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Retail email marketing best practices

Author's avatar By Dave Chaffey 06 Oct, 2014
Essential Essential topic

An interview with Retail email specialist Dan Jak

There is a LOT written about best practices for email marketing, especially around creative and copy. Mark Brownlow has contributed many great posts to Smart Insights covering subject linesemail pre-headers and Email CTAs to name but 3. But  there is far less written specifically about best practices for email marketing in retail ecommerce. The obvious exception is Chad White's Retail Email blog although Chad has diversified into more general email marketing advice with his new Email Marketing Rules book - we have a competition to win 3 copies running at the moment.

dan-jakSo, when I got chatting to Dan Jak in our LinkedIn group and discovered his experience  on Email marketing I was keen to learn and share more. So in this interview we look at some retail-specific email marketing challenges, many of which apply more widely too.

Dan describes himself as an Email Marketing, data-driven geek, which I like! He has been working in Email Marketing for last 8 years with more 8 years of experience in Web Design prior to Email. He is currently Senior Email Specialist at retailer Dixons Carphone and you can see his work on his portfolio site. You can also
follow him on Twitter or connect on LinkedIn.

Now onto my questions and Dan's answers - thanks to Dan for such a detailed and thought-provoking responses!

The main success factors for retail email marketing?

Q. Looking back to when you started out in retail email marketing, what do you wish that you knew then, that you now know is important to successful email marketing?

Creative vs. data

There is only one thing that I got wrong. It was back in 2006 when I switched from web design to email design, I really believed in power of creative. I thought email creative will improve email performance. It does, but it is only short-term solution and you will notice that all performance stats will go back to normal after 3-5 weeks from redesigning your email.

I realised how wrong I was as soon as I started using dynamic content - nothing works better than relevant content. If you don’t believe me, check out eBay’s or Amazon’s emails. These guys don’t pay too much attention to email creative, but they mastered use of their data. I used to get excited when I saw emails like McDonald’s or Pizza Express with images switched off, but now I don’t think there is a real benefit of allocating that much resource to produce so complex emails, especially when you want these email to be rendered on mobile. A good balance between text and images is enough.

Options for targeting retail emails and newsletters?

Q. All email marketers know that relevance, value and context are important to increasing consumer engagement and response. Please outline the targeting approaches you use with dynamic content in regular enewsletters to increase response.

Content in context

This is a book-size subject, and yes, it’s very important to remember that content is King, but context is Queen and it’s the data that will build the Kingdom - there is no other way to go forward rather than being relevant.



The easiest targeting that you can do is based on gender. Show different products to male and female, use different tone of voice, imagery or colours, and test it against your control group that will receive generic version. Your findings may surprise you, in a good way.

Recency-Frequency-Monetary Value

More powerful targeting is the one based on RFM model (Recency - How recently did the customer purchase? Frequency - How often do they purchase? Monetary Value - How much do they spend?). It may work better in some sectors and worse in others i.e. this may work brilliantly in travel sector or for mobile networks, because people tend to book holidays/take new phone contracts regularly in the same intervals, while in consumer electronics customers tend to buy impulsively.

This method is descriptive (describing characteristics of a population), and does not forecast behaviour - it assumes that customers will continue behaving the same - it does not take into account the impact of lifestage or lifecycle transitions on the likelihood of response.

When used as the primary targeting method, it may lead to over emailing to the most attractive RFM segments and to neglect of other segments that would be profitable if developed properly. Remember, history can’t always predict future, especially when it involves people. You will find more on the subject on Bronto’s blog

Predictive modelling

Predictive modelling might work better. It’s more accurate than RFM and it’s based on post-purchase cross-sell. Timing is very important here, so robust testing plan has to be developed.

You never know when it is the best time to cross-sell more products to your customers. In the travel sector timings may be stretched more compared with the consumer electronics sector. People tend to book holidays well in advance, so you may have 3, 6, 12 months, or even more, to send them email communications selling travel insurance, car park, hotel, excursions etc.

In consumer electronics you don’t have that luxury. Post-purchase cross-sell needs to happen shortly after the purchase i.e. if your customer hasn’t bought a TV stand or HDMI cable together with a TV you will need to try to sell it to this customer as soon as possible. There is a chance that customer may own a TV stand. If not, the customer is going to buy it on the same day or across next few days. At this point you may also exclude this customer from receiving any promotional emails. Test your timing against two control groups - one to receive all emails and one not receiving anything.

Real-time data

And the last but not least - use your real-time data.

Every ESPs (known to me) provide dynamic content and triggered deployment functionality, but the way that these features are used depend on the data structure and availability. In the past dynamic content was mainly driven by profile data or preferences. Nowadays, you can do much more using API calls and passing data to your ESP triggering emails in real time. If you don’t have SCV, you may fake it with multiple API calls passing data to your ESP where it will be stored. There are several email campaigns that you can deploy instantly, caused by certain behaviours.

Welcome programme

First of all is a Welcome email, or programme, if you want to break it down to 2 or 3 emails. These should be sent to your new recipient within first week, with first email deploying instantly or within 24 hours. Welcome email is one of these campaigns that generate the highest ROI when done properly. Don’t send your Welcome email one week later and don’t neglect the importance of this campaign. You have to have it up and running no matter what.

You will find great article on Welcome email on Econsultancy and a gallery of Welcome emails on Smiley Cat - not all of them are great but they will definitely inspire you.

Online browsing history

Looking at customer’s online behaviour may indicate who gets closer to the bottom of the purchase funnel. If it doesn’t, it may help you prepare tailored email. And I promise you, your performance stats will skyrocket. You can take two approaches here. You can go out with a solus email or include a section into your promo email. You can also change a Subject Line of a promo email to increase Open Rate.

There are many possibilities and only sky’s the limit when we talk about real-time data.

Best email frequency?

Q. How do you decide on the best frequency for sending emails to existing customers. Increasing frequency will often lead to increased sales, but you don't want to overmail. How do you get the balance right for frequency?

Frequency is the most difficult aspect of email marketing if you don’t ask customers how often they want to see your email in their inbox.

In the case of frequency, segmentation plays very important role and RFM model helps here a lot, because it isn’t the same for all. From my experience, with the increase of frequency Open rates and Click Rates drop and it doesn’t matter if the customer is engaged or not. The only difference between these two groups of recipients is the time it will take them to switch off - it will take a little longer for engaged customers.

So test, test, test until you know what is right for your audience.
MailChimp analysed frequency well in this study

The best approach for email marketing on mobile?

Q. Mobile responsive templates are now essential in consumer email marketing given the levels of tablet and smartphone use. What tips would you recommend to make mobile email marketing effective.

According to different sources around 66% of email opens happen on mobile devices (tablets and smartphones). For that reason every retailer should develop a mobile version of email.

There are two approaches that you may consider using:

1. Fluid layout is based on percentage-based sizing tables and while it looks alright on mobile, it may not look great on desktop. It will stretch from left to right so it may make email difficult to look at. It can be fixed with max-width in media query but it won’t work in every scenario. It is good for simple, text-based layout.

2. Responsive layout is much better from a renderability point of view. It requires a little bit more work but it renders as you want it to in every scenario. To achieve this, you need a team with advanced CSS and HTML skills.

Another important thing is asset production. A mobile version of emails, especially responsive ones, requires two sets of assets for some parts of the email - it depends on messaging.

If your email is image based you will have to produce more assets compared with an email that has both, images and text. It’s quite important to know that you should never increase the size of images on mobile.

You may need to produce images with mobile in mind and shrink them on desktop. If an image is less than 480px wide, you need to produce it at 480px width for tablet where device width is 480px. Then you decrease the size for smartphones, desktop clients and webmails. Keep your assets to absolute minimum as it will help you manage amends much quicker.

If you have limited resources try narrow layout, that looks the same in every scenario. It is acceptable on mobile devices but it doesn’t rely on media queries. Simply, you make it about 450-500px wide. Remember to make sure your text, images and, what’s most important, CTAs are big enough, so they’re easy to read and click/touch.

More advanced Email marketing KPIs?

Q. Please outline the KPIs you use to review email marketers now that email marketers need to go beyond the simplistic measures of Opens, Clickthrough and Delivery to review engagement and the commercial effectiveness of their email marketing.

Loads of companies use Open Rate as a main engagement metric, which may be misleading. You may ask why? Let me explain. On desktops, people use keyboard arrows to move through their inboxes. They use it to mark their emails as read. On mobile devices, in some scenarios, after deleting an email, mail app opens next one. These emails are marked as opened in your stats.

If you use Litmus, you have probably noticed that fair chunk of your openers don’t look at your emails for longer than 2 seconds. It may indicate that people don’t engage with your email content, so Click to Open Rate is better KPI to look at. To have better visibility on what it really is, reduce number of clicks by clicks on unsubscribe link.

One of the most important KPIs to look at is mentioned above Unsubscribe rate. If it goes above 0.5% you have to start working on your engagement levels.

These people are very important to you as they showed some effort and clicked on unsubscribe link - make next person that would potentially click on that link to click somewhere else within email, by including more relevant and engaging content.

Another thing you have to bear in mind is that people come and go. Then, they come back. That’s why engagement will depend on their position within lifecycle.

Don’t spam their inboxes with the same email, but approach them with highly targeted campaign when their getting closer to certain point in their lifecycle, i.e product replacement purchase. Lifecycle gets shorter every year, and we don’t keep the same fridge for 20 years anymore.

Conversion Rate is another one to help you to understand if content you’re providing is relevant and engaging. If customers are not buying, you may make some of your stakeholders very unhappy.

You can also look into Email Forwards, Social Network Shares, Email Print Outs etc. The higher rate of these three rates, the better engagement.

Author's avatar

By Dave Chaffey

Digital strategist Dr Dave Chaffey is co-founder and Content Director of online marketing training platform and publisher Smart Insights. Dave is editor of the 100+ templates, ebooks and courses in the digital marketing resource library created by our team of 25+ digital marketing experts. Our resources are used by our Premium members in more than 100 countries to Plan, Manage and Optimize their digital marketing. Free members can access our free sample templates here. Dave is a keynote speaker, trainer and consultant who is author of 5 bestselling books on digital marketing including Digital Marketing Excellence and Digital Marketing: Strategy, Implementation and Practice. My personal site, DaveChaffey.com, lists my latest Digital marketing and E-commerce books and support materials including a digital marketing glossary. In 2004 he was recognised by the Chartered Institute of Marketing as one of 50 marketing ‘gurus’ worldwide who have helped shape the future of marketing. Please connect on LinkedIn to receive updates or ask me a question.

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