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A Lesson from Sears: Creating Relevance in Email Marketing

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Sears performed a courageous email-marketing act in mid-December.

Like every retailer, Sears was surely eager for additional sales and revenue as the worst holiday season in memory reached a crescendo and the sales window started to close.

Despite that pressure, the Sears team had the discipline to hit the pause button on the hard sell in attempting to make a connection with subscribers. Instead, it sent a co-marketing email with Heroes at Home, promoting a national gift registry for returning US soldiers.

To top it off, Sears tested embedded video in the message, which is very cool stuff and a hot topic for email marketing right now; and, in this case, it was well implemented.

There is nothing worse than using technology just because you can—but the tactic works for this message, because the video is central to telling a heart-warming, patriotic story.

In this message, a video segment runs on a loop inside the email (the full video was hosted on the Sears site), but its audio is on request; that is, it can be turned on and off. So, from a subscriber-experience standpoint, the presence of video is no more intrusive than an animated gif.

All of it renders right in the email client using the VHD Technology solution—which, however, does not promise compatibility with all email clients.

It's a bit risky to embed video in email. This is real video, and it definitely adds weight to the spam score. So marketers with erratic or marginal sender reputations should test it carefully to ensure their messages do not get filtered.

But the presence of video alone doesn't make the Sears effort courageous. What's impressive is that Sears understands that mixing it up a bit is a powerful approach—even during the hottest selling season of the year.

Being relevant is a long-term proposition, yet often you are only as good as your last email; if it is interesting and unusual, subscribers are more likely to open the next one. That is a concept we call "Prior Value."

Subscribers tell us year after year in our annual survey (pdf) that one of the top reasons they decide to open a message rather than delete it instantly is because "I received a message from you in the past that was interesting to me."

Endless promotions will not build that sort of interest—especially in this economy, when subscribers are holding tight to their wallets.

Still send promotions, by all means. They work and are relevant to some subscribers some of the time. However, also focus on making your overall message stream helpful. Even one or two messages a month that break free of promotions and offer tips, new ideas, fun, or a simple thank you can boost the results of all messages that month.

A "mix" strategy of some promotions, as many behavioral triggers as make sense (e.g., post-purchase), and a few content-based messages like this Sears example is a great formula to boost your Prior Value to subscribers and improve overall results.

How many of each? It depends on your business, of course. Ideally, they are all equal weight. (Is that a loud gasping sound I hear from every email marketer out there?! ) Realistically, a general rule of thumb is to send no more than 50% more promotions as the other two combined. That would be nine pure promotions a month if you send three times a week.

Don't be fooled: The Sears partnership with Heroes at Home is about sales. One of the options presented is to buy a gift from Sears to fulfill a returning solder's wish list. But that message is pretty subtle. In fact, the headline reads, "Here's your chance to give something back. Even if it's just a simple, 'Thank You.'"

Every other Sears email in December was hard-sell, pure promotion. Certainly the pressure was on to make a big number, especially so close to Christmas. Yet, Sears had the discipline to give subscribers a real chance to be the hero, make their own choice, and make a difference. And they used creative that celebrated their subscribers as caring citizens, without a strong pitch for donations.

That takes courage. And trust. And I'm sure it also delivered some revenue, too.  

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Stephanie Miller is vice-president of market development for Return Path, Inc. ( Reach her via Twitter (@StephanieSAM) or

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  • by Astralis Tue Feb 24, 2009 via web

    Being a subscriber to retail emails such as Sears, I realized I never received this. I then went back into the spam folder and found it. I'm quite certain that with the embedded video that it was tagged for a safety risk because the other Sears newsletters were in the inbox. This is why I will not run embedded video yet.

  • by Mitch Tarr Tue Feb 24, 2009 via web

    I think the interesting point of this would be the behind the scenes testing.
    50% of list gets courageous new video email (cool) and measure against goals and 50% of list gets old fashioned html (properly rendered I hope) email and measure against goals. And the winner is . . . ?
    Otherwise this is another example of the incredible wastage in marketing money spent by big (and suddenly not so profitable) companies.

  • by Erin Mon Mar 2, 2009 via web

    It’s fantastic that a campaign launched in mid-December is still generating so much buzz. I actually had the privilege of hearing Andrew Kordek, Manager of Email Marketing Transformation from Sears talk about the ‘Heroes at Home’ program at the eTail conference this week, and the audience was sitting at full attention. I think what makes this campaign so noteworthy is not the technology; it’s the relevancy and timeliness of the message it portrays. Sears really knows their customers, and I think this campaign did a great job of engaging them during the hectic and economically-challenged holiday season.

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