E-mail Marketing Lessons From Two Retailers

Before attacking your 2010 e-mail marketing program with renewed passion and focus, let’s look back on the incredibly busy e-mail marketing holiday season that was 2009.

As expected, frequency was the top issue, with many companies (especially retailers) pounding away at your inbox on a daily fashion; highlighting offers, free shipping, and whatever else you say in 25 consecutive e-mails. One notable tactic was done by the always innovative Zappos.

In what may be the first campaign of its kind, the shoe retailer took some bold steps in communicating expectations with its subscribers. It sent an e-mail outlining that starting Nov. 16, 2009, e-mail frequency would increase, but only for five weeks.

I really admire the transparency of telling subscribers how and when things will change. I don’t have the inside scoop on how it reduced unsubscribes, raised sales, or achieved other goals, but kudos to Zappos for putting the subscriber first and being savvy enough to recognize the potential downside of a short-term e-mail blitz.

On the other hand, as a new subscriber to Restoration Hardware, I felt as if I was about to be run over by its endless promises of unique deals and offers. In addition to its aggressive frequency, its e-mails were guilty of the dubious usage of “one giant image or bust.” Generally, all of the e-mail’s value was in one giant image — disregarding the impact of image suppression (as most retailers unfortunately do). Well, that’s the e-mail geek in me, but the customer making some home renovations in me was more frustrated by failed promises and generally a lack of trust that came out of these e-mails.

It started in promising fashion, with a subject line that grabbed my attention: “Reminder: Extended 1 Day Only. Save 20% During Friends & Family.” I loved the feeling of exclusivity, as well as the seemingly no-strings-attached offer of 20 percent off everything. I didn’t even notice the tiny asterisk that is omnipresent on most deals. Nevertheless, I forwarded it to my wife so she had the code and she happened to be in the mall that is home to our local Restoration Hardware. So, perfect viral case study in the making, right?

Well, apparently 20 percent off everything means only 20 percent off some things. So, a perfectly teed up e-mail leads to a very unfavorable in-store user experience. Not the optimal outcome; and while e-mail got the initial credit for driving the forward and near in-store conversion, it also took the brunt of our dissatisfaction, as I unsubscribed from future e-mails.

Don’t miss the mark with your chances in 2010. Here are a few questions to ask (and not to ask) in your 2010 e-mail brainstorming and planning sessions (you are having these, right?).

Do ask:

  • How can we provide added value to our e-mail subscribers?
  • How will we ensure subscribers stay subscribers in 2010?
  • Why would someone sign up for our e-mail program?
  • What are our top three e-mail marketing goals in 2010 and how do they tie into our broader business goals?
  • Do I have the right resources and partners to achieve my goals in 2010?

Don’t ask:

  • What is a good open rate? A good open rate for me may be a poor open rate for you. Besides, the open rate is a loaded metric gun anyway (think preview panes, image suppression, and mobile rendering).
  • What words should I avoid in my subject line? Instead of this question, focus on crafting an accurate and engaging subject line that provides a reason to open as well as a hint of what’s inside.
  • Should we do social media instead of e-mail marketing? Instead, figure out how social media, or any other marketing channel, can complement and enhance your marketing programs, including e-mail.


Lastly, I would like to add a quick note of appreciation to the man whose slot here at ClickZ I will be filling. Bill McCloskey has long been a pioneer and champion of the e-mail marketing industry. Filling his shoes in this column will be tough, but I look forward to the challenge.

As a way of introduction: I’m no stranger to e-mail marketing, having founded a top e-mail marketing agency, over seven years ago. I’ve written and contributed to hundreds of articles in various publications, and most proudly, I’m the author of “The Truth About Email Marketing,” which was published by the Financial Times in 2008.

I look forward to sharing your inbox and hope I can add insight, value, and some new thinking into your digital marketing efforts. I wish you and your e-mail marketing efforts a thriving and measurable 2010! Tell me what else you would like this column to cover and other suggestions and feedback.

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