Do we ask too much of email?


As much as I’m clearly a fan of the email channel there have been a number of occasions recently where I see clients going to email to solve nearly all the commercial problems in their business. Whatever the problem is, the main action always taken is to send another email or re-write a suite of triggered campaigns.

Email is the first port of call as it’s an easy action to delegate to the email team (and make it their problem!).

It’s also mis-understood by those who aren’t involved on a day-to-day basis. Email is far more visible than other digital channels as the management team all receive not just your own emails, but that of competitors as well. There is often that assumption that if a competitor has done something that you haven’t they’ve gained something over you.

Let’s look at some examples of those problems some brands immediately jump to email with:

Short term sales uplifts

The classic ‘we are behind on target, let’s do a promo’ obviously means email is going to be heavily involved to generate scale of response in the promo. Yet this usually leads to both training your base to wait for the next promo and when over done means response will drop over time as they wait for bigger and better offers they know are around the corner. A retailer I used to work with went from running 20% off offers to finding that they could no longer move the needle on sales unless they went to 30% off as the brand became addicted to the short-term revenue hits and over did the promo.

Secondly, this approach usually involves upping the frequency of email to maximise the revenue delivered but can have the effect of killing the golden goose of the email database as they become weary from the endless promos and emails arriving, driving down engagement rates.

Reducing churn or improving one-time shopper conversion

Something I see a lot of is management teams perhaps seeing a high rate of buyer churn, or perhaps small percentages of first time buyers going onto make repeat purchases and thinking the best way to solve it is to send emails.

Yes, we should have email programmes that address these challenges but they will only get you so far. The main reasons behind these KPI’s being weaker isn’t your email programme but down to your product offering, pricing, availability and even the quality of customers your acquisition channels are delivering. Email cannot change the quality of these areas, no matter how compelling your creative and copy is.

Promote new product lines or clear old stock

Most email marketers will have to do campaigns to support business initiatives but knowing full well they won’t go down well with the audience, and therefore not really driving what the business wants anyway. All you end up with is a less engaged audience, and more work in an already stretched team.

And this final point is the hidden cost of all of this. The more work put into producing email efforts that won’t deliver strong commercial benefits means less time spent on where email can be the superstar.

What should email marketers do about it?

Define customer metrics & KPI’s

As CRM marketers we all know that the way a business will ultimately grow and hit revenue targets is increasing repeat rate, driving up the lifetime value. To do that we have a series of key metrics that influence this such as converting the first time buyer to 2nd purchase, reducing churn rate and increasing spend and frequency of the most active customers.

Other teams metrics however usually don’t have anything to do with customers, or if they do think of all customers being equally important. For example, buying and merchandising teams are tracking sales across its key lines, and monitoring margin and stock utilisation. The retail team will be measuring sales, store visits, conversions and NPS. Neither of them care which types of customers are making those purchases.

As the usual owners of the data, the email team can aid the business, and ultimately help themselves by presenting their own customer KPIs, and tracking them on a weekly basis demonstrating how 2nd purchase rate, churn and other key metrics influence the overall bottom line.

As an example, some work I did with a TV shopping channel exposed the falling 2nd purchase rate for new customers, despite overall revenue in the business growing. One of the key reasons for the fall was a lack of ‘intro’ product lines that had been cut back because they didn’t appear to sell as well as other lines. However, amongst new customers they were incredibly popular, and a key reason why they came back for a 2nd purchase and ultimately many more and achieved a higher lifetime value.

Before that was exposed the email team were given the impossible task of trying to fix the issue with a pointless 2nd purchase programme with ever increasing discounts. While there was some success with this the majority of customers were not going to come back until the product range was improved for their taste.

Use email to capture customer feedback

If you are being tasked with sending emails to magic winning back lapsed customers or getting that valuable 2nd purchase why not start by sending a survey asking for feedback to these specific segments? You’ll gain lots of valuable insight you can use in your messaging, but also enough to lobby your colleagues in other teams to get the product, price, promotions and availability right.

Demonstrate the power of personalisation

From an outsiders perspective looking in, one of the contributing factors for email marketers being stuck in a rut of the same old cycle of promo after promo is they don’t have any evidence that any other more sophisticated approach will deliver more.

To do this we need to test on a small scale, testing our ideas even if this is fairly manual. For example, if I go back to my client-side days for a multi-channel footwear retailer we found a gap of ½ a day in a couple of our schedules where we quickly knocked up some crude and simple brand specific emails and sent them to customers who had previously bought that brand. From the results we compared them with the same audiences performance in the last generic comparable campaign.

We saw huge uplifts in performance, and then this was the starting point for serious conversations with the chiefs about getting the right data and technology, and for allocating more time to scaling this up.

Forecast & Predict

When being forced to send endless emails from partners or colleagues in the business to push specific brands, categories or promotions one way of protecting your customers from severe overload of irrelevant emails is to predict who is likely to respond.

At a simple level this can be segmentation based upon what that customer has bought or viewed before. This does tend to lead to small audiences as typically 75% of your customers may have only bought once.

One increasingly popular technique for this is to use Affinity Analysis. This data mining technique takes the limited purchase or browsing history you may have about a customer, and finds similar customers and what else they were interested in. Using robust statistical methods you can then see patterns such as those that bought Nike running shoes are also highly likely to be interested in fitness trackers. Some of these patterns you and I could probably predict, but this analysis not only validates this, it also finds relationships we wouldn’t arrive at ourselves.

Using this approach we can then with reasonable confidence isolate say the 32% of our audience who will deliver 90% of the response compared with sending the email to the full database, allowing us as marketers to police the email frequency.

Final words

It can be so easy for those of us whose job is email marketing to always put their hand up and volunteer for email to try and save the day. However, in the long-term over-selling email and not getting to the real crux of the problem only hinders us. We get overloaded with requests and not the time and resources require to focus on where the unique attributes of email truly excel.


mark konig 2qMg2gXYKvo unsplash 600 wide
Photo by Mark König on Unsplash