It's In The E-Mail

How To Overcome Falling Open And Conversion Rates

Email MarketingHow to overcome falling open and conversion rates and succeed with e-mail marketing.

Linda Neumann often feels like she's trying to read the mind of her customers. And, when it comes to targeting them with specific e-mails, she may as well be. Her goal? Appeal to the wants and needs of customers with the e-mails she sends. To do that, she tests. And tests some more.

Neumann, president of San Diego-based Brilliant Marketing Ideas (asi/146083), has experimented so frequently with e-mails that she says she knows what her customers want almost more than they do. She's tested different subject lines, followed up with recipients after the fact, attempted various types of content, and segmented her recipient lists down to the most detailed pieces of data.

And even with all that, Neumann, who sends as many as three e-mails a day to clients, says there are weeks when she only receives two responses from more than 100 e-mails sent. On other weeks her response rate is higher and her orders are substantial.

It's those kind of fickle results that speak to the ongoing frustrations that distributors sometimes face when marketing to clients and prospects by e-mail. "I think the biggest issue is, when e-mail first came out it was brand-new and an exciting thing," says Russell Brunson, president of DotComSecrets, an online marketing strategy firm in Boise, ID. "Now we get so much we're overwhelmed and don't know what to do with it."

For some frustrated with response rates, e-mail marketing has lost its luster. The evolution of e-mail marketing might be summed up like this, says Albert Gadbut, CEO of AcquireWeb, a customer identity integration firm based in Foster City, CA: "When e-mail marketing first started, it was new and the conversion rates on e-mails, because they were new and novel, were pretty high," Gadbut says. "Then spam hit the market, and the media made a big deal that somehow getting an unwanted e-mail in your inbox was tantamount to a moral offense. So everybody got offended about the idea of e-mail."

Now, figuring out how subject lines, photos, offers and editorial content within an e-mail should be configured in just the right way to grab and capture recipients' attention can be mind-boggling. Include too many photos or too much text, and readers can be turned off. Fail to get the information on page one of an e-mail, particularly for those viewing e-mails on a cell phone, and you've all but guaranteed a campaign's failure, experts say.

Bob Knorpp, host of The BeanCast Marketing Podcast and an independent consultant with e-mail marketing consultancy The Cool Beans Group in Manhattan, says some of his clients have gotten burned by avoidable mistakes like failing to keep e-mail lists clean. Servers pick up on lists that, say, have a high bounce back rate, and learn to block those in future send attempts. "If you're sending to 100 people at one company and you get blacklisted by one server, that's 100 people off your entire list" that you can't get back, Knorpp says.

It all helps contribute to the falling response and open rates that experts see among e-mail marketing campaigns. The 2012 Email Metrics Marketing Report from MailerMailer, an e-mail marketing and newsletter service in Rockville, MD, found that e-mail open rates have slipped by more than 3% in each of the past five years. Even further, the company reports that e-mail campaigns delivered 8% fewer converted leads in 2012 than they did in 2010.

The Need for Testing
So, how can distributors overcome those statistics and make their e-mail marketing efforts pay off? Indeed, with more competition for inbox awareness, distributors have to be even crisper today with their e-mail marketing strategies. Doing so often means customizing e-mails to individuals or groups of people, says Chris Vernon, president of Counselor Top 40 distributor The Vernon Company (asi/351700), based in Newton, IA.

"We're not perfect," Vernon admits, but his company has spent the better part of three years improving its e-mail marketing strategies. Lately that's meant highly customized e-mails for individuals or groups of customers, based upon a particular account executive's client base.

"We have people in vertical markets like health care and hospitals," Vernon says, and e-mail marketing campaigns are formatted to their specific needs. The company's account reps "are not just out there trying to sell and buying general e-mail lists" to do so.

That's smart, since the latest survey from the Direct Marketing Association found that 83% of businesses surveyed said they use e-mail marketing in their promotional campaigns – more than any other marketing method.

To boost response rates, the first thing experts suggest for distributors is that they test multiple subject lines when sending out e-mails – and the "from" lines, for that matter. More than anything, experts we talked to insisted that most e-mail campaigns die before they even get started simply because a company has included an e-mail subject line that fails to grab a recipient's attention.

Doing so is almost inexcusable, says DJ Waldow, founder and CEO of Waldow Social, a San Jose, CA-based e-mail marketing consultancy, and co-author of The Rebel's Guide to Email Marketing, since it's remarkably easy to conduct subject line tests. "You send four different subject lines to a portion of your list," Waldow says. "So maybe 10% of your list gets the test and whichever subject line gets the most opens or clicks, the remaining 90% get that e-mail subject line," since it's proven to elicit the greatest response.

Ten percent of any list, particularly large ones, is a nominal loss, Waldow and other experts say, and well worth the sampling to boost response rates overall. "The nice thing about e-mail marketing, unlike most other channels, is that you have that data right in front of you, and you can see what kind of open rate or click rate" you're getting, Waldow says.

Similar testing can be done for e-mail content as well as "from" lines. In fact, "from" lines have been proven to be more effective when including a person's name, rather than a company's. An e-mail from Mark Zuckerberg, for example, is much more likely to get a response than one from Facebook, Waldow says.

Integrate & Follow Up
Regardless of who an e-mail is from, its power also comes from how well it's integrated with a distributor's other marketing tools and customer service mechanisms. "Our position is always that none of the approaches to marketing will work as its own independent silo," says Nick Simard, vice president of InspiriaMedia Corporation, a media and advertising firm based in White Plains, NY. "But when it's integrated with other types of communication, then you have a better chance of hitting different segments" of clients and driving increased business.

Along those lines, companies that send e-mails with "no reply" options or e-mails that can't be responded to are wasting their time, says Carrie Scott, director of global field marketing at Message Systems, a digital message provider in San Francisco. Seventy percent of respondents to Message Systems' Marketing Channel and Engagement Benchmark Survey in 2012 reported that their e-mail marketing ROI had gone up for the past five years. But that's only sustainable if companies have mechanisms in place to handle e-mail responses, Scott insists.

"Companies today that are supporting cross-channel dialogue and discussion-style interactions are having far greater traction with customers," Scott says.

More to the point, being extra responsive via e-mail is one way to beat competitors, says Scott, since it's a relatively uncommon reaction among companies using e-mail marketing regularly. "It's the business that's responding to me in real time and addressing my concerns, creating a dialogue with me," that's going to drive greater growth, Scott says. "As recently as five years ago this was something that was not in place."

Following up is absolutely crucial to improving both current and future response rates and staying engaged with clients, Waldow says. Unfortunately, he says, he sees too many companies send out e-mails with a do-not-respond mechanism. Even if just one recipient responds, "and you have a mailbox that is not monitored, that's a huge missed opportunity for having a conversation where that personal relationship is so important," particularly in relationship-based sales markets, such as the promotional products arena.

Knorpp agrees. "The single most important piece of advice to small businesses is to include other response mechanisms, such as a phone number" in the e-mail, Knorpp says.

Experts also add that, surprisingly, too many companies still include links that lead to a general website, rather than a specific Web page dedicated to an e-mail's content. Requiring that e-mail responders work to get to an offer or information they were sent in an e-mail is a sure way to lose them.

It's crucial that distributors include a compelling call to action, Simard says. E-mail subject lines, for example, shouldn't include specific statements ("promotional products") or limiting questions ("do you need promotional products?"), but rather should offer broader announcements, such as "how do you spread your brand?"

And it's surprising, he adds, how many small-business owners don't do that. That doesn't mean distributors have to suddenly give away free products or offer other extreme incentives to spur people to action. Just the opposite, experts say. In fact, including the word "free" (as in free products) in a subject line is the single worst thing a distributor could do, says Knorpp.

"The last thing you want to do is coupon yourself to death," he says.

That's because it often cheapens a company's brand and doesn't speak to a product's value. It also doesn't do anything to address a company's needs, says Waldow. More than anything, e-mail marketing should "solve a need," Waldow says. "That's where most e-mail marketers miss the boat. As marketers we forget in general that we are serving our community, our customers. Instead of pushing content that we think is interesting and valuable – like product deals – you have to create content that is going to be valuable to your subscriber."

That's especially true in today's market where it's simply harder to get into an e-mail inbox in the first place, let alone grab a reader's attention. Let's face it, says Scott, "90% of messages you probably glaze right over or immediately delete."

On top of that, providers of e-mail services are tightening filters every day so that their customers aren't inundated with messages they don't want, says David Steinberg, chairman and CEO of XL Marketing, a digital ad agency in New York.

For that reason, sending fewer e-mails, not more (once a week is probably the limit, says Chris Rimlinger, senior vice president of marketing for Money Mailer, a direct mail company based in Garden Grove, CA), is a strategy as likely to get a strong response as one in which clients are inundated with e-mails.

Neumann believes that a little advance notice can go a long way to converting e-mail leads. She says she warns her recipients, which total fewer than 100, that she'll be sending them multiple e-mails each week, letting them know upfront what they can expect. "We're marketing to marketing directors, and they rely on creative ideas," Neumann says. "They've got to get ideas from somewhere."

Neumann admits that some on her list have opted out because they feel overwhelmed. That said, experts agree that Neumann is doing one thing right in that she's asking people to opt in to the list rather than sending e-mails blindly. Those lists, primarily business-to-business ones where companies have opted in to receive e-mails, "still outperform any other marketing out there," Gadbut says. "With good B-to-B e-mail efforts that are clearly targeted, we see that 10% to 15% are likely to respond."

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