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Email for Retail: Three Opportunities Despite the Retail 'Apocalypse'

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As we near the end of 2017, retail is facing significant profitability issues, to the point that the situation's been called an "apocalypse." Marketers are facing pressure like never before to capture and retain customer attention.

By and large, their answer has been to increase the level of sophistication in their approach, with heavy doses of cross-channel engagement and high reliance on analytic services. Personalization, driven by fancy technologies like augmented reality/virtual reality (AR/VR), natural-language processing, and machine-learning, are also stepping in to help marketers cope.

Despite those flashy novel approaches, however, it's important not to take your eye off the proven tactics that are still driving results.

Email marketing, for one, remains a core channel for reaching customers. It is unique in that it is the one method that consistently generates the highest return on investment and customer acquisition. A 2015 report found that email has an average return-on-investment of $38 for each $1 spent.

Moreover, several important tactical components of direct email contact lend themselves perfectly to conversion. Best of all, email is a channel where best-practices about what customers will accept are well-positioned to evolve.


Let's look at three of the most promising opportunities to build brand, convert, and make sales with email.

1. 'Reveal' Marketing

Reveal marketing is a way for brands to harness the curiosity of consumers by placing an offer or incentive behind a barrier, requiring consumers to take some action to see the offer.

For example, an email might prompt the recipient to "click to spin" a virtual wheel to reveal the size of their prize. The prize might simply be 20% off their next purchase, but the experience compels the user to not only click the email but also check out the marketer's site, more so than if the marketer had simply sent an email that said "Here's a code for 20% off your next order." It is the context of the email that drives a brighter outcome.

This strategy creates deeper brand loyalty because of a couple of known tendencies of human psychology. The first is called the "valence effect": People tend to overestimate the likelihood of good things happening. When you present someone with a chance to win, they assign greater value to it both before taking action and after. That 20% discount seems like more than it is.

Second is a phenomenon called the Ikea effect: People place a disproportionately high value on an object they partially assembled themselves, regardless of its actual quality. Again, because customers had to work to obtain the offer, they see it as holding greater value.

In short, the reveal effect lets you drive deeper connections and perceived value on the part of consumers.

2. User-Generated Content

The tactic of infusing user-generated content with email marketing allows for more opportunities for the customer to engage with the brand and its messaging.

Consider The North Face's series of virtual competitions soliciting video from people who "live" the brand's outdoor lifestyle. The success of this campaign could be heightened when integrated with a series of emails. Email could become a means of keeping all opt-in customers updated about the state of the competition while showcasing the actions of people who, presumably, those customers want to emulate. By sharing such user-generated content via email, The North Face could reach masses of people with content that could inspire that audience to engage more with the brand.

The company would effectively amplify a desirable subculture that its audience cares about, all within the context of the brand, in turn creating a level of authenticity and personalization that ultimately drives higher engagement and leads to more sales.

The concept of user-generated content as brand amplification device is not new. Yet, it's mostly been discussed as a social media tactic that aims for users to organically spread brand images across a network of trusted friends. Think about the implications, however, of populating email with that same user-generated content. Here, you'd not merely be prompting customers to connect emotionally with the brand, but you'd be doing so with third-party content that is generally considered more trustworthy than content generated by the brand itself.

Also, you'd directly drive yet another psychological phenomenon: the bandwagon effect. When people see that others like them have already adopted a belief, idea, or brand choice, their rate of uptake tends to increase as well.

Interestingly, it was only earlier this year that the user generated content platform provider Stackla launched an email plugin designed to bring the power of user-generated content into email templates for marketers. By that measure, it appears 2017 really has shaped up to be the year where email re-creates the strength of word-of-mouth referrals in a mass market context.

3. Beacons and Trigger Events

With this approach, real-time data takes the concept of dynamic email to a whole new level: Marketers gain the ability to push messages from merely personalized to tailored to an individual at a precise moment in time.

For example, instead of delivering offers based solely on a customer's purchase history or stated preferences, marketers can generate offers based on the street a customer's on, or the venue he or she is in at that very moment.

Beacon technology is used to deliver on-the-spot promotions to subscribers based on their physical location. Fully 70% of 1,700 retail executives polled said they plan to use beacons for location-based marketing by 2021, according to a study released in March of this year by Zebra Technologies.

This tactic presents ample opportunity for innovation and customer acquisition, as beacon-driven communication has the potential to move well beyond detecting buyers in traditional brick-and-mortar retail stores. Music venues, sports stadiums, public transit terminals, movie theaters and convention centers all hold significant possibilities of delivering a higher volume of timely messages to a captive audience.

Triggered emails can can also improve engagement with customers. The sending of these emails is triggered by specific circumstances, such as customers' afternoon lunch order, or the website they browsed five minutes ago, or their local weather. Triggered email is particularly enticing: Three out of four consumers are more likely to buy from a retailer that recognizes them by name, recalls their purchase history, or recommends appropriate products, Accenture's most recent Personalization Pulse Check found. Triggered email satisfies all three of those conditions.

Right on cue, triggered messages have been shown to generate almost five times the clickthrough rate, almost double the open rate, and almost triple the click-to-open rate of business-as-usual email campaigns.

With each missed trigger point, marketers leave proven potential for new engagement and conversions on the table.

Only Now Hitting Its Stride

Brands still have ample opportunity to improve their overall marketing metrics (and ultimately drive more conversions) in 2017 with more meaningful email.

By balancing the right offers with lifestyle messages and authentic content, the email channel is primed to let marketers truly live out the mantra "always be experimenting." In a time when success depends on staying fresh with customer connection and maximizing customer penchant to purchase, email is far from dead.

In fact, it may just be coming into its own as marketers learn to adapt to the new consumer environment.


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Paul Mandeville is chief product officer of QuickPivot, a cloud-based real-time cross-channel marketing platform powering lifecycle marketing programs.

LinkedIn: Paul Mandeville

Twitter: @paulmandeville

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