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Suiting Up for Customer Loyalty: Email That Fits

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Loyalty must be earned over time. So perhaps it's not surprising that Men's Wearhouse (www.menswearhouse.com) took a multiyear approach to testing how to move from a pure promotional email stream to a loyalty-building newsletter program.

That discipline and stick-to-itiveness is admirable on its face, but even more so because so few retailers do it.

Men's Wearhouse sells suits. To men. Yes, it also sells casual clothing, and shirts and ties, and some of its customers are female, but the core business is great-fitting, affordable men's suits. Its sweet spot is the "makeover," as a customer overhauls his entire wardrobe.

The buying pattern is an intense onetime buy, with a few infrequent follow-ups, rather than the typical retail stream of smaller purchases made frequently over time.

Yet, in 2007, the company was sending 12-24 promotions via email to every subscriber. The vast majority of those promotions fell on deaf ears, because many subscribers weren't interested in receiving that many promotions. Subscriber fatigue was real. While many retailers selling to women can find a core group of shopaholics who love to receive five or more messages a week, Men's Wearhouse doesn't enjoy that opportunity.


The marketing team knew it had to deliver more value over email to engage customers and keep the channel open, yet there was also fear that any change to the program would depress sales and Web-site traffic.

Knowing that content is a powerful driver of loyalty and engagement (and sales), the team considered a monthly newsletter. Brand loyalty and Web-site visits have a direct correlation to purchases, so any content that would resonate with subscribers, encourage Web visits, or just help keep Men's Wearhouse top of mind would be a good use of the channel.

Sounds good, right? But even though a newsletter strategy is clearly founded on strong marketing principles, how do you really know if it's going to work?

For Men's Wearhouse, the answer was a testing program rolled out over time. Initially, the team experimented by adding a little bit of content wrapped around promotions. This preserved sales, kept internal skepticism and fear at bay, and even slightly lifted subscriber response rates.

By the end of 2007, the promotional messages evolved from the typical "one feature box" design to a multi-unit format that allowed Men's Wearhouse to promote several items and build a conversation around them. The messages were still very promotional, but they included small bites of content, such as "How to pick a great shirt," including the recommendation to shop the current sale selection.

Because the interim program was successful in maintaining activity and response, the marketing team moved deeper into the content realm. In mid-2008 it launched Men's Wire, which includes up to 25 content blocks and is delivered just once a month

Occasionally, Men's Wearhouse sends standalone promotions, but most subscribers receive fewer than two messages per month. This is very low frequency for a retailer but seems to be appropriate for this company's audience. The low-frequency/high-value combination protects the company's in-box deliverability and response rates; as a result, complaint rates are low and its sender reputation is high.

The top of the newsletter and the subject line still focus on the sales message. But the typical newsletter also includes polls, YouTube videos, short articles, and style tips. Some of the most popular content consists of the nonpromotional items, further down in the newsletter. (Click on the March Newsletter image, at left.)

Although the newsletter is long, its production is very efficient. The various sections are input into the CMS by the marketing team, so the HTML production team can create the complete Men's Wire in about half an hour.

This is a great newsletter! I admire Men's Wearhouse for testing so thoroughly, limiting frequency, and putting subscriber interest and behavior ahead of short-term greed. It's interesting that despite the strategy to "engage via content" the sales message still leads the call to action, header, and subject line. As the content engages, perhaps we'll see more mixing up of the format.

For every email marketer who has ever heard an executive say, "Email generates revenue, just send more email," this one is for you.

Most email marketers care about their subscribers and want to provide a good experience. But sometimes, the demands of quarterly results make it hard to advocate for long-term subscriber value. Men's Wearhouse offers a great solution to this dilemma: Test it, nice and slow!


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

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