Building E-Mail Strategy With Free Competitive Intelligence

Competitive intelligence techniques should be a standard part of every marketer’s bag of tricks. While specialized tools can make the job a lot easier to manage, close observation of publicly available data sources can provide valuable insights to any marketer, regardless of budget constraints. Today, I’ll present a study done with public data sources as an example.

The study was constructed by closely examining the e-mail marketing efforts of three rival computer manufactures for Q3 2008. This type of competitive review can unveil strengths and weaknesses of various e-mail marketing approaches and provide guidance to a marketer trying to plan next year’s resources.

For the purpose of this column, we’ll call the three computer manufactures Company A, Company B, and Company C, but the data is based on their actual Q3 e-mail marketing strategy. Comparing the three competitors, we can observe dramatic differences in their e-mail marketing strategies and begin to draw conclusions about how each strategy is driving traffic to their offers.

Company A has the least sophisticated e-mail program; it relies on a single in-house list and virtually no e-mail partnerships or media buys. Company B and C have developed extremely sophisticated e-mail strategies that rely on multiple in-house lists, third-party standalone offers, sponsored links, and media buys in third-party newsletters. But while Company B places emphasis on sales and special discounts to promote and drive traffic to its offers, Company C rarely promotes sales, placing an emphasis on brand building instead.

Overall Site Traffic

When we look at the Web traffic trends for our competitors using such sources as Alexa, we see the effects of those strategies. During the first three quarters of 2008, Company A has experienced a 66 percent decrease in the traffic to its Web site. Company B’s traffic has decrease steadily by 37 percent, while Company C’s traffic has remained steady, with only a recent dip of about 27 percent over the last 30 days or so.

While Company C’s overall traffic is about two-thirds of Company B’s, the gap is narrowing: Company C’s traffic is holding fast, while Company B’s is steadily declining. Company A’s traffic numbers, on the other hand, are a mere 5 percent of Company B’s, according to Alexa.

E-mail Strategy Overview

I was only able to detect 14 e-mail campaigns sent out by Company A in Q3, all of which were sent to a single in-house list. Compare this to Company B, which sent out 622 campaigns spread out over multiple in-house and third-party lists. Company C sent 429 campaigns during the same period. We could conclude Company B’s higher traffic numbers correspond to its higher number of e-mail campaigns, but that its overemphasis on sales promotions as opposed to brand building is eroding the traffic lead it enjoys.

While Company A’s e-mail was completely focused on its in-house list, Company B focused only 18 percent of its overall e-mail strategy on its house list; 30 percent of its campaigns were third-party media buys, 9 percent were partner e-mail, 41 percent were sponsorships and sponsored links, and 2 percent were standalone third-party e-mail offers.

Company C’s e-mail media mix was very different: 34 percent of its campaigns were in-house lists, 45 percent were third-party e-mail media buys, 1 percent were partner e-mails, 17 percent were sponsorships and sponsored links, and 2 percent were standalone third-party e-mail offers. Clearly, Company C is carefully controlling its brand image by heavier use of its in-house lists and cautiously placed media buys. This control seems to have helped it maintain its audience and traffic in a poor economy.

We can further support this theory with a close analysis of the subject lines of the companies’ in-house campaigns. Unsurprisingly, Company C (with its interest in brand building) mentioned its company name 89 percent of the time in its in-house campaign subject lines, compared to 41 percent for Company B and only 29 percent for Company A. Compare that to dollar symbol: it appears in 4 percent of Company C’s e-mail, but 46 percent of Company B’s and 29 percent of Company A’s. The word “savings” appears 3 percent of the time in Company C’s subject lines, 14 percent in Company B’s, and 29 percent in Company A’s. And the word “sale” appears only 2 percent of the time in Company C’s subject lines, 2 percent in Company B’s, and 21 percent in Company A’s.


Clearly, a well thought-out e-mail strategy is a vital part of any traffic-driving effort, and we see a close connection between e-mail frequency and the use of multiple e-mail marketing channels and traffic. But heavy reliance on sales and the mention of specific dollar amounts in the marketing messages may be wearing thin and a strong brand presence might be the best strategy in surviving a bad economy.

Today’s column originally ran on December 18, 2008.

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