Despite endless marketing channels and techniques, email marketing remains a tried-and-true revenue generator. Unfortunately, as email volume rises, brands risk being overlooked in a saturated landscape. Mastering audience segmenting, brand development and send-time optimization are pivotal in building customer relationships that last.
The simple truth is that email works. Even with a host of newer marketing techniques available to retailers, email remains a tried-and-true marketing strategy and a proven revenue generator. But it takes more than clever copy and creative. If your campaign never hits your target shopper’s inbox, it will be a campaign wasted.
In this article, we turn to the experts for their tips on a winning email strategy to elevate email outreach. Explore how to elevate your email outreach and stay relevant in a competitive retail space. Inside readers will learn:
- The two pillars of email marketing for retail brands
- Three top practices to help improve your email marketing campaigns
- How to shine in a saturated environment
Table of contents
While retailers today rely on a host of newer marketing techniques, from influencer marketing to social media, email remains a tried-and-true strategy as a proven revenue generator. Because it works. In fact, in 2019, nearly 80% of marketers reported an increase in email engagement and an impressive ROI of $42 to $1.
With email clearly such a key channel for retailers, a strong program is essential as poor email deliverability and conversion can translate to a direct revenue hit.
However, with email volume rising, retailers risk being overlooked in a saturated landscape. The good news is there is a myriad of details that can make email campaigns more effective. While a clever hook is imperative, your copy and creative aren’t the only elements to pay attention to, as even the best campaign will be wasted if it never hits your target shopper’s inbox.
Think about it like a restaurant: The only way to create a successful experience that satisfies patrons is to choreograph a strong showing between the “back of the house,” the operations behind the scenes, with the “front of the house,” the part that the diner sees.
That’s why we went to the experts for their tips for a winning email strategy for both the front and back of the house to elevate your email outreach. By focusing on both elements in tandem, you can create an email experience that accomplishes your goals.
Here is their insiders’ take on how to stay relevant in an increasingly competitive retail space.
Pillar 1: Back of the House
You know your message will resonate with shoppers — if only they would read it. That’s where retailers want to be sure they are buttoning down the back of the house, with tactics that will help improve the chances your message will not only hit your customers’ inbox but also get opened and read.
Here are three top practices to help improve your email marketing campaigns.
Create a cadence that will enhance deliverability and connection.
How do you know if you are sending too many messages… or not enough? It’s a question Tori Garcia often hears as an email strategist at Validity, which uses data to help retailers increase inbox placement and maximize subscriber reach. In her experience, the answer is… it depends.
“Honestly, there is no clear standard because the ideal is based on your brand and product sales cycle, as well as your customer’s engagement,” she said. However, it’s important to remember that subscriber engagement directly impacts your deliverability, which is why it’s imperative to segment your list and find the right balance.
Segmenting subscribers by their email-opening behaviour can ensure you’re not overwhelming or underserving them, and it can keep your email from being blocked. One simple strategy is dividing your email list into categories, said Bobby Tichy, regional vice president for strategic sales at digital marketing firm Lev.
He recommends creating three general buckets and sending messages accordingly:
- Engaged: Those who have opened a message or made a purchase in the past 30 days are likely to be open to frequent communication.
- Active: Those who have done so in the past 90 days would likely be open to half the communication of the first group.
- Dormant: This is everyone else, an audience you should reach more sparingly, perhaps for a clearance or holiday sales.
Not only will this allow you to build a better relationship, but you are likely to have more success; marketers report a 760% increase in email revenue when they segment their campaigns.
Create a “clean” list to ensure better your message gets through.
It’s easy to forget mailbox providers work for the subscribers, not the retailers, Garcia noted. And that means they have a responsibility to cut down on their clients’ spam, making them judicious about which messages get through.
Reducing your hard bounces is critical, said Gail Buffington, vice president of marketing and analytics at Soft Surroundings, a women’s apparel and lifestyle brand. Mailing to fake or stale email addresses will negatively impact your sender reputation and jeopardize your connection with valid subscribers. To maintain a clean list, it’s important to make sure you’re checking engagement metrics so you can remove outdated or unengaged recipients, a process called “sunsetting,” and using an email address verification solution to remove fake or errant contacts.
And, of course, you want to watch your unsubscribe rate closely. Recently Buffington noticed unsubscribe rates were down in general, as consumers seemed to be a little less hurried and, therefore, have a higher threshold for maintaining the connection with a brand. But that means to unsubscribe, or spam complaints should be heeded even more.
Analyze your send time to ensure you reach customers when they’re checking their mail, or, even better, are ready to shop.
Send time is an important metric because you have a better chance of getting attention or action if you reach the sender when they are most apt to browse or buy. But remember, it’s just one tool in your toolbox, and it can be tricky to determine, given your customers’ varying personal schedules.
One option to determine if there is a significant difference in send times is to conduct A/B testing, where you send two batches at two different times that you think would succeed. Then you can compare results on open and buy rates; if you determine a notable preference, it’s easy to adjust your send time accordingly.
If you’re noticing send time optimization isn’t really moving the needle, you might want to take a look at more advanced options like view time optimization.
This is a new technology allowing you to deliver emails the moment a user is active in their inboxes — staying up to date on the tools available to you will give your business an edge on the competition in the inbox at high-volume times of the day.
Pillar 2: Front of the House
If the foundational elements are the steak, your email’s copy, content and design bring the sizzle. Like in a restaurant, where the chef is building a great reputation with the food, the front of the house should deliver the wow factor when your customer walks through the door.
Today, competition doesn’t just come from other companies in your vertical, but also every company competing for space in a consumer’s inbox. Here’s how to shine.
Develop your brand voice, so customers know “who” you are.
As subscribers’ inboxes overflow, you need to work to stand out, Garcia said. That comes from making yourself distinctive by emphasizing your brand’s voice. Most brands assume that means trying to be funny, but that’s not the case, she said. “If you try to sound funny and it completely flops, it’s because that’s not who you’re supposed to be. Lean into your educational or empathetic attributes, if that’s more relevant.”
Once you have developed your brand’s look and feel, make sure to maintain that consistent voice across other channels where customers interact with you. “You want to create a cross-channel marketing experience not siloed to email, but that carries over to SMS text or social media, since consumers may be viewing you on multiple channels,” Garcia said. “Making sure each branch of your marketing program is speaking together will create a cohesive experience and connection with your subscribers.”
Make your content work for you to entice shoppers to click … and buy.
Garcia has seen a renewed emphasis by retailers to create a more customer-centric email program by focusing on the entire subscriber life cycle — from the welcome message to content designed to help your customer have a more engaging brand experience. Wondering how yours measures up? You don’t have to conduct in-depth scientific research, she said. “Just put yourself in your subscribers’ shoes and see how the emails make you feel.”
Here are some key areas to consider for your own email program.
This is a prime opportunity to clarify your intentions so subscribers know what to expect, such as how often you’ll send emails and what types of content you’ll offer. Garcia advised sending this missive immediately after a new user signs up so they will connect it with their recent action; otherwise, they might inadvertently fail to recognize they had made this request and click the unsubscribe button.
Buffington said these emails were “a reliable engine of constant demand” but reminded retailers to be flexible with their positioning. “These messages can address the specific abandoned item but can also incorporate a ‘softer touch,’” she said. For example, Soft Surroundings might send a particular email right after the abandonment, but then it will move to other messages after more time passes. “There’s almost certainly a reason the customer decided not to go through with that exact purchase, so a future email can still present the item, but also add similar options,” she said. “That allows us to broaden our message to share other products that might interest them, instead of solely reminding them yet again that they forgot the first item.”
Tichy concurred with this type of coordinated message strategy. “You have to respect the fine line between reminding someone and being annoying.”
The “replenish” email has really taken off in the past year, Tichy said, with retailers typically enjoying high conversion rates. “The key is to reach the shopper at a logical point in the buying journey,” he said. So while you might remind someone to buy more running shorts after six months to a year, a customer with a 30-day supply of vitamins should be pinged at the three-week mark.
Soft Surroundings has found consistent success with replenishing emails targeted toward buyers of beauty products and also uses upsell and cross-sell emails for all its product categories. “We make sure the content is contextual, both to previous purchases and items they have recently viewed,” Buffington said.
Once shoppers have hit the buy button, it’s easy to assume your work is done, but additional touch points can help you stand out after the point of conversion, Tichy said.
For example, he suggested including an estimated delivery date along with the tracking number in a confirmation email, then following up with a series of messages to keep the buyer informed on every step of the journey. You can let them know when the order has been fulfilled when it’s been shipped, its projected arrival date and when it ultimately arrives. “Not only will this sequence cut down on calls from patrons wondering where their purchase is, but it helps build anticipation when they know the item is on its way or has arrived on their doorstep.”
Buffington also advises maximizing the follow-up confirmation emails sent to patrons who have requested curbside pickup. “Our email will present the relevant order details, then also elaborate on store safety precautions to put her mind at ease and reinforce we’re taking her safety seriously.”
Please make the most of personalization/ customization, so shoppers know you are talking to them.
These days, personalization is expected, but it can be challenging to strike a balance between being effective, but not creepy, Garcia noted. And just inserting the customer’s first name doesn’t cut it anymore as a way to build connections.
One strategy she likes is progressive profiling, where you collect data gradually by asking questions, allowing your clients to offer details. For example, she buys from a company that makes customized hair products, gleaning information on your hair type, regional weather, etc., from an online assessment. With data in hand, a follow-up email could allow the company to point you to a nearby brick-and-mortar store that recently opened in the area or suggest similar products.
Start strong by collecting the right information from shoppers.
You have to start by building a quality list, Garcia said. “It comes back to the sign-up process. If you make your email program appealing to subscribers, they’re more likely to give you a valid email address, rather than the one they used in middle school.” Tichy added today many retailers implement a tool at the point of sign-up requiring a valid address to submit the form initially.
Again, you also want to make sure your forms are asking for the right information upfront, so you will be better able to personalize the email experience down the road.
Use “dark mode” to make your email easier to read.
We’re looking at more screens today than ever, and dark mode can help reduce eyestrain as it reverses the contrast of your message from dark writing on a light screen to a light foreground and dark background.
Since it’s a newer feature, make sure to test your design in both modes to make sure it renders correctly; otherwise, readers might have a poor experience, which can lead to defections, Garcia said.
“Subscribers are expecting more targeted, relevant messages, so if you are still sending a ‘batch and blast,’ you’re out of the game,” she warned.
Combining Front and Back of the House to Maximize Campaign Performance
As any retailer knows, successful email marketing entails far more than just creating a series of emails and blasting them out, then crossing your fingers they convert to buyers. But when you’re focused on expanding your business, it can be not easy to devote sufficient time to learning and complying with changing best practices to ensure an effective email program.
Email marketing is complex and requires thinking beyond just email content itself to all the metrics and features that optimize your overall program. Just as a restaurant needs the right ambience to complement a delicious meal, every element of your email program is a key ingredient in its success.
By first focusing on each of them separately, then blending them holistically, you will be more apt to stay relevant to your audience, connect with customers — and ultimately increase sales.