Welcome to the Off-Season… Now Get to Work

Posted by Tom Sather on

For many retailers the fourth quarter is the season of return on investment. To capitalize on it, email marketers often use the early fall to begin their ramp-up and enter the holiday season with gaining consumer mindshare and optimal inbox placement. But is this soon enough? Research shows that subscribers tend to be less engaged with retail brands during the summer, when holiday gifts and end-of-year sales are far from their minds.

That trend could make Q2 and Q3 the perfect time to experiment with your email program and gain confidence in a data-backed strategy to reach consumers during the critical last months of the year. Consider the following tips:

Segment Your Audience
Before you can start your warm-weather experiments, you need to understand your test audience. Segment your subscribers by engagement levels, at least high engagement, low engagement and inactive. To be clear, these levels refer to engagement as mailbox providers see it, not the limited open/click measures that track campaign performance. That means read rates, complaint or TIS (This is Spam) rates, TINS (This is Not Spam) rates, and ignores or deleted unread rates, among others. These metrics can provide an in-depth measure of your subscribers’ engagement with your content and overall program, from a mailbox provider’s viewpoint.

Collect and Analyze Feedback
Once you’ve classified your subscribers by their engagement levels, begin testing. Make sure to consider their relative engagement in your analysis. For example, take advantage of your highly engaged audience’s comparably robust feedback. Beyond whether they read your messages, examine what they forward and dig out of their spam folders. Highly engaged subscribers do this, and can deliver quick, significant results for design and copy tests.

Less engaged users, of course, are more reserved with their feedback. Their infrequent interaction with their email (yours and others) makes it harder to collect enough data to confidently compare creative treatments and more subtle tests sent to them. They can provide invaluable guidance on cadence, though — consider less-engaged subscribers to be your best frequency critics. They can also give you a clear indication when an offer or unusual campaign overcomes their inertia, either to spark response or complaints. If a test concept gets this segment to vote with their feet, it’s probably a breakthrough winner … or loser.

This shouldn’t deter you from testing more subtle campaign variants with less-engaged subscribers, or from taking direction on cadence or frequency from highly engaged subscribers. By all means test as widely as possible, but keep in mind that their established patterns of behavior can shape the way you analyze the results.

Scrub Your List
And now for your inactive subscribers: Spring cleaning is in order, although efforts that start now probably won’t affect your program until summer. The most important thing to remember about email list hygiene is that its goal is not to pare down your list, it’s to maximize your ability to drive revenue from your email program. That means getting your messages delivered to the inboxes of as many potential customers as possible. Simply cutting off unresponsive subscribers won’t do this.

Instead, create a win-back strategy to re-engage your inactives, and take more than one crack at delivering a message that resonates with them. Some email marketers are too quick to remove inactives from their lists if they don’t get an immediate response from their initial message. We conducted researchOpens in a new window last year that found it took, on average, 57 days before inactives re-engaged after receiving a win-back message.

By starting your win-back process now you can provide yourself with enough time to verify whether inactives are a lost cause or just slow to respond. As for cutting your list, yes, before your most critical marketing season do remove subscribers that haven’t interacted with your messages for a very long time and haven’t been moved by a win-back effort. Their presence on your list sends a clear signal to mailbox providers that at least some portion of your messages are going to people who don’t care about them, and this will absolutely influence your overall inbox placement.

If this time of year marks your off-season, then segmenting, testing and sharpening your email program now will give you plenty of time to try new approaches, take risks and learn what will resonate with subscribers during your busy time. If you’re in your peak season, follow the same steps to use whatever down-cycle time you have to optimize your email marketing program and revenue for 2016.

This article originally appeared on Retail Online Integration


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About Tom Sather

Email data and deliverability expert Tom Sather has worked with top-tier brands to diagnose and solve inbox placement and sender reputation issues as a strategic consultant with Return Path. As the company’s senior director of research, Tom is a frequent speaker and writer on email marketing trends and technology. His most recent analysis of new inbox applications’ effects on consumer behavior was widely cited across leading business media outlets including the Financial Times, Ad Age, and Media Post.

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