5 Pitfalls with Email Marketing Campaigns—and Ways to Get Around Them

by   |   September 30, 2013 8:35 am   |   2 Comments

Software executive Ran Shaul tells a tale that should make email marketers cringe: He knows companies that have millions of customers they can’t communicate with anymore because they have abused their email marketing channel. They sent weekly emails designed to be what he describes as “everything to everyone” until people just got fatigued.

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“Even if they don’t opt out, they will never really read the email. So finally when you get to the stage that you really have something interesting to say, you’ve already lost half of your audience,” said Shaul, who is chief client officer of Pursway, a Waltham, Mass.-based startup that helps clients identify people who are likely to influence the purchasing decisions of others.

Many email inboxes are bursting with commercial messages, and it only takes a quick click of the “unsubscribe” link to permanently evict those of brands that don’t cater to recipients’ preferences and interests. Marketers face an imperative to tailor emails using data they’ve collected about subscribers, including website behavior, purchasing history, and engagement with email. Consider these five mistakes data-rich marketers should never make:

1. Paying no heed to relevancy. When email service provider BlueHornet Networks asked 1,033 U.S. consumers between the ages 18 and 40 why they unsubscribe from an email program, 31.4 percent said emails were not relevant.

To keep its emails pertinent, a New York-based company called Lifebooker leverages insights from the data its customers generate. The company helps people find and book discounted health and beauty services in 16 cities online and offers daily deals in four cities.

It tracks details about customer transactions including the service category of the deals they’ve bought, when they’ve bought them, the price, and the location of the services. It also records the ratings customers give about their experiences.

Lifebooker uses the data to customize the email subject line and the order of local deals it presents to individual subscribers. Fitness deals are more likely to top the list of those who have purchased in the fitness category, for instance. Likewise, if someone has given a poor rating about an appointment, a deal for that establishment will not be featured.

“Creating content that’s more personalized definitely helps [increase] open rates and that leads to [higher] click-through rates and that would lead to transactions – purchases or bookings on the site,” said Dana Reichman, Lifebooker’s co-founder and chief operating officer.

2. Not determining the right frequency. The BlueHornet email survey also found 30.7 percent of participants cited frequency as the reason they unsubscribe from an email program— they were getting emails too often. “If you over-send someone an email and he opts out, you’re losing the value of the customer because you’re never going to get him back,” said Shaul.

Ran Shaul of Pursway

Ran Shaul of Pursway

To address this problem, marketers can ask subscribers to provide their frequency choices via a preference center. Analytics can also help determine the optimal number of emails to send in a given time.

For instance, Runtastic, which sells fitness-related apps, products and services, uses an activity-based segmentation model. The Linz, Austria-based company sends more emails to heavy users of its apps and fewer emails to those who use them less. It’s an effort to “best serve” engaged users while not “overwhelming” more infrequent ones, said Philipp Durstberger, a marketing manager at Runtastic.

3. Using a generic timetable to stir the silent. Marketers can segment a subscriber base and determine that it should send a coupon to anyone who hasn’t opened an email or made a purchase in 60 days. But 60 days may be too late for some subscribers and too soon for others. Those emails could be more effective if marketers tailor the timing and content of re-engagement emails based on customer data.

“You can layer in all kinds of aspects like how engaged is that user? Is it they’re reading the email every time but they’re not coming to the site? Or is it they haven’t opened an email in 60 days but they’re coming to the site through other means?” said Neil Capel, founder and CEO of Sailthru, a messaging and personalization platform that counts Lifebooker among its clients.

Likewise, some subscribers won’t be moved by an emailed coupon, but will respond to other incentives like a free-shipping offer. “It’s knowing and being able to put that right compelling offer to the right person at that right time and if they tend to show up on Thursdays at 3:00 in the afternoon, then that’s when you want to get it to them,” Capel said. “It’s much more of an algorithmic approach to setting the linear parameters.”

4. Giving a cold welcome. Getting people to subscribe is just the first hurdle; keeping them interested is the next challenge. Sending a customized welcome email or series of tailored messages is a good first step.

Alyssa Opella, senior account director at Silverpop, a digital marketing technology provider, told a webinar audience in September the first 40 days of a subscriber’s relationship with a company are the most important. “If they aren’t interacting with you then, you’re likely going to lose the relationship,” she said. “I always say the first program to really focus on personalizing is your welcome activation. Capture their attention when they’re first giving it to you.”

Neil Capel of Sailthru

Neil Capel of Sailthru

Opella told marketers if they use Web analytics to capture a person’s browsing behavior even before he or she signs up for an email program, they could use that data to craft specifically relevant welcome messages when visitors do opt in.

Her colleague Loren McDonald, vice president of industry relations at Silverpop, had offered an example of that data synergy during a July webinar. If a cruise company knows a new subscriber was previously researching cruises to Alaska on its website, it could focus its first emails on Alaska. It would be wasting a marketing opportunity if the initial emails instead pertained to Mexico as part of a general welcome series.

“Let’s move away from these generic, impersonalized welcome programs to an onboarding program that recognizes how they got into the program, whether it was through sweepstakes, through the website or through purchase, and . . . start marketing to them based on that behavior immediately using dynamic content so you can get them to conversion immediately,” McDonald said.

5. Ignoring small-screen disparities. Email marketing services provider Yesmail Interactive analyzed more than 5 billion emails it sent during the second quarter of 2013 and found 61 percent of consumers are now viewing email either exclusively on a mobile device – a smartphone or tablet – or they’re using both mobile and desktop devices interchangeably.

Yet, a 2013 email marketing report from MarketingSherpa found that 58 percent of respondents are not designing their emails to render differently on mobile devices. Among the reasons variations are often necessary: Emails rich in images and text can take too long to open on a smartphone.

Moosejaw Mountaineering has created email campaigns for smartphones with creative content that is simpler than campaigns designed for desktops, said its vice president of marketing, Dan Pingree. Like many companies, the outdoor gear and apparel retailer can detect the reader’s device and render either a mobile or non-mobile version.

Likewise, when building profiles of subscribers, Moosejaw has begun including data about which devices subscribers tend to open and read emails on, and which devices they tend to use to make purchases. After all, they may not be the same.

“I think where it gets really exciting is trying to understand what part of the purchasing process is this person in. Because most of our customers do not use just one device, so some customers might use mobile to read an email and then make their purchases on desktop. Maybe some people do the reverse,” Pingree said. “The cross-device flow and relationship is something that has gotten a lot of talk and buzz in the industry but deeply understanding that for our business is something that is exciting to me as well.”

Mindy Charski (mindy@mindycharski.com), a contributing editor for Data Informed, is a Dallas-based freelance writer. Follow her on Twitter: @mindycharski.

Home page illustration by Ramberg Media Images via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license.

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  1. arrentsch
    Posted October 9, 2013 at 9:52 am | Permalink

    Great article now how do we track comprehension in all these emails? You point out the need for mobile ready campaigns but if the campaign is mobile ready and the site is not there is a great mis-match in your message

    Thanks again for the great discussion.

    • mindyfara
      Posted October 18, 2013 at 11:09 am | Permalink

      Hi arrentsch – Thanks for the kind words. You make an excellent point – it’s imperative that links in emails read on mobile devices connect to pages that are also designed to be read on those devices. (And with today’s high smartphone adoption, shouldn’t all pages be mobile enabled?)

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