Email Remains Relevant In A Mobile-First World, But It Must Adapt To The Times

  • February 20, 2020 at 9:01 AM EST
  • By Bryan Wassel
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Email marketing may seem antiquated compared to push notifications, text alerts or influencer videos, but the channel hasn’t lost its sheen: every $1 spent on email marketing returns an average of $42 in value, according to data from Litmus. The medium may not garner as much media attention as newer marketing channels, but email remains an integral part of virtually every shopper’s day-to-day life.

“Email is the most adopted and the most embedded digital channel, meaning that we all use email throughout our daily activities,” said Shar VanBoskirk, VP & Principal Analyst at Forrester Research in an interview with Retail TouchPoints. “No doubt social media, video and mobile messaging also matter to people today, but those vehicles are not as well adopted across all demographics. Nor are they as integral in our daily personal and work communications. For example: do you not have your work email inbox open all day long?

The ubiquity of email means the format can serve as the backbone of a retailer’s overall marketing efforts by casting a wide net. Shoppers don’t need to be deeply immersed in a retailer’s ecosystem to receive its emails, but a simple clickthrough can signal that they’re interested in more targeted outreach, like text messages and push notifications. Additionally, newer personalization tools allow marketers to tailor emails — even those sent as part of a broad-based “blast” — based on the recipient’s profile, affinities and past behaviors.  

“As retailers work to find new ways to excite buyers through things like co-branding and partnerships for exclusive products, experiences and events, email tends to play a large role,” said Chris Ventry, VP in the Consumer and Retail Practice at SSA & Company. “Campaigns like these will play out over multiple channels, but they tend to start with notification to a current highly engaged email segment, or by having those most interested opt in to learn more. The opportunity for segmentation and personalization lends itself to these exclusive opportunities.”

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Personalization Encompasses More Than Targeted Content

Email marketing also can take cues from other marketing channels when it comes to personalization. One of the key lessons is that emails can’t just be sent on a static schedule, because today’s shoppers expect to be contacted on their own terms and their own timetable — not just every time a retailer runs a promotion.

This level of personalization requires a more sophisticated approach to email marketing than traditional methods, according to Lars Fiedler, Partner and Senior Solution Leader for Marketing Solutions at Periscope By McKinsey. Personalization is no longer limited to the content of the email — it should also determine why and when the email is being sent.

“You have to really understand what the customer is interested in, and you have to have variations in how often you send mail,” said Fiedler. “As an example, if you’re emailing fashion to me, I don’t want to have that in my inbox every day, but I’m okay seeing it every week or every month. My girlfriend, who loves seeing fashion every day, would be interested in a daily best pick or daily offer.”

Of course, there is still a time and a place for the traditional batch-and-blast email aimed at reaching the broadest possible audience. However, this isn’t an excuse to skimp on some level of personalized messaging, particularly when modern software can automate much of this process. Retailers have reams of customer data available, and even a mass email provides a perfect opportunity for making the most of it.

“Technology today makes it possible for every email you send to be personalized to a user’s profile, affinities and past behaviors, as well as your product attributes, price, availability and business goals,” said VanBoskirk. “Some email technologies do make this a very manual process, in which case there probably is a point of diminishing returns — what do you get vs. the amount of effort you have to put in to get it. But some tools were built to automate all of this, so there is no incremental effort to ‘add in’ more personalization for more users. Everyone just automatically gets the message that is best for them.”

Mobile Is Defining Media Consumption, But Don’t Discount Desktop

The shift to mobile media consumption also has changed how many shoppers read email. The most beautiful, engaging message in the world won’t have much impact if it isn’t suited to a mobile screen — even if the problem is as simple as requiring excessive scrolling. However, retailers can’t neglect the desktop experience: in fact, mobile readers who open emails a second time from their computer are 65% more likely to click through, according to Campaign Monitor.

“Responsive email providers that can interpret whether the email is being opened on mobile vs. desktop, and shift the design according to the device on which they are being read, are necessary if you’re going to be centering your marketing campaigns around an email marketing strategy,” said Kristin Boswell, Manager in the Consumer Practice of Kearney. “Lots of best practices are the same — more image-based, less scrolling required, clear call to action — but most importantly, you want to make sure the resolution fits the screen it’s on.”

Additionally, retailers need to think beyond layout to create emails that match the delivery format in every aspect. Subject lines, delivery time and even the specific type of mobile device are all factors that should be taken into consideration, with different best practices for mobile and desktop versions.

“‘Mobile first’ remains the primary perspective for today’s marketers, and mobile devices have expanded beyond tablets and phone to smart watch screens and personal home assistants,” said Ventry. “Given the smaller screen format of a mobile device, email subject lines need to be short, resonate with the recipient and have a clear call-to-action to elicit response. The move to mobile also opens up delivery windows that might not have existed when many people were reading their email at a home or work desktop/laptop.”

Improvements Need To Go Deeper Than Better Subject Lines

The key to maximizing ongoing email campaigns requires careful tracking of what has worked previously — and what hasn’t. Retailers should start by measuring conversion rates, then move on to more specific KPIs to figure out which parts of their campaign contributed to its success and which parts need additional work.

“At the end of the day it’s about conversions and dollars created,” said Fiedler. “That’s usually the KPI that you want to see. Then you look at the entire funnel, starting from opening, clickthrough and seeing where they bounce back. You basically have to project the clickthrough journey, understand where the breakages are and really try to optimize there.”

The real challenge to perfecting an email marketing campaign is finding ways to stand out from the competition. An estimated 246.5 billion emails were sent each day in 2019, so retailers need to create content that stands out in an industry where everyone is already thinking creatively.

“When thinking about best practices in the email channel, you need to go beyond frequency, timing of send and developing engaging subject lines,” said Boswell. “Those are a given. Retailers should think about how to develop the type of content that speaks to your brand voice, and whether you have an operating model to support that level of content development and deployment. Whether executed though an in-house creative team or through a freelance/agency network, unique, engaging content is paramount.

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