Email, while not the flashiest of messaging vehicles, is still a valuable workhorse for many marketers: The MarketingSherpa 2013 Email Marketing Benchmark Report found that 60 percent of participants said email marketing was producing a return on investment. And not a small one: 42 survey respondents noted an average ROI of 119 percent for their email programs. Broken down further, marketers at companies that sent fewer than 100,000 emails per month estimated a 139 percent average ROI, while those who sent more averaged 94 percent. And yet, this channel continues to present unique challenges.
For instance, 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 and 30.7 percent cited frequency—they were getting emails too often. Clearly, companies face an imperative to optimize their email strategy to keep from being locked out of the valuable channel.
One approach is to send fewer, targeted emails to a receptive audience, rather than multiple, identical messages to an entire list. Enter Pursway: The Waltham, Mass.-based software startup helps clients identify customers and prospects in their databases who are likely to influence the purchasing decisions of family and friends in a specific category like electronics or insurance. The idea is that by sending these influencers the right kinds of emails, a company can drive their purchases and those of others.
“We tell them Ron is a friend of Erica, and we tell them, Ron has also influenced Erica, so when he buys, Erica buys also,” says Pursway’s co-founder and chief client officer, Ran Shaul. “This immediately gives [clients] a new way of focusing their communication with the people who can make a difference.”
With this information, companies then can treat their influencers better at multiple touchpoints, like bringing them to a human faster when they ring a call center. And, when they send email – in most cases companies have their influencers’ email addresses – they can send relevant information that gives recipients a feeling of being unique, Shaul says. They might use appeals like “be the first to know,” “be first in line,” “early access” and “prime access,” he says.
“You cannot say [those phrases] to everyone, but if you select a group of people you care about, you can target your communication in a much better way,” Shaul says, adding that those kinds of emails often have a higher open rate and can lead to higher conversion.
Likewise, the emails will likely have some kind of word-of-mouth element to encourage influencers to spread the word about a new product or bring a friend to a store event. But these messages don’t necessarily include an offer with a high discount. “We’re not a strong advocate of creating an influence with a discount,” Shaul says. “It’s better to say to them, ‘We can give you early access to the catalog,’ which is more important to [the influencer] than a discount.”
Analyzing the Social Graph of Everyone
At the heart of Pursway’s offering is its growing, proprietary database that currently illustrates relationships among 60 million consumers in the U.S. The company gathers its massive data from publicly available sources that include university alumni, trade show attendees and country club members. “The principle is whatever you can find out about yourself in Google, we’re finding,” says Shaul.
To identify a company’s influencers, Pursway overlays its social graph over a client’s customer database and/or over its prospecting database—it can score both the same way. Customer databases contain purchase data, but both customer and prospecting databases contain behavioral data about actions people have taken that show interest. A person may not have bought a car, for instance, but if he or she took a test drive, that action may be entered into a dealership’s database.
Influencers generally make up 10 to 15 percent of a company’s database, Shaul says, and they can impact more than 50 percent of a company’s revenues because of their own behavior and the behavior of those they influence.
And while the word “influence” often refers to people with a high number of followers on Facebook and Twitter, Pursway is using an entirely different definition. In fact, Shaul says social media activity is only “insignificantly” considered in Pursway’s database.
“We’re not after your long-distance friends,” says Shaul. “We’re after people you’d take advice from when you purchase something . . . When people share pictures, talk to each other, travel together, study together, speak at the same conferences, work in the same places – that’s where we found the essence of connecting those people.”
Shaul says Pursway, which does its core research and development in Herzliya, Israel, derived its “idea and competence”—but not the technology—from the Israel Defense Forces, which builds social networks of criminals like terrorists and money launderers.
Client Steven Fuld says Pursway has found a way to take advantage of the natural way people buy things. “It’s no different than if you’re going to buy a new camera and you have a particular friend who is a camera expert, and you’re going to go to him or her to get a recommendation as to what to get,” says Fuld, SVP and managing director, Sony Card Marketing & Services Company at Sony Corporation of America.
Fuld, whose unit handles Sony Rewards and the Sony and PlayStation credit card programs, has been working with Pursway for about two years. The startup did tests across multiple U.S. business units of Sony in 2012 and early this year; now it is working independently with several of the units including Fuld’s on core email marketing efforts.
During the tests, open and conversion rates didn’t go down and did increase in some instances. But ultimately, Fuld says, it’s the revenue per email Sony wanted to drive. “At the end of the day, if you’re going to send out 1 million emails and you want to sell 1,000 units of whatever good you’re selling, if you wind up having no change on your open rates but you sell 2,000 units because of your influencers, that’s success,” Fuld says.
And in fact, Pursway delivered, with the tests showing “triple digit increases” in results, he says. “To use the numbers I just used, if we used to sell 1,000, we’re selling more than 2,000 – it’s not an exaggeration,” he says.
Fuld estimates at least 15 to 20 percent of Sony customers in the U.S. are influencers. In the tests, many of the “friends” who were influenced to buy were not previously in Sony’s databases.
Fuld says Sony sends its influencers “value-add components” rather than discounts. “You have to tune the marketing message and the offer to bring out that ‘influence-ibility,’ he says. “So if you’re trying to get someone to buy a particular electronics product and you’re marketing to an influencer group, [you] say, ‘Get this and get your friends to get it as well’ and then there’s something in it for the original influencer.”
Pursway enables Sony to not only drive higher revenue with email, but also reduce its list size. “You don’t want to over-market to people,” Fuld says. “If we think you have a very low propensity to respond to something or convert and buy something, then I don’t want to bother you and market to you. I want to save you for a different campaign to do something else with.”
Home page photo of school of fish by Jim the Photographer via Flickr.