Changing Cross-Currents in E-Mail Marketing

Many marketers find it one of the easiest marketing tactics to execute … but also one of the least effective in terms of results.

In the realm of digital marketing, e-mail marketing has to be one of the most mature choices of tactics these days. It’s been around for a long time, and its relatively small hard-dollar costs make it one a natural “go-to” marketing tactic for many companies.

But today, a declining percentage of marketers see e-mail as one of their most effective tactics in the digital marketing arsenal.

So, what’s the problem?  Many companies have the technology and skills in place to perform e-mail programs using in-house resources. That’s the good news.

The not-so-good news is that more companies are seeing their e-mail programs becoming less effective — for a variety of reasons. Among them are these:

  • E-mail filtering technology is making it more difficult to land e-mails into inboxes.
  • Privacy regulations are becoming more stringent.
  • Overuse of this marketing tactic means more e-mail messages than ever from more companies are being deployed – and with that, more of them are being ignored by recipients.
  • While e-mail used to be the only digital direct marketing game in town, today there are a bigger variety of ways to engage with customers and prospects.
  • Building a high-performing e-mail list that also conforms to regulatory stipulations is more challenging than ever.

This last point is particularly nettlesome for marketers: Data quality and data management are considered among the most difficult challenges for marketers – and also among the least effective in terms of their success.

So, in some ways the factors affecting the use of e-mail marketing are working at cross-purposes. E-mail marketing is easier to execute than other digital marketing endeavors … but as for its effectiveness, many marketers rate other tactics higher, including content marketing and search engine optimization.

In the coming years, it will be interesting to see how attitudes and behaviors regarding e-mail continue to evolve. Will this time-honored tactic decline in importance, or find new life?  Stay tuned …

Tripping the E-Mail Spam Alarm

Today, it’s more than just the “usual suspect” keywords that are landing e-mails in the junk folder.

se-mMost of us are aware of the kinds of words that trip spam alarms and cause e-mails to be sent straight to the junk folder – or not to be delivered at all.

How about these for starters:

  • Cash
  • Congratulations
  • Discount
  • Free
  • Income
  • Make Money
  • Urgent
  • Viagra
  • $$ / $$$

But research done by MailJet, an international e-mail service provider, looked at more than 14 billion e-mail communiqués and found that a bunch of other keywords are setting off alarm bells nearly as often as terms like “Urgent” or “Viagra.”

… Especially when considering the business categories that are so active in e-mail communications — retail goods, pharmaceuticals, providers of personal services, and the like.

Some of the other terms MailJet has found to be nearly as “toxic” are these:

  • bdcstDear Friend
  • FedEx
  • Increase Sales
  • Increase Traffic
  • Internet Marketing
  • Invoice
  • Lead Generation
  • Lose Weight
  • Marketing Solutions
  • Online Degree
  • Online Pharmacy
  • Order
  • PayPal
  • Search Engine Optimization
  • Sign Up
  • Trial Offer
  • Visa/Mastercard
  • Winning

… And there are more, of course – including various permutations of the words and phrases above.

The inevitable conclusion:  It’s becoming more difficult all the time to use the most common phrases in “subject” lines and “from” lines that’ll land your e-mail in someone’s inbox successfully.

And getting into the inbox just the first step, of course.  The next is motivating the recipient to actually open your e-mail and engage with it, which are additional hurdles in themselves.

What words or phrases have you found to be surprisingly problematic in getting your e-mails delivered to your customers’ inboxes?  How have you dealt with it?  Please share your experiences with other readers here.

Cue up the e-mail Rogues’ Gallery: Here’s what people are purging from their inboxes.

e-mail rogues galleryAnyone who’s had an e-mail account for any length of time likely faces ever-increasing inbox volumes.

And trying to keep those groaning inboxes in check can be a never-ending task.  Now a recent report gives us clues as to what e-mails are being purged most frequently by recipients.

It’s been released by Unroll.Me, a service that scans users’ e-mail accounts for all of the lists to which they are subscribed — knowingly or not.  It then gives people the opportunity to unsubscribe, or to consolidate groups of e-mails into a single regular update.

It turns out, many people are unwittingly “subscribed” to receive e-mails from vendors based on something as benign as making a single online purchase.  So Unroll.Me finds a substantial incidence of people taking unsubscribe actions when given the chance.

Unroll.Me’s report claims that it prevented more than 1 billion e-mails, offers and updates from reaching inboxes last year via its service.

Of particular interest than the overall volume is the list of e-marketers that have been dissed the most by customers.

Leading the list is 1-800-Flowers.  A whopping ~53% of Unroll.Me users had those e-mails stopped during 2013.

[A personal note about 1-800-Flowers:  Over the past five years, our family has used this service to order flowers twice a year (Christmas and birthday) to exactly one person.  For those twice-a-year transactions, I estimate conservatively that we receive more than 200 e-mail solicitations each year — most with breathless offers promising deep discounts on orders.  Do those offers make us more inclined to purchase from them?  Hardly.]

According ton Unroll.Me, other e-marketers that experienced high unsubscribe rates in 2013 include:

  • Ticketweb:  ~48% unsubscribe rate
  • ProFlowers:  ~45%
  • Expedia:  ~45%
  • Active.com:  ~45%
  • Oriental Trading: ~44%

At the other end of the scale are companies and services that remain subscribed to by two-thirds or more of those who received their e-mails.

This “Star Gallery” is made up of Facebook, Google+, Twitter and LinkedIn.  What these e-mailers share in common is that they are social platforms, with engagement and interest levels higher because of the topics involved (friends, acquaintances, contacts and shared interests).

In other words, it’s the people they know, not the things companies want to sell them.

Now, back to the purging …

Sometimes “permission slips” aren’t enough when it comes to e-mail deliverability.

Bounced-emails-undelivered-emailsIn case you’ve been wondering how much marketing e-mail actually reaches its intended targets, a recently released benchmark report from e-mail scoring and certification services provider Return Path has some answers. It finds that only about 75% of “permissioned” e-mails are actually making their way through.

That means one in every four e-mails are either hitting a spam or junk folder, or are being blocked by ISP-level filtering.

The report was based on analysis of data from Return Path’s Mailbox Monitor service, which tracks the delivery, filtering and blocking rates for more than 600,000 e-mail campaigns.

Interestingly, the delivery stats for business-to-business marketing e-mail aren’t much lower than for business-to-consumer e-mail. This was considered somewhat surprising because of company-level filtering systems like Postini, MessageLabs and Symantec that are installed at many large corporations. Presumably, they do a more thorough job of filtering e-correspondence.

The Return Path report also included a few cautionary notes for marketers:

 Many e-mailers believe that whatever gets deployed and doesn’t bounce must be reaching inboxes. But senders are notified only when the e-mail is a hard bounce – not if it has ended up in a spam or junk folder.

 Relying on rented e-mail files in the B-to-B world can be dangerous, as those files can be riddled with spam traps. Commercial entities are always on the search for new prospects and leads … but merging a good in-house list with a few of these bad boy rental lists can result in compromising the entire database.

 In the consumer sector, many marketers aren’t paying close enough attention to inbox placement rates. For example, data about Gmail shows that while many marketers are ostensibly achieving a 90%+ deliverability rate, fewer than one in five of those emails are actually being directed to the “priority” inboxes within Gmail as designated by the recipients. And you can bet that precious few of the other ~80% are getting any sort of attention at all from consumers.

More details about the Return Path report can be found here – well-worth checking out.

Personalized e-mail campaigns? Nothing personal … but it’s not that important.

e-mail personalizationIt’s been a nagging question about direct marketing for years now: To what degree does personalizing a mass marketing program improve audience engagement and action?

Back in the old days, personalization was difficult to pull off, because the limitations of printing meant that the way people’s names were inserted into letters looked awkward and even jarring – different typeface, different ink concentration, etc.

Instead of creating a positive impact that suggested a personal relationship with the recipient, the effect was often just the opposite: the ill-fitting interpolations screaming “mass mailer.”

Today, with so many marketers targeting consumers electronically versus via postal mail, personalization has become a common technique used for the same purpose: to draw the reader’s attention by making the e-communiqué “unique” to him or her. Plus, it’s much easier to accomplish.

But how is this working out in the digital age? The latest e-mail marketing metrics report from email marketing and newsletter services provider MailerMailer, LLC, issued in July 2011, uses data compiled from more than 977 million opt-in e-mail newsletters in a sampling of over 1,600 customers. It found that adding the recipient’s first or last name to the subject line of an e-mail often generates negative, not positive results.

On the other hand, personalization within the message portion of the e-mail makes it a tad more likely to lead the recipient to interact with the message.

Here are the open rates MailerMailer found based on the degree of personalization:

 Subject line personalized: 4.1% open rate
 Both subject line and message personalized: 4.6% open rate
 Message personalized: 12.6% open rate
 No personalization at all: 11.4% open rate

[MailerMailer claims that personalized subject lines perform less favorably because this has been such a common tactic used by spammers in recent years. I claims the method has been so overused, recipients now associate all such e-mails as spam.]

And what about clickthrough rates — the more important metric? MailerMailer’s findings track neatly with the open rate trends, as follows:

 Subject line personalized: 0.8% clickthrough rate
 Both subject line and message personalized: 1.1% clickthrough rate
 Message personalized: 3.0% clickthrough rate
 No personalization at all: 3.0% clickthrough rate

So another thing the MailerMailer report is telling us is that the effort to personalize e-mails may not be worth it in the end. It’s true that a slightly higher open rate may occur with personalized message content … but the clickthrough rate, which is the more important metric, doesn’t budge at all with personalization versus without it.

So it would seem that personalizing e-mails isn’t something that’s going to “make or break” your direct marketing campaign’s success rate. Better to focus on the other classic success factors: the message, the offer, and the target recipients list. You know … just like always.

E-mail early birds? The worm may be turning differently.

Best time to deploy marketing e-mail messages.One of the great benefits of the “online everything” world in which we now live is the ability to evaluate nearly anything about marketing not with hunches or speculation, but with hard data.

A perennial question is what time of day is best to deploy marketing e-mails to customers and prospects. The higher the propensity to open and read these messages, you’re closer to the goal of converting eyeballs to clickthroughs … and to sales.

ReachMail, a Chicago-based e-mail service provider, recently studied a large sampling (~650,000) of the millions of consumer and business marketing e-mail messages it sends out for clients daily in order to determine open rate differences based on the time of day. It normalized the data to account for different time zones.

What ReachMail found was that there are differing peak open rate times on weekends versus on weekdays:

 Weekdays: Peak e-mail open rates are between ~11:30 am and ~2:00 pm.

 Weekends: E-mail open rates begin trending upward at ~11:30 am, but don’t peak until ~4:00 pm.

John Murphy, ReachMail’s president, had this to say about people’s weekday e-mail open rate behaviors: “You would think it would spike in the morning, but they’re looking at work e-mails in the morning. Once they’ve cleared out their inbox, they’re looking at marketing e-mails in the afternoon.”

ReachMail’s conclusion: It’s best to deploy weekday e-mails between 10:00 am and Noon. For weekend e-mails, deploy them between Noon and 3:00 pm.

And this additional tidbit also: Don’t assume e-mails sent during the week will perform better than those deployed over the weekend. “People’s engagement rates are up there on the weekend,” Murphy maintains. “It’s our habit of checking e-mail all the time.”

He’s sure right about that.

Changing the Subject (Line)

One of the reasons e-mail marketing has become so huge is because it’s so darned cheap. Compared to postal mail, e-mail costs just pennies. That means most marketers can achieve a better ROI for just a mediocre e-mail campaign compared to even the most successful direct mail effort.

However, a common complaint about e-mail versus postal mail is visibility. Since most viewers choose not to have their preview pane feature turned on, they must physically open an e-mail before they can view any of its contents.

This “one-step removed” dynamic means that many people never get to see and read a marketing message that would otherwise stand out if it showed up in someone’s postal mail delivery as a postcard or self-mailer promo piece.

In this scenario, the e-mail subject line becomes a huge “gatekeeper” element. What the subject says and how it’s said can make a difference in e-mail open and clickthrough rates. But just how much?

A new E-mail Marketing Metrics Report from MailerMailer, a firm providing e-mail marketing and newsletter services, provides some interesting clues. MailerMailer has been producing these reports since 2003. This report, the tenth one issued, was developed by analyzing a sampling of ~900 million e-mail messages sent through MailerMailer throughout the year 2009.

Among the elements tracked were the words used in e-mail subject lines. MailerMailer found that the most popular terms contained in the subject lines were:

 Coupons
 Daily
 Free
 News
 Newsletter
 Report
 Today
 Update
 Week (weekly)
 Year

Notice how each of these terms conveys a sense of WIIFM (“what’s in it for me?”) and/or a sense of time sensitivity. Interestingly, despite a prevailing concern that using the word “free” in the subject line risks more spam filtering, MailerMailer found that this term was one of the ten most popular terms used in subject lines during 2009.

And what about subject line length? The report found that shorter subject lines (containing less than 35 characters) outperformed longer ones. That’s generally just four or five words along with the corresponding spaces between them.

And the difference MailerMailer observed was significant: E-mails with shorter subject lines experienced an average open rate of ~17.5%, while those with longer subject lines had an open rate of only ~11.5%.

The same differential was found with clickthrough rates. For the e-mails with shorter subject lines the average clickthrough rate was ~2.7% … versus ~1.6% for e-mails with longer subject lines.

The MailerMailer report concludes that while composing shorter subject lines may be difficult to do (well), going through that exercise is well worth the extra effort. The results from ~900 million e-mails prove it.