Email is to marketing what peanut butter is to jelly: a low-cost, tested and seemingly timeless combination. Yet the strategies for increasing deliverability, open rates and engagement are changing rapidly, and marketers must evolve—or they’ll get lost in the crowd. eMarketer’s Caroline Cakebread spoke with four brand executives about how they use data and other techniques to make their email marketing more effective.
In a digital environment where channels like social media and video seem to dominate, why has email remained a workhorse for brands?
It’s become a kind of modern address. Even though people tend to have multiple addresses, they stick with them for long periods of time, and there’s a real benefit for brands to have that long-term connection. The customer places a high value on their own email address and on the ease and consistency it provides.
Social media offers instant gratification; it’s fleeting. And if you don’t engage in that moment, it disappears. But email is still self-managed at the convenience of the user. It’s one of the few channels where people still have full control of what’s delivered and when they read it.
Because it’s self-managed, convincing someone to open and read your email can be difficult. How are you increasing engagement and open rates?
Your relationship with the customer is directly correlated to how relevant the information you’re providing is and the value you’re offering them. If you spam people and go broad to catch the masses, you’ll find that it’s less and less effective over time. People will just stop engaging. It’s easier to delete an email than it is to opt out.
What really comes into play for increasing open rates is natural language processing. Having your data scientists and engineers create models for natural language processing will get the best customized subject line in front of that customer.
It’s very easy to lose someone and feel like spam when you send an email that’s completely irrelevant to their behaviors or interests. The best thing data can provide is a useful and personalized experience.
Can you describe how you use data to create those relevant and personalized email messages?
Given our size, we have a large database of current and prospective customers, and we tend to know a fair bit about them. What has come to the forefront in the past year is a heavier focus on the customer journey as part of the experience. This means identifying key moments that matter to customers and leveraging those moments to deliver on expectations. Birthdays and things that are important with respect to their relationship with AARP are great opportunities.
There’s also behavioral data that shows how someone is communicating with us over time, and whether that cadence is changing. If someone goes from being highly engaged to less engaged, that may be a predictor of a turn or behavior change.
Facets of personalization like offer optimization, content, time of day and subject lines are all based off of data; it touches every aspect of email marketing.
If someone is on the internet and hits a display ad, starts interacting with the site and then signs up for an email, we have that information and are able to know what products they’ve been searching for. With what we know of their previous engagement on the site, we could deliver a personalized email.
Having the data to understand how people interact with all of Resy’s platforms allows us to segment our audiences by attributes and behaviors. For example, if I know that you’re an engaged diner who eats out a lot and are actively engaging with our emails, that’s a totally different behavior from someone who dines less frequently. It’s easy to lose someone when you send an email that’s completely irrelevant to their behavior.
How does your email content strategy differ for mobile?
I like to focus on simple messages and calls to action. You want to think about what that person is going to be doing when they receive the email and where they are going to be. Knowing that someone may be on a mobile device plays into how you design your message and creative.
The way you speak to a customer on mobile is very different from desktop—you have their attention for only a short period of time, and what they are willing to interact with differs also. We’ve been doing versioning for each platform, trying to make sure it’s easy for consumers to interact on a mobile device and that the expected interaction is much shorter.
Engagement is great on mobile, but time of engagement goes down. If you look at conversions, mobile generally converts at a much lower rate. You have to understand the behaviors you are trying to drive and how the KPIs [key performance indicators] change for each platform. It’s great that open rates are higher on mobile, but it’s harder to convert people.
If consumers aren’t engaging with your emails on either mobile or desktop, when will you remove them from your list?
If someone hasn’t interacted with any email, we’ll remove them from our list after a specific period of time. At that point, we’ll send three more emails, just to let them know it’s the end of our stream of communication.
We also made a purposeful decision a few years ago to focus on the quality of emails at any cost. Because of this, we’re rigorous with our permissibility and use a confirmed opt-out process. This means that when someone gives us their email, the first thing we’ll do is send a message asking them to give us permission to use the address. It gives the customer a fair amount of choice and control, leaving us with a highly qualified list.
We keep on top of deliverability by cleaning our list every day. And deliverability in email marketing is an ever-changing world. Gmail leads the way, and its algorithms for inbox placement are becoming as complex as its algorithms for search engine optimization [SEO]. Staying on top of what it’s doing is an evolving challenge.
If you’re truly not interested, you’re going to unsubscribe. If someone isn’t unsubscribing or engaging, the challenge is on us to figure out what type of message would get them to engage.