The rage to engage

9th January 2017 • Features

by James Lawson, consulting editor

With more noise than ever before in the field of email marketing, effective engagement remains the holy grail that both indicates success and informs future actions.

Adam Herbert | business development director, Market Location
Jennifer Watkiss | head of marketing communications, Adestra
Rachael Jessney | creative planner, Uncommon Knowledge
John Paterson | CEO, Really Simple Systems
Mike Austin | managing director, Fresh Relevance

As competition for inbox space continues to increase, email engagement remains the critical barometer for marketers. It informs the type of communications to be sent, serves as a warning flag for defection and is the central metric for strategies to maintain deliverability.

“If you can measure engagement then you can see which email campaigns work and which need improving,” says John Paterson, CEO at Really Simple Systems. “You can see which links get the most clicks, which days work best or which topics each segment likes. Using A/B testing, you can continue to improve even great campaigns.”

Opens and clicks are a starting point for measuring engagement but knowing what the recipient does after clicking through is even more vital. That means linking email to web browsing and other channel data – preferably via an SCV.

How many web pages does that subscriber visit and do they spend a long time there? Do they then search Google and start to read reviews or engage via social media? The ultimate sign of engagement is conversion to sale.

“Who goes into their marketing strategy wanting more opens or clicks?” says Rachael Jessney, Creative Planner at Uncommon Knowledge. “The goal is always more sales, more leads, more enquiries, so following behaviour beyond those email comms is the only way to tie activity back to solid intent and revenue.”

Accurate attribution by channel is vital for understanding the best ways in increase engagement. For example, as “second screening” becomes more popular, sending an email that coincides with a TV commercial may drive more direct website traffic than either individual action alone.

“You need to use all the information you have across all channels to measure engagement.” says Adam Herbert, Business Development Director at Market Location. “If a customer stops opening their emails and also stops paying off their loan, that should be a big red light.”

Fresh Relevance doesn’t measure engagement specifically but other actions serve as proxies for it. Beyond open and clickthrough, what happens on the website is their main concern.

“We track metrics like the number of website visits, the types of products browsed, purchase and purchase value – all the different traits of web behaviour,” says MD Mike Austin. “We apply that back to email and other channels to influence the types of products offered.”

Engagement is particularly vital in guiding contact density. Recipients’ appetite for contact varies widely, with age, sector and many other factors influencing it. That means that each house file will have different customers with different tolerances.

“Every subscriber list has a tipping point, at which the engagement rates will plummet and your unsubscribe rates will increase,” says Jennifer Watkiss, Head of Marketing Communications at Adestra. “Finding that line means you aren’t diminishing the effectiveness of your list, nor leaving money on the table by not sending enough email.

It might be fine to send four emails a week to somebody who has just signed up for a trial of a product. Likewise, a monthly message to somebody who regularly buys your product or clicks through should work well. Segmenting by engagement is the way forward here.

“Every subscriber will have different expectations to what they want to receive from every brand,” says Jenna Tiffany, Lead Digital Marketing Strategist at Communicator. “Again the key area to consider here is personalisation. If every recipient sees value in the emails they receive from a brand then engagement won’t be an issue.”

However, many subscribers may not be interested in receiving email in the first place, for example if they opted in only to qualify for a discount offer, then you might find engagement is zero from day one as they have given you their “junk” email address.

That kind of inactivity is dangerous for deliverability. After a certain period, ISPs start to filter unread emails straight to the junk folder, totting up read and open figures up across the whole user base for each sender. With that constant monitoring, too many unread messages can seriously compromise a sender’s reputation.

“Delivery into the inbox is getting harder for users sending from the same ESPs even with a solid SFP record in place,” says Jessney. She notes one option is to send from a new whitelisted IP, perhaps via another ESP. Because there is no record of reputation or other issues with that IP and sender combination, there should be few issues.

“Notoriously the first campaign often has good results,” she says Jessney. “Changing your ESP, which in effect has new IPs, will improve the delivery rate, just like the first campaign again.”

“If you can weed out the bounces and unsubscribes before starting a mailing campaign, that will improve your deliverability to the likes of Gmail,” notes Paterson. “We have some customers who clean their list using MailChimp. They email the whole list, pick out the bounces and unsubscribes and then use us to deliver their ongoing campaigns to interested subscribers.”

However, Watkiss describes these sorts of tactics as “a slippery slope”, saying that both spammers and those at the ISPs who work to thwart them will always be far better at understanding how to game the system than the average marketing manager.

“There is so much to gain by focusing on increasing engagement with the subscribers who do want to hear from you,” she says. “Why would you waste any of your precious time playing a game you can’t win?”

However quarantining low engagement subscribers into separate campaigns sent from different IPs is a widely accepted practice. By not “contaminating” the main send, that improves deliverability to more valuable customers.

Certainly inactive subscribers should receive far fewer emails and, even if they are engaged in other channels, their email non-response should spark prompt action. That means structured winback programmes, where they’re targeted with a different chain of emails (usually incentivised) to prompt a response.

Those efforts can combine email with on/off-web-site display remarketing, direct mail and call centre activity. Again knowledge of multichannel activity is vital to inform this, with companies like Abacus able to show where individuals are actively purchasing from competing suppliers.

So when should reactivation happen? First of all, look at the sales cycle.

“When you take action depends very much on the purchase cycle of your customers,” says Austin. “A fashion retailer might define inactive as a couple of months but it could be a year or much longer for a holiday company.”

As for any email campaigns, innovation combined with test and learn is the best approach for winback along with deep knowledge of your own KPIs and goals. What works in your sector and what has worked for this kind of customer in the past?

With B2B’s tough-to-reach decisionmakers, Jessney counsels, “really going back to roots of your history with that individual” to formulate winback messaging. That might mean noting which past content they have previously engaged with or what their interests are outside of work.

“With emotion playing such a huge part in B2B decision making, you have to go beyond treating someone as another name on the list and begin to incorporate persona and customer insight work to really experience success,” she says.

Playing on people’s emotions can be a successful tactic, with subject lines like ‘“we miss you” or “we haven’t heard from you in a while” tending to generate better results than generic messages.

“If you’ve lost an insurance customer you still know their renewal date, so an email a month or two before would be a good time,” advises Paterson. “If you are selling an accounting system, most businesses change their accounting or payroll software around their or the tax year end, so again engagement before then works too.”

Before running a re-activation campaign for West Ham United FC, Communicator first analysed a host of metrics to gauge engagement across the base. That included when emails were last opened plus preference information alongside transactional data on purchase date and product types.

“We discovered that 70% of subscribers were long-term non-openers,” says Tiffany. “The majority hadn’t opened for 90 days or more during peak season.”

The solution was a strategic plan to find out what these subscribers wanted from West Ham’s emails to inform future content personalisation.

“We designed a creative re-engagement campaign that drove interaction to gather preferences in a fun way,” explains Tiffany. “It forced the recipient to act, to click and do something with the email.”

Again, marketers must look across all available channel data to inform the timing and content for any winback communications.

“Sending lots of irrelevant email to disengaged recipients will simply annoy them,” says Austin. “You need to personalise those emails based on everything you know about them and that means going beyond open and click. They might not open your emails but may visit your website every day.”

“You need to take action based on the value of the customer,” adds Herbert. “That could be an email, a piece of DM, a phone conversation or a client visit. Use what you know about them to make any email or other messaging as relevant as possible. If they’ve bought Adidas trainers in the past, try targeting them with similar products.”

Increasing email relevance in a test campaign Market Location ran for a business finance company saw loan renewals increase dramatically from the previous 30% defection rate down to 5%. “Simply by creating more good relevant content, we made the client a thought leader,” says Herbert.

Another reactivation campaign, this time by Adestra for the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET), targeted contacts who had not opened an email for at least six months. Instead of the regular monthly emails, they received a personalised mixture of upcoming events, literature and hot topic videos.

One month later, contacts that still had not responded received another email with the message changing from “Don’t miss out” to “Stay connected”. The initiative re-activated well over 8,000 contacts and increased clicks by 40%, prompting the IET to expand it to cover more of its online communities.

Where there is still no email response and there’s no evidence of activity elsewhere, when should you delete those subscribers? A 2014 Return Path study found that many as 45% of recipients later re-engaged, taking an average of 57 days – nearly two months – to read additional messages.

Even up to 300 days after their last activity, recipients were still opening email after receiving a winback message. So early removal can certainly miss opportunities to regain potentially valuable customers.

Communicator recommends three reactivation emails as a guideline and Return Path’s optimum period was 90 days. But again experience and testing are the best guides.

The GDPR coming into force in April 2017 makes that final decision even more important. Every marketer must hold proof of recent consent for contact so an inactive subscriber that hasn’t opened an email for more than 3 months will start to pose a risk to every organisation.

Companies that monitor engagement, send relevant, well-targeted campaigns and treat inactive recipients differently should then gain their just reward: a database chock-full of active, buying customers.

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