Want More Customers? Less Email is More

The Problem with Email Is the Way Marketers Use It

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We're all swamped with email every day -- some of it important, some not.

For consumers, promotional emails often fall into the "not" category. Some users spend valuable time trying to sort birthday invitations from not-so-special offers, some look for software that will do it for them, and some resort to keeping multiple addresses for work, personal and marketing emails -- even the ones sent by brands they like.

The inbox fatigue caused by this daily deluge makes customers more prone to ignore, archive or simply delete messages. And along with the rise of social media and messaging apps, it has led some to declare the death of email as we know it. "RIP, traditional email," technology writer John Brandon recently wrote.

The problem isn't email itself, but rather the way many businesses use it. A torrent of email from the same source just makes customers' eyes glaze over, or worse, turns the brand into a nuisance. On the other hand, if executed correctly, a campaign of fewer emails to fewer recipients can result in more purchases than the fire-hose approach. To make this less-is-more strategy work, marketers have to personalize messages in ways that go beyond slotting the customer's name into the "Dear so-and-so" line.

How does a business get personalization right? The key is context. Consider a colleague's experience with Banana Republic. She gets at least one email a day with the same message offering discounts off of particular items, and never acts on any of them. They are generic emails, probably sent to millions of customers at a time. And she doesn't understand why half of the emails are for men's clothing. But imagine if the retailer knew enough about what was going on in her life to make the emails relevant. Is she starting a new job or about to take a trip? What holidays does she observe?

Now consider L'Occitane, a fast-growing luxury beauty brand with an increasingly global presence. L'Occitane has customers in 90 countries. But until the company launched a campaign to improve its email marketing, the information it had on its customers was spread over several separate databases. There was no coordination between email and direct mail, so the customer experience wasn't cohesive. Digital, call-center and in-store interactions were worlds apart.

Under the company's new campaign, which allows it to consolidate and carefully study customer data, L'Occitane has launched more than 20 targeted campaigns. Now the brand acts with knowledge about its customers and drives them to the store with customized coupons. When a customer visits a store, L'Occitane already knows the person's purchase history and shopping behavior.

To date, the campaign has increased purchase frequency more than 18% and email campaign revenue by more than 40%. L'Occitane has also experienced double-digit jumps in ecommerce revenue. Rates of transactions resulting from the new email campaigns are four times higher than the old, generic blasts.

Good personalization is heavily dependent on getting, consolidating, and understanding customer data. One way to get good data is to simply ask customers about their preferences. By and large, if they've already chosen to opt in to promotional email, they're also willing to share some personal information, because it means that they will get more offers on products that are relevant to their lives. A few well-chosen questions can help determine whether a customer will soon be in the market for maternity clothing or an anniversary gift.

Of course, data gleaned automatically is also crucial, but marketers don't always maximize the technology available. A retailer could use shopping history to offer a customer running shoes when his current pair are likely to wear out, or geolocation technology to tell him that there's a flash sale around the corner from where he's standing.

Knowing when not to send email is just as critical. The Florida-based coffee seller Boca Java tracks customers' ordering frequency, and based on that information, refrains from sending out marketing emails to anyone who is still likely to have a cupboard full of beans.

Email marketing is at a turning point, and its future is in the hands of the people who do it. Marketers may indeed doom it to irrelevance if they continue to send out messages indiscriminately, and thereby make the naysayers' predictions come true. If, on the other hand, marketers get to know their customers, reach out at choice moments and personalize every message, they can save it. In fact, they can make email marketing more relevant than ever before.

Emailing is storytelling. And context makes a brand's story more relevant to individual consumers, keeping them engaged enough to click on the next subject line.

The advantage is there to be seized. All companies have to do is send the right message to the right person.

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