Brands make emails land on welcome mat

Retail brands are making best use of technology to achieve high open and response rates for email campaigns, according to new research.


Consumers think brands are getting better at email marketing, but the window for grabbing their attention is relatively small, according to the results of an annual email tracking study, seen by Marketing Week.

The research of 1,800 consumers, commissioned by the Direct Marketing Association and carried out by fast.MAP, reveals that 23 out of 24 brands in the survey have improved their email marketing in consumers’ eyes since 2010. The biggest improvement is achieved by Argos, with a seven-point increase in the percentage of people who say it uses email to good effect.

The only brand to slip backwards is Somerfield, which was taken over by The Co-op in 2008. However, its score decreased by less than one percentage point.

The public’s attitude toward brands’ email communications is progressively improving, says Dela Quist, chief executive of email consultancy Alchemy Worx, which contributed to the study. “Consumers view the emails that they sign up to very differently from the general white noise that is out there,” he says.

This tallies with the findings of this year’s Email Attitudes research done by Digital Strategy, part of Marketing Week, which shows that while marketers are sending more emails than they did last year, open and click-through rates are increasing (Digital Strategy September 2011).

John Lewis head of online marketing Emma McLaughlin says the improvement owes in part to the use of increasingly sophisticated technology. Software can now adjust the frequency of emails according to how often an individual consumer opens or clicks on them and can segment customers so that messages can be targeted to the right people. She adds that emails can therefore be made more personally relevant and customers’ responses have improved as a result.

Alistair Daly, chief marketing officer of travel website On The Beach, also points to an enhanced ability to clean email databases. Brands’ email systems can detect when messages are being forwarded to junk folders and take those email addresses off the mailing list, for example.

Despite this improvement across the board, there is still a limited amount of time when consumers are receptive to emails, with 61% of people saying they do not check emails at all at work and 69% saying they spend less than two hours a day on email at home. Consumers can therefore afford to give only a limited amount of attention to each message.

McLaughlin at John Lewis suggests this is not necessarily a bad thing: “We are sending emails to try to prompt another behaviour, such as clicking out of the email and onto the John Lewis website. It is not about having them dwell on the email.”


Half of the survey’s respondents say they receive at least 20 emails from trusted brands every week and 39% say they are signed up to receive messages from 10 or more companies. Quist of Alchemy Worx suggests that people receiving a lot more than 20 emails a week from brands are relatively rare, and that most are only signed up to get the messages they know they want and have time to consider.

“If your inbox is inundated, it is not from the brands that you trust. If you get 300 emails a day, only about three will be from brands that you signed up to.

“The evidence we see is that people tend to accept emails from one or two brands per category. If you search for insurance, there are 100 different brands competing for your attention at that point. That is competition. Our hypothesis is that the inbox is a relatively competition-free zone,” he says.

Once a brand has made it into a consumer’s inbox, therefore, it appears that half the battle is won. Yet being one of the few brands in a given product category to which a consumer subscribes remains the marketer’s first hurdle.

There is still an imperative for brands to give consumers a reason to sign up, and the overwhelming message from the survey’s respondents is that a financial incentive is most effective. The top three reasons given for signing up to a brand’s mailing list are offers, discounts and vouchers, while news and exclusive content register fewer positive responses.


Quist suggests that respondents’ claimed behaviour could underestimate the degree to which recipients actually engage with emails from brands, however. This is important, he says, because incessant messages about discounts are likely to lose their resonance, a point with which McLaughlin at John Lewis agrees.

Quist explains: “If you look at the sign-up processes, most calls to action will say something like ’sign up to receive special offers and discounts’. Very few people sign up because they want to give brands the opportunity to sell to them. The number one


driver of open and click-through is offers, but you cannot have one every day because brands sometimes have to market at full price.”

The findings of another survey conducted by Alchemy Worx on behalf of a brand also suggest that consumers’ attitudes to email are less objective than they probably believe. Consumers who give a particular brand a high net promoter score (NPS) – meaning they are likely to recommend it to peers – also tend to place high value on the emails they receive from it and underestimate the volume of messages sent, Quist says. The reverse is true of consumers who give a brand a low NPS.

Overall brand perception is therefore likely in part to determine a consumer’s view of the brand’s email marketing. Quist points to Norwich Union, now Aviva, and says that when the insurance brand generated a lot of negative media attention after moving its telephone call centres offshore several years ago there was an upsurge in complaints about its email marketing.

Fifty-six per cent of consumers surveyed have a positive overall view of email marketing by the retail sector, followed by supermarkets (49%) and high street retailers (43%), while only 1% say FMCG brands do email marketing well.

Retailers are also among the most improved brands over the past year, according to the study. They dominate the top five on this measure, with Argos, Tesco, Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury’s and John Lewis respectively seeing the biggest increases in the percentage of people who think they do email well.

This is likely to be because retailers have more reason to communicate with customers on a regular basis. This has the twin benefit, according to Quist, of giving marketers more data to indicate which types of emails work best and making the customer more willing to accept regular messages.

“Retailers learn faster and they are able to follow the money in a way that someone in a business-to-business environment, publishing or airlines, where purchasing is much less frequent, cannot. Consumers engage with their email programmes much less frequently.

“They cannot send out a lot of emails in the same way that a retailer does because the need is not there. They have to work harder to get engagement and they learn more slowly, because the purchases happen less frequently.”

For those brands seeking to catch up with the retail sector, the watchword for improving their performance is relevance. Brands now have more technological tools at their disposal to achieve it, and in terms of consumer sentiment at least, these are starting to pay off.

The frontline


Alistair Daly, chief marketing officer, On The Beach

I do not believe the finding that says 61% of respondents do not check emails at work. I wonder if they are giving that response because they do not want to get in trouble with their bosses. They may not book their holidays in work time, but they are certainly searching online and clicking on emails.

We have seen an improvement in open and click-through rates this year, due to a more accurate database. So if our emails are going into spam folders after the second or third time, we get that information back.

When we send out an exclusive offer with a 48-hour time limit, we get open rates of 50-60% and click-through rates of 30-40%. In the travel sector, open rates of 15-20% are the average.

Although our emails contain things like weather reports or links to video content, what is clicked on are the deals.

Email has one of the highest attribution rates – in other words, it really helps other channels. Facebook is also good at doing that, but email has doubled the scores for us compared with Facebook. It is a very good channel to help other channels deliver the sale.


Emma McLaughlin, head of online marketing, John Lewis

Increased open and response rates are connected to the relevancy of the emails to the audience. Gone are the days when a blanket email is all that a business will do. Email is also starting to support things like social media. We have started an email campaign for people to rate the products they have purchased.

We measure emails in three ways -relevancy, frequency and design. According to our internal surveys, 72% of people find our emails relevant. For frequency, we look at the engagement of customers to decide how many more they should be sent.

If you click through to browse the site or click through to purchase you will receive more emails and 86% of our customers say they receive the right number of emails from us. When you segment and make it more relevant, you see the performance metrics increase.

Because we have our policy of ’Never knowingly undersold’, we use vouchers and offers less. Sometimes we get complaints from customers when we use offers too much.


Katie Sheppard, director of marketing and relationships, Match UK & Ireland

The nature of our business means we are engaging with our customers on an emotional level and our email marketing mirrors this relationship. We are aware that consumers receive a lot of emails so it is essential that ours stand out in their inbox. It is a case of quality over quantity and ensuring that emails are well targeted and strike the balance between informative and engaging, with a strong call to action where appropriate.

We are always looking to improve the service we offer. This includes refining our segmentation and tailoring our offer as and when we can.

We have tested geo-targeting and aim where possible to be gender specific so that the email reflects the member’s search for a partner as closely as possible.

Special subscription offers are also becoming increasingly important, especially when it comes to engaging with consumers looking for the best dating site. We have previously used short-term offers such as three days free, which entitles potential members full use of the site at no cost.


Rachel Spiller, direct marketing support manager, The Co-operative Group

We have been sending an increasing number of emails to members over the past year, and we have seen an increase in both our open and click-through rates, probably due to us sending out more offers-based emails. Competitions have our strongest click-through rates.

The Co-operative Group has a number of businesses and we have been trying to get more and more of those on board to give members exclusive offers.

We started off with Co-operative Electrical, where we put promotion codes in the emails, but for a lot of the other businesses that do not have transactional sites we have struggled.

Over the last couple of months, Co-operative Food emails have included downloadable coupons that are secure and personalised. We have put a lot of investment into the software that can allow us to do that.

But we are not just about offers. Our members own a part of the business, so we often send out communications inviting them to events, which get good open and click-through rates.

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