Sunday, 6 December 2009

How to Conduct Email Marketing that Doesn't Suck

In response to my last post on “SMEs favouring Email Marketing” a friend of mine from a tourist office called me and asked whether email marketing was still an effective conversion and customer retention tool because there obviously is a shift of communication towards social media platforms? Moreover, she argued, another drawback of email marketing was that users’ mailboxes are filled up with not only private or work related emails but also with a lot of spam and therefore the low opening rates and even lower clicker through rates for email campaigns are not worth the effort. Sure, she had a point! And I have to admit that I receive newsletters occasionally that make me wonder whether email campaign managers ever have the interests of their subscribers in mind?

Nevertheless, I think that email marketing has a number of advantages over other online tools provided that it is carried out in the right way. And right means in this context saying the right things to the right people in the right ways at the right time.

This also implies that email is only one tool of many in the whole online marketing mix. What are then the success factors for email marketing campaigns? One advantage of email is certainly its versatility for different objectives. Popular email marketing formats include:
  • Newsletter: information about products and services is sent to the subscribers on a regular basis
  • Campaign: the information sent is linked to specific user interests (e.g. winter sport highlights)
  • Reminder: message is sent at a predefined point of time (e.g. online check-in for flights 24 hours before departure).
  • Alert: information is sent only when certain criteria are met (e.g. special offers for family holidays)
  • Survey: valuable marketing research data can be gained by sending questions and answer options to subscribers. Surveys can be included in all the other email models listed above.
Further benefits of email marketing compared to other online marketing formats comprise the relatively low fulfilment costs, the faster campaign deployment, the ease of personalisation and targeting, the simple and cost effective options for testing, the combination with other online marketing goals such as driving traffic to the website, and finally the many possibilities for a detailed reporting in real time which facilitates a thorough analysis and optimisation.

Despite of these advantages e-marketing managers have to be realistic in terms of performance measures such as opening rates, click through rates and conversion rates. There are a several barriers or filters which narrow down the conversion funnel for email marketing campaigns (see my own illustration below, click to enlarge).

The first obstacle is that in practice rarely all sent emails will be delivered to the subscribers due to a variety of possible reasons (e.g. spam filter, email address has changed, user settings in the email program). Therefore, maintaining the integrity and improving the quality of the email address database is essential for successful email marketing.
The first filter from the recipient’s point of view is whether the subject line is relevant and interesting. On average only 27 to 50 per cent of email subscribers open an email newsletter (n.b.: figures were collected from various sources) and scan through the content. If the content is geared to the user interests and needs (filter 2) then the average click through rates on articles or offers add up to 10 to 28 per cent. The final hurdle is whether the offer is attractive enough (filter 3) that the user will actually purchase it. The conversion rates of email marketing campaigns typically range from 2 to 5 per cent.

As a result of this, the success of email marketing is dependent on the clear definition of the campaign strategy and goals, the professional implementation and the ongoing performance analysis and optimisation. Like with all marketing tools, the content must be geared to the customers’ needs and interests. Dave Chaffey (in his book Total E-mail Marketing, 2006) suggested the mnemonic acrostic C R I T I C A L as a checklist for email marketing success factors. C R I T I C A L stands for:
  • Creative: design of email (layout, colour, image, copy text)
  • Relevance: the content meets the needs of the recipients
  • Incentive: the benefit for the user, ‘what is in it for me?’ (if I click on an article)
  • Targeting & Timing: same message to all recipients or individualised; time of day, week, month etc.
  • Integration: consistent with and reinforcement of other marketing communications
  • Copy: structure, style, explanation of offer, location of hyperlinks
  • Attributes (of the email): characteristics such as subject line, from address, to address, date/time of receipt, format (html, text)
  • Landing page: hyperlink to web page for more detailed information
Finally, it must be emphasised that email marketing is permission marketing and subject to legal and ethical constraints. Thus, emails should only be sent to customers who have explicitly and knowingly given their consent in an opt-in or even double-opt in subscription process and users must have the option to unsubscribe at any time.

Resource tip: Download the very comprehensive “Essential Guide to E-Mail Marketing” by DMNews (pdf, 6.7 MB)


  1. Very important tips.
    I guess if all businesses would follow half of them customers would be very happy (and business better...)


  2. Great subject. I have been playing around with the idea of the comment structure recently.

    internet work part time