Email marketing may not be seen as the most exciting channel – it is often referred to as a little tired and uninspiring – but nevertheless it remains central to many brands’ communications strategies. And while some predicted its demise a few years ago when social media became increasingly dominant, its death is by no means imminent.
In fact, thanks to the arrival of new technologies, which are making it “more interesting and engaging”, email is experiencing something of a revival, according to Saul Lopes, customer lifecycle lead at Virgin Holidays.
“It is becoming cool again,” he says. “Email is generating a lot of money and, in my opinion, it is having a rebirth; many companies are rethinking it.”
Given return on investment for email increased from an estimated £30.03 for every £1 spent in 2016 to £32.28 in 2017, according to the DMA’s Marketer Email Tracker 2018 report, it’s no wonder 86% of marketers say it is ‘important’ or ‘very important’ to their multichannel marketing strategy.
In fact, 73% of marketers rate email as the number one digital channel for ROI, according to a separate study by Marketing Week’s sister brand Econsultancy, which also suggests email marketing generates around £29bn of retail sales annually in the UK, excluding offline sales influenced by email.
Successful email marketing campaigns
Lopes says email plays a “huge role” in Virgin Holidays’ marketing strategy as it is the second largest revenue driver after PPC.
The brand uses email to increase sales at all points on the customer journey – pre-booking, post-booking and post-holiday. This wide remit means the key aim is to “manage customer interactions of the whole journey rather than a marketing or service touchpoint.” As a result, it has a different strategy for each stage of the customer journey and “email marketing takes on a different type of beast in each of those strategies”.
Lopes led the team that won the email category at Marketing Week’s Masters of Marketing Award in 2017. The brand worked with artificial intelligence firm Phrasee to “create better subject lines in order to have better reach” and tech company Movable Ink to “turbocharge content” by using real-time data such as live weather feeds, pricing and numbers of people looking at certain offers. It also installed Adobe Campaign to centralise and coordinate communications across teams and channels.
The contextual email campaign, which aimed to be “visually appealing but also timely, relevant and valuable to each unique email recipient” in order to convert website visits into bookings, led to a 31% increase in site traffic. Awareness through emails opened, meanwhile, grew by 65% compared with the previous sales period, and total margin from CRM communications increased by 37% to £10.6m of revenue.
Cancer Research UK also uses email at every stage of the customer journey. Sarah Pickersgill, head of fundraising products and communities marketing at the charity says email is “an important part” of its marketing plan as it allows the organisation to easily communicate with supporters about its work.
It is used throughout the whole customer journey, “from acquisition to loyalty communications” and is particularly valuable for speaking to supporters once the charity knows supporters are doing something to raise money.
We work hard to perfect the tricky blend between personalising our inspiring email content so that it’s relevant to the user, without making our members feel targeted. – Ollie Miles, Secret Escapes
While email campaigns are “great for keeping supporters updated on a huge variety of subjects, ultimately all contact has to be relevant to that person,” says Pickersgill. “There has to be a specific need, as opposed to sending an email without a defined aim.”
The charity actively measures email open and click rates, as well as technical aspects of how emails were delivered and consumed.
At Virgin Holidays, success is measured in a number of ways. “In marketing comms, we measure success using our attribution model and how much incremental marketing it generates. We look at all the marketing touchpoints and how they influence conversion and then we create an attributed revenue figure for those touchpoints,” explains Lopes.
The brand has another set of KPIs that are more customer experience-led, “so we look at customer satisfaction scores at each point of the journey and see if those scores go up”. It also looks at engagement rates and open and click-through.
Personalisation and email marketing
Better personalisation of email campaigns is top of the wish list for marketers, according to Econsultancy’s report, but for many the promise of 100% personalisation “remains a distant prospect”. Marketers believe it is a huge challenge, with the biggest hurdle integrating email marketing systems with other channels.
Meanwhile, the DMA’s Consumer Email Tracker Report 2017 finds that personal and relevant emails are an “absolute must” for consumers, which is particularly important given 99% check their non-work emails every day, yet 59% are receiving irrelevant communications.
Lopes agrees that “creating mass communications with hyper-personalisation” is a big challenge for marketers, but “personalisation for personalisation’s sake will not get you anywhere”.
Virgin Holidays’ customer research panel helps the brand to create a solid strategy and clear communication objectives. Lopes says: “It’s all about understanding customer behaviour and intent, and then applying the personalisation which is strong in that creative.”
For example, when the brand was revamping its service communications, consumer feedback showed there was confusion about where they were in the purchase journey. In order to address this, Virgin Holidays created a “highly-personalised progress bar” in the booking confirmation and other communications that are sent out pre-departure so each customer knows exactly where they are in the process, what the next steps are and what they need to do.
Another challenge is achieving stand out in the increasing cluttered email space.
Ollie Miles, global head of CRM at Secret Escapes, says: “We work hard to perfect the tricky blend between personalising our inspiring email content so that it’s relevant to the user, without making our members feel targeted.
“We know that nine out of 10 members were not planning on booking a holiday before receiving one of our emails so we encourage users to open them by tailoring our subject lines to hone in on hotels or destinations they may have shown interest in.”
To keep members interested, the brand uses a variety of formats and subject matter while maintaining its “overall brand tone of voice to inspire the world to escape”.
According to the DMA’s consumer report, retail brands with a large online presence are best at email. Amazon tops the list for consumer mentions at 14% and was noted for both volume of emails sent and its use of email – in other words, doing the basics right. Marks & Spencer comes second with 10%, and Next, Tesco and eBay are joint third with 7%. But 60% of respondents don’t believe any brands do email well.
Testing email marketing
Testing what does and doesn’t work might sound obvious but 47% of organisations test under a quarter of their emails, according to the DMA. Even worse, 19% of respondents rate their organisation as having no competence with regard to testing and a further 15% say they do no testing – a rise from 8% in 2016. On the plus side, 9% of respondents say their company’s email testing ability is advanced and 19% claim they test over three-quarters of their emails.
Sarah Pickersgill at Cancer Research UK says it’s important to be clear what the charity wants to learn from testing and how it will add to the supporter’s experience. “Simple A/B testing is a great methodology for us, as well as gathering insight from heat maps.” Ultimately, the interaction rate with its supporters tells the organisation how it is doing, she adds.
Optimising emails for different devices has been a “big driver of the improvements in the design and creations of emails,” says Pickersgill. “Mobile has forced marketers to be more clever with content and design to satisfy behaviour change.”
Email is generating a lot of money and, in my opinion, it is having a rebirth; many companies are rethinking it. – Saul Lopes, Virgin Holidays
Design is also key for Secret Escapes. The holiday company knows many users look at emails on their mobile while commuting, so to improve user experience and conversion it opts for a “clean, simple and visual ‘feed’ style”, according to Miles.
As the brand offers flash sales, there is “an inherent sense of urgency” in everything it does, however, “FOMO [fear of missing out] and urgency messaging combined with short-term sales and promotions” help to maintain momentum and convert page views into bookings.
Although Econsultancy’s report finds 73% of companies are using mobile device optimisation tactics and 90% have some form of strategy for optimising email marketing for different devices, a lack of resource is a main barrier to success.
GDPR and email marketing
The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which comes into effect on 25 May, “clearly presents challenges to effective marketing across many channels,” says Rachel Aldighieri, managing director at the DMA, “but there is an opportunity too. By placing the customer at the heart of your business, you can ensure consumers receive timely, relevant communications they crave.”
According to the DMA’s email tracker report, 96% of marketers are aware of the new legislation and 72% feel ‘somewhat prepared’ for the changes, but sentiment about the effect of GDPR on email marketing is split with 36% feeling positive an 43% negative.
Virgin Holidays will be launching an internal campaign to raise awareness of the new regulations among its staff, and also has a “huge IT transformation plan” to make the company GDPR ready. “It’s not just what customers receive in an email, it’s the back end of things, how we manage their data, how we manage permissions. We are doing everything we can in order to get ourselves ready and support the legislation,” explains Lopes.
He concludes: “[GDPR] introduces new ways of working, but we will have more engaged customer bases afterwards because people who are on our database [will] want to hear from us. We will end up having even higher engagement rates, but probably lower volumes after GDPR, in terms of our marketing campaign.”