An open and shut case for emails

New research sheds light on why some email marketing communications have low reading rates or get assigned to the junk folder while others get their recipients’ undivided attention.

Many companies are failing to get email basics right, according to research shown exclusively to Marketing Week. Aspects such as timing, having a clear call to action and offering a straightforward way to unsubscribe are key to maximising the effectiveness of email messages, according to research by email analytics provider Return Path, gathered using its Inbox Insight tool.

In the UK, an unsubscribe option must be included in marketing emails by law, but often the process is over-complicated, the link is hard to find or the request is not honoured, claims Return Path EMEA director of consulting Guy Hanson. “Best practice would be a one-click opt-out,” he says. “If companies make it more difficult or require users to log into an account before opting out, that could drive them to make a spam complaint.”

The insights are based on a 30-day snapshot of the top 50 email senders in the UK market measured by volume and the emails analysed were sent to people on Return Path’s subscriber panel.

Companies in the shopping sector dominate email marketing activity in the UK, accounting for 77.3 per cent of email volumes. More than 50 per cent of that is generated by just two companies, Amazon and Groupon, which represent the main sub-categories within retail – retail brands and daily deals firms.

When split like this, Return Path’s data shows that emails sent by brands display a higher level of engagement, generating a 17.3 per cent read rate, compared to 11.7 per cent for those sent by deal aggregators. Hanson suggests this is because brands generally make more effective use of targeting and increasingly take consumer behaviour into account.

“It’s a big trend,” he says. “We’re seeing far greater use of automated emails [from brands] that are being generated by predefined subscriber rules or subscriber behaviour. For a long time the amount of email traffic being generated from these sources was less than 1 per cent, but it is now well into double digits.”

However, while the read rate for brands is higher, so too is the user-marked spam complaint rate, at 0.02 per cent for brands and 0.01 per cent for daily deals, which although seemingly low is still significant, Hanson says. Financial companies are most affected by user-marked spam, the research finds, which he reckons is unsurprising given the prevalence of phishing emails in this sector.

But it’s not just financial services companies that should be concerned, as spoofing is moving into other sectors too, now that banks have put safeguards in place to help consumers identify fake emails. Hanson highlights a recent example involving Amazon, in which a fraudulent email was sent informing ‘subscribers’ that their account had been frozen temporarily and that certain details must be confirmed within 24 hours in order to unlock it.

The two giveaways that it was not legitimate were the misspelling of Amazon as ‘Amzon’ in the link and the fact it was promoting Mother’s Day to a UK audience in May. Despite these facts the email still had a read rate of 17 per cent, from which Hanson infers that a “significant number of respondents were duped into providing personal information”.

Context is becoming increasingly important as smartphone and tablet ownership continues to rise, and email activity is responding accordingly. Hanson continues: “Email biases a little more towards desktop during the day but shifts to mobile devices in the evening and weekends – and subscribers are a lot less forgiving of poorly optimised content on mobile.”

An example comes from Virgin Trains, where head of customer relationship management Glyn Davies says responsive design now features in most of its emails, but because subscribers are still being directed to a conventional website, conversions have suffered. “Our mobile-optimised site went live earlier this month so in the future we’ll take people from a mobile-optimised email to a mobile-optimised site and we expect to see benefits from that.”

Although it may seem like a fairly basic recommendation, Hanson says marketers need to evaluate things like subject line length and what day of the week is most effective, as a surprising number of email senders still don’t do it.

Looking specifically at the daily deals sector, a subject line of 40 to 75 characters is most effective, with a read rate of 12.7 per cent, and while there is little difference between emails that do and don’t include a financial amount (12.3 per cent compared to 12 per cent), the inclusion of the actual discount is far more effective. Emails that contain a percentage symbol have a read rate of 15 per cent, next to 11.1 per cent for those that don’t.

It’s also worth noting that the size of discount plays a significant role, but not in the way you might expect. Where the discount is below 50 per cent the open rate is 26.4 per cent, but for offers of more than 50 per cent the rate plummets to 11.8 per cent, which Hanson says comes down to trust and credibility.

“The senders that offer smaller and perhaps more believable discounts like 10 per cent off a river ride on the Thames, or 25 per cent off for two on the London Eye seem to resonate more favourably.”

Tuesdays and Wednesdays generate the highest read rate within the deal sector, the research finds, reaching 13.4 per cent on both days, compared to lows of 10 per cent on a Sunday. This is because subscribers are more likely to look for deals ahead of their weekend shopping or dining, says Hanson.

However, Wowcher CRM manager Clare McKenna believes it is usually more about the offer than the day it is offered on. “The day we sold Fifty Shades of Grey for the first time, open and read rates went through the roof and that would have been the same no matter what day it was,” she says.

While timing will always be important, the idea that email content is static is becoming a thing of the past. Forward thinking brands are now able to dynamically substitute images in emails when an offer has expired in order to keep content relevant, a technique that Hanson believes will help drive down user-marked spam and deleted unread rates, and which is in line with the IAB’s new guidelines stating that vouchers must be kept up to date and must not be promoted once expired.

“Emails are becoming envelope-like, in that senders can carry on putting current and more relevant content into them. This will bring a big shift in email marketing over the next 12 to 24 months.” 

Marketers’ response

Clare McKenna

Clare McKenna
CRM manager

I don’t think you can compare brand and daily deal emails as the volumes and frequency are so different. As for targeting, I think this varies from business to business. We are very focused on delivering highly personalised deal emails to our subscribers, which has meant our open rates are roughly double the industry average.

When someone signs up to Wowcher, the expectation is that there will be emails every day and our low churn and unsubscribe rates show that on the whole we are moving in the right direction with engagement. As we learn more about our subscribers and their email preferences we are employing more sophisticated engagement strategies to ensure we send the number of emails that they are comfortable with.


Glyn Davies

Glyn Davies
Head of CRM
Virgin Trains

We hover around the 20 per cent mark in terms of open rate and I think it’s true that lower frequency email campaigns are more responsive. Research shows our customers want emails around once a month. We push that up if we’ve got offers and the engagement doesn’t drop off, but we wouldn’t send mails out more than twice a month.

We tend to base content on subscribers’ home computers, and in doing so we have increased click-through rate because it is more relevant.

We also segment our database for recency, frequency and value and use some other indicators to serve different content to different groups. For us it pays and certainly translates to the return on investment that we see.




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