I am a regular follower of marketing charts (note: slow to load) and every so often I notice a chart which shows that marketers still consider email to be a valuable marketing tool. For instance, various polls among marketers showed that a) they considered email marketing to be the most effective and least difficult vehicle for lead generation, b) email marketing provided the best ROI of any digital channel, c) 89% have decided to either increase or keep the same spends on email marketing. And if millennials are the segment that you’re targeting, this Adobe survey showed that email is one of the best ways to reach millennials.
On paper, email is still one of the most cost-effective ways to reach consumers, both in terms of total cost as well as cost per contact. Ever wondered what actually happens to all such awareness/promotion/lead generation emails being sent out? How many are noticed by the recipients in the inbox of their email account? More importantly, what proportion of recipients open and read them? What impact do they have on the reputation of the company / brand? What metrics should be used to measure effectiveness? As a marketer concerned with the effectiveness and ROI of any communication tactic or channel, these are the nature of questions that I’m always trying to answer.
As I see it, there are fundamentally 3 critical aspects to getting a lead generation email marketing campaign right: a) ensuring the email lands in the target’s inbox, at the right time, b) Ensuring the email is actually opened and c) ensuring the relevant message is delivered and call to action achieved. A strong understanding of technology, analytics and creative is required to deliver all three. A lack of understanding of any of these aspects results in inefficient spends and belies the claim of cost-effectiveness. The onus of closely monitoring and reviewing the execution of email marketing campaigns lies with marketers as not all digital marketing agencies and email service providers (ESPs) possess the right mix of people with technical, analytical and creative understanding.
The following sections explore each of the three points mentioned above in more detail.
Landing in the inbox, at the right time:
This is one of the most critical aspects to understand, but one that marketers often pay little attention to. The marketing departments at many companies depend on a generalist digital agency that in turn goes to the cheapest database provider and ESP – often a single entity – for generating leads. Using such providers, buying or renting databases from them is pretty much the worst thing a brand can do.
Firstly, email addresses in such databases are probably obtained by dubious means. Secondly, the authenticity, profiling and segmenting of such databases tends to be of extremely poor quality. To make things worse, these databases are likely to have been milked dry for other brands. All these lead to a low IP reputation of these ESPs, making it easy to identify emails coming from them as spam. Plus, all it takes to train the machine learning spam filters are a few disgruntled recipients who mark the emails as spam. Spam filters work really, really well (99.9% accurate) leading to poor delivery of emails into inboxes.
Once this ‘deliverability’ problem is taken care of, it’s time to move on to the ‘when to deliver’ problem. Send the email on the wrong day and it is likely to remain unopened, or, once opened, be ineffective as the call to action has been rendered meaningless. Send the email at the wrong time and it is likely to be ignored.
To sum up, finding the right email agency is crucial. Email marketing is moving away from being a piecemeal activity to one that is cross-functionally integrated into marketing, sales and customer service. In such a scenario, two critical points – to have a specialised email agency on board which has the right ethics, technology, strategic thinking, analytics and creative capability, and for the marketer to periodically oversee and review the activity.
Ensuring emails are opened:
In our regular work, we’ve seen varying email open rates for some email campaigns on opt-in email lists generated by the brand. Open rates have been as low as 2% in the case of those sent out by a consumer goods firm, to 8% for an apparel e-commerce firm, and as high as 16% for an aspirational youth apparel brand. One reason for such huge variance and underperformance – at as basic a level as ‘open’ – of email campaigns is the time problem described in the earlier section. But a lot of it is due to a messaging problem too, as described in the next section.
The email subject line has a critical role to play in email marketing. It has to grab attention, provoke, interest and encourage further opening and reading of the email body. And because such email open rates are abysmally low, the subject lines have to lead to and sometimes even deliver the brands’ benefit. In short, between the ‘from’ and the ‘subject’ the intended recipient should get a crystal clear idea about the brand and the benefit. No wonder good email marketers are most interested in optimizing their subject lines for higher open rates.
Messaging and Action:
This brings us to the next piece on content of the email – the creatives. I see this as one problematic area where there is a vast scope for improvement.
Some of the best innovations are happening in this space in terms of email interactivity. While some like embedding gifs are plain rookie, others like collapsible menus and shopping carts are really interesting. It’s time to use some of these innovations to improve campaign objective metrics.
Yet most awareness/promotion/lead generation emails that I’ve noticed over the past three months consisted entirely of images with little text. Going forward, a majority of emails are going to be opened on mobiles. Many such image-only emails are going to be resized by the mobile email apps making them difficult to read. If emails aren’t being optimised for or made responsive to mobile, chances are they aren’t getting the desired results.
Another huge problem is the email content itself. Senders are increasingly getting into ‘create once and send multiple times’ mode. The same set of email creatives are sent multiple times with a different baiting subject line. While such tactics might help optimise ‘open rates’, they cause a deterioration in all other call-to-action parameters. Ensuring that the content is relevant and consistent with the brand, and that the subject line of the email matches what is actually in the content body is critical. And this is where regular tracking and reviewing all the other critical email marketing metrics – click-through rate, conversion rate, list grow rate, sharing rate etc., – is critical.
In order to have shareable data to illustrate the points mentioned, I decided to use the promotional mails that I received as examples. For the same, I let promotional emails accumulate in my Gmail folders for over 3 months with an aim to analyse and learn from them. Now that this post has established some fundamental principles, my next post will present a detailed analysis of those emails.
- Ravindra Ramavath