So, too, is integrating data from multiple contact channels. But in order to effectively apply that information, marketers must develop an eye for significance and relevance. Irrelevant data can skew models and can ultimately lead to counterproductive behavior. For example, if the purchase of one product is positively correlated with the purchase of another, but that relationship is statistically insignificant, then building a campaign around combined sales of the two products will be unlikely to produce any meaningful ROI. "It's easy as a marketer to say, 'I want all of my data to be actionable,' but it is just as important to ask, 'What data is really important?'" says Sal Tripi, senior director of operations and compliance for the online group at Publishers Clearing House (PCH).

Tripi encountered this firsthand at PCH, which has expanded its interests well beyond the traditional paper-based magazine sales world into a variety of channels and product lines. An internal campaign to improve data sharing and integration between channels led to the realization that some past data was simply irrelevant to present campaigns. Testing not only for correlation, but also for relevance was a key component of a multichannel strategy overhaul carried out in conjunction with technology vendor e-Dialog. PCH found that it was overestimating loyalty; the cutoff for relevant past purchases was more recent than they initially thought. Overall, PCH's email overhaul led to a 120 percent increase in conversions. "There may be 5,000 important things to know about your customers, but they all age out at some point," Tripi says.

3. Sometimes, more really is better

Conventional wisdom tells us that customers respond better to lower volumes of communication. The reasoning goes that customers will ultimately tune out (or worse, relegate to the spam filter) any company that sends far more messages than the customer could possibly respond to in a single purchase cycle. Nursing uniform manufacturer Tafford Uniforms reinvented its marketing model four years ago to include a heavy emphasis on email, and, working with Silverpop, has done extensive testing on message frequency and campaign performance.

After initially bowing to conventional wisdom and decreasing contact frequency, Tafford shifted its tests in the other direction, ratcheting up contacts per week. And up. And up. Tafford is now sending five emails per week, and the news is all positive. "At five times per week, we make more money and do not see any rise in our attrition rate compared to three times per week," says Fred Swain, Tafford marketing manager.

Of course, customers aren't exactly blindsided by the volume. Tafford discloses the mailing frequency when customers sign up for email messages, and participants can ask for lower-frequency contacts. The company is aggressive about culling non-responders from the rolls, and has a niche, captive audience. But the bottom line, says Swain, is simple: "The more emails we send, the better we do."

4. You had me at the pre-header

Crafty marketers are shifting their message up-way up. Making a concise, terse, and complete pitch in the first 40 characters of an email takes advantage of "pre-header" or "preview" space that many email clients show in pop-up windows when messages are received, or in preview lines next to the subject and author. This space is often been wasted on HTML code or administrative messaging. "'Click here to view as a web page' doesn't entice you to stop what you're doing and read the message," says Mark Berger, marketing director at Cypra.

Although it may seem like poor manners to skip a personalized salutation and open with the brass tacks, pitching in the pre-header creates an additional opportunity to expose the recipient to the core message. It can also improve the perception of relevance. These pre-header pitches are short and to the point, for example, "Save 20 percent on HD TVs until 8pm" or "Free shipping today only." Berger claims that some companies see a 40 percent reduction in spam complaints when pre-header messages are used to make the purpose of a message plain.

5. Mobile email? Or just email?

As smartphones get smarter and new categories of digital devices crop up around the tablet form factor, marketers should stop thinking of mobile email as a set of limitations, and start considering it an opportunity. Customers on smartphones and mobile devices today can open and read most of the rich-media emails available to desktop users. Instead of designing mobile emails to conform to cramped SMS sensibilities, design mobile email campaigns whose call to action reflects the fact that the reader is very likely not at a desk. The fact that the email is read on a mobile device is itself an interesting and actionable piece of information about that customer.

Supporting mobile-friendly payment systems, such as PayPal, will allow customers riding trains and buses to keep their wallets in their pockets while still making a purchase. Also, most smartphones have robust social media integration, so asking for a "like" or a "follow" from a mobile user will ensure that the relationship is cemented and stays warm as the reader moves from mobile to desktop and back again.

Of course, most mobile phone users haven't adopted the latest high-resolution devices, so depending on your market segment you risk overcorrecting. "You still have to think about subject lines that work on a one-and-a-half inch screen," warns Loren McDonald, vice president of industry relations at Silverpop.

6. Seed social content

Social content has a place in email. Rather than building campaigns and messaging around the whims of the marketing department, why not let customers decide what is important and relevant to them? Ben Ardito, vice president of professional services as e-Dialog, says social activity and content are a natural fit for email campaigns. If a customer has demonstrated interest in flashlights, for example, instead of a simple trigger email with a collection of randomly selected flashlights as product suggestions, send flashlight suggestions based on the highest recent user ratings, complete with quotations from reviews submitted by actual users. "Three out of four of consumers use some kind of social media to make purchasing decisions," he says. "The most relevant content is generated by consumers, people just like the customers you are trying to reach."

7. Get ready for an inbox based on relevancy, not date

Google recently unveiled Priority Inbox, a feature that promotes email to the top of an inbox not because it was the most recently received, but because of the likely importance of that email to the reader, based on how much interest the user has shown in the content reflected in the email. As a new feature and one only offered on a beta, opt-in basis, it is too early to tell how the Priority Inbox will affect email marketing, or how widely it will be adopted and copied by other major email providers. But the feature has the potential to subtly alter the way users approach their inboxes, including reducing the relevance of email marketers sending messages at a particular time of day, or repeating a message just to retain a little mindshare. "Relevance used to be thought of as a binary proposition-either it was read or it was put in the trash, the outcome was either good or bad," says Blaine Mathieu, CMO of email marketing firm Lyris. "Now, relevance is a continuum. Your email might be top-tier, second-tier, or marked as spam."