Starting an ecommerce business in today’s economy is a brave venture indeed. It’s never been easier to start an online business. Contradictory? Let me explain.The low barriers to entry to setting up an ecommerce business mean everybody and their pet cat are into selling things online. At last count, ecommerce websites make up about 10-12% of all websites in the Internet. According to Internet Retailer, this figure comes to about 12 to 24 million ecommerce sites worldwide. However, we also know that over one third of the total revenues from ecommerce come from just 1% of all ecommerce sites put together.
Tough turf, huh?
So what does a budding new ecommerce business do to get noticed and stand out in such a crowded playing field? How does one truly connect with one’s audience?
With the tool that is most personal and direct of them all – email. Ecommerce firms have learnt from long years of experience that people who truly care about shopping actually look forward to emails from their favorite retailers. The anticipation of their next big bargain or that irresistible new piece of technology that they can show before anyone else makes the cluttering of one’s inbox with ecommerce emails totally worth it.
This is not just me saying it. Asked about their preferred mode of communication from businesses about promotions and deals, most consumers opted for email. That’s more support than what the next 5 communication channels put together got!
It gets better. According to data from Marketing Sherpa, 91% of U.S. consumers like receiving emails from companies they already know. This means, that once you establish initial contact with a consumer, email marketing is probably your strongest bet to nurture them into a paying customer who buys from you over and over again.
Laying the Groundwork for a Strong Email Marketing Program
Email marketing is far less complex than SEO or social media marketing. But that does not make it a cake walk for newbies. Even seasoned marketers who take email marketing for granted end up with middling results for their email marketing programs. They then blame email marketing for not being a profitable marketing tool.
Avoid those rookie errors and build your email marketing program from the ground up through four fundamental steps…
1. Build a Robust Email Database
The foundation of a good email marketing program is a clean, robust, and regularly refreshed email database. Without the right audience, the best email marketing messages will fall on blind eyes.
Do not – let me repeat – do NOT venture into buying email lists off the internet. Not only are they recycled amongst hundreds of businesses like yours, more often than not the people on these lists have nothing to do with your industry or niche. Morever, nobody likes receiving unsolicited email from unknown brands. Buying an email database is the worst thing you can do to kick start your email marketing program.
Here are some thoughts on what you can do:
- Set up a welcome lightbox on your site asking website visitors to sign up for your mailing list. You’ll be surprised how effective this is when combined with a tempting offer on future purchases to users who sign up.
- Reach out to your social media fans and followers and ask them to sign up for newsletters. Promise them bigger doses of the good stuff that they receive on social media via your marketing emails.
- Send out opt-in emails to every customer who transacts on your ecommerce site, offering them the choice to sign up for regular emails from your company. Unsolicited emails contravene the CAN-SPAM Act and can land your business in legal hot water. Completely avoidable.
- Use your Thank You (order confirmation) page for garnering more email subscribers. Offer customers a discount for a future purchase at the end of their current one in exchange for signing up for your email newletters. Not only will you grow your database, you also ensure repeat purchases.
- If your ecommerce business has an offline presence too, make sure you train your staff to ask for email IDs from customers at the cash register. Most customers don’t refuse a polite verbal request by a helpful store associate.
- Your transactional emails like order confirmation or shipping status updates can ask customers to sign up for your email newsletters. The open rate for transactional emails is the highest among business emails of all types. Tapping into this resource is a great way of growing your email audience.
- Add an email subscription widget to your blog. When people read great content on your blog, they’ll be more likely to sign up to your newsletter to get more such stimulating content.
- Don’t forget list maintenance. Every week, clean out email addresses of users who unsubscribed from your mailing list. Also clean up hard-bounced addresses to avoid being marked as a spammy sender by the respective ESP. Simultaneously work on adding new users to your email list with the tips suggested above on a regular basis.
2. Get Messaging Spot On
Once you have a valid subscriber base, you need to figure out what to communicate with them to keep them interested and coming back for more. The content of your emails cannot just be rehashed versions of the content you post on your blog or on your social media sites. People can already access that content without bothering to sign up for your email program. Create unique content for your email audience that will make subscribing to your email program worth their while.
- Spend time on crafting the perfect subject line. Your subject line is your foot in the door that leads to an email open, further clicks and conversion on your email. So make sure your subject line grabs attention without sounding spammy and suspicious. Stick to under 50 characters for your subject line to ensure the entire subject line is visible on mobile devices too. This is critical, as the majority of marketing emails in the US today are accessed first via mobile devices.
- Make sure that the content of your email matches the subject line that you used. Saying “Congrats, here’s your $100 gift card!” in the subject line and then not mentioning anything about the gift in the rest of the email is a clear deception and can have your domain blacklisted by ESPs. Not to mention, users will feel cheated and will not bother interacting with your emails in the future.
- Personalizing subject lines goes a long way in improving open rates. Recent study found that personalized subject lines result in 29% higher open rates and 41% higher click rates than non-personalized ones. Use the subscriber’s first name only, instead of using their full names in the subject lines to suggest a friendly and warm relationship.
- Avoid spam-trigger words like “Free,” “Sale,” “Winner,” and the like in your subject line. Emails carrying such subject lines are actively filtered out by ESPs like Gmail and Yahoo. Similarly, avoid subject lines that shout at users in ALL CAPS or use emojis and special characters like stars and gift boxes. They come across as childish and make your business seem like a greenhorn.
- Personalized content in your emails makes them more relevant to your users and helps in increasing the chances of a click through and conversion. This can be done in two primary ways. First, by segmenting your users into distinct user groups based on their past behaviour on your site, you can tailor content for each segment. Alternatively, you can create personalized content for every individual subscriber using automated tools that match their browsing and buying patterns to email content.
- Use a mix of images and text for your ecommerce emails. I’m not saying that marketing emails cannot be text-only. With the right kind of copy, sure they can. However, ecommerce businesses sell real, tangible items. You’ll be doing your business an injustice if you don’t intersperse your email communications with ample images of the products you sell supported with copy that helps users make their purchase decision.
- Make sure your call to action is clear and unmissable. While you’re at it, also keep in mind that each newsletter ought to have one central theme and call to action. An email that tries to sell baby products, printer ink and leather goods all at one go is assured of falling flat on its face.
- Incorporate social sharing buttons at relevant positions across your email. Featured items, deep discounted items or superbly crafted content like a video tutorial all deserve to have social sharing buttons next to them to maximize the impact of your email marketing.
- Omni-channel marketing is the way of the future (now, present). Integrate your email marketing closely with your PR, social, PPC, print and other campaigns. The inherent tendency of the product, marketing and customer care teams to work in silos is a major cause of goofups. Get different departments, at least within the marketing function, to work together on the content, design and promotional parts of your email strategy using a collaboration tool like Wrike, which helps users communicate ideas and status updates instantly within the context of a campaign.
- Don’t get complacent with just one type of messaging. Create multiple messaging versions for the same email and A/B test them against each other to arrive at the most appropriate version that can be sent out to the entire base.
3. Design to Please and Convert
Window dressing is a big part of marketing. Shiny, colorful fruit that looks good sells more than the misshapen, discoloured fruit sitting in the corner. Email marketing is no different. Use your design chops to create arresting email newsletters that users will want to devour.
- Stay consistent with your branding. On your emails, use the same logos, taglines and other elements of brand identity that you use on your website. This lends legitimacy to your marketing emails, it triggers a sense of familiarity in users’ minds and helps in carrying forward corporate branding for your business. Use a professional branding service or online marketplace like 99designs if you have to.
- Make images the focal point of your emails. Don’t skimp on the images you use by falling back on stock photography. Invest in subscriptions to exclusive image libraries that offer candid and realistic looking images, taking your design aesthetics a step above the rest. But don’t go overboard as not all inboxes will open images.
- Use ample white space in your emails to ensure that your main content has enough room to breathe and stand out to your audience.
- Don’t fret if you do not have an in-house designer to make custom emails for your each time. GetResponse offers free drag and drop email creation tools that help you create professional looking emails without writing a line of code or touching Adobe PhotoShop.
- Make sure your email design is mobile first. Responsive design for your emails ensures that your emails render perfectly across all devices. Mobile optimized emails ought to have larger buttons and larger fonts to make up for the limited real estate on mobile device screens. Extra white space around important CTA buttons ensures that users don’t end up clicking through to the wrong section on your site.
- Align the design and layout of your email to the design of your landing pages. A completely different looking landing page with messaging that is unrelated to your email completely destroys the purpose of your email campaign and makes for a bad user experience.
- As with your messaging, create multiple versions of your email design and test them against each other. Opt to send out the best performing version to maximize conversions from each email campaign.
4. Go Beyond the Newsletter
It’s all very fine to send your users emails with the latest slew of products your ecommerce site has to offer. It definitely improves awareness of your products; however, it also creates a certain content fatigue in users’ minds. Besides, sending out only product newsletters means you end up ignoring all the wonderful benefits that your email marketing program can offer to your ecommerce business. Let’s take a look at a few different types of marketing emails that are definitely worth implementing.
- A welcome email is a virtual handshake. It welcomes new customers into the fold and is the first step towards establishing a lasting relationship with your customers. Women’s badass fashion retailer Nasty Gal carries the attitude to its emails.
- Product review requests can be effectively delivered via your email marketing program. It is an established fact that online shoppers base their purchase decisions on independent reviews by other buyers. Reach out to buyers within a week of the product delivery and ask them what they think about the product they bought. The product review email below sent out by Canadian brand Province Apothecary stands out for its simplicity and warm copy.
- Holiday sale promotional emails create a sense of urgency like “discounts available on Valentine’s day – only for 24 hours” or “Boxing Day Sale – 1 Day Only!” Major holidays like Thanksgiving or Christmas and shopping events like Black Friday and Cyber Monday are perfect occasions to build up a dedicated email campaign with products that are tailored for the holiday. Upscale grocery store Dean & DeLuca jumps on to the Cyber Monday bandwagon, even though it operates in an industry that’s far from “cyber.”
- Abandoned cart emails are a great way to remind customers about the items they left unpurchased in their shopping carts and nudge them towards completing the purchase. According to the Baymard Institute, a whopping 68.5% of online shopping carts are abandoned. Abandoned cart emails sent within a few hours of the incomplete purchase help in sealing the deal more often than not. Users who do not respond to one abandoned cart email can be reminded about the pending purchase with follow up emails. Including a small coupon or discount in your follow up emails helps closing the deal a lot quicker than otherwise. Camera accessory maker Peak Design does this to perfection.
- Re-engagement emails are useful whether you own an ecommerce business or a professional services practice. Reactivating inactive users is a good way to extend the customers’ lifetime value to your company and get them shopping with you again. Send your dormant customers an email reminding them of what they’re missing by not shopping with you. Toss in a personalized coupon that can be used only by the customer in question to tempt them into whipping out their wallets right away. Gift shop Not On The High Street re-engages with its customers by doing exactly that.
- Relationship-building emails refer to those that have nothing to do with selling to your customers, but are meant to strengthen your bond with them instead. Businesses who remember the birthdays and anniversaries of their customers, and reach out to them on their special days with exclusive offers just for them, are basically telling them how much each customer matters to them. Omaha Steaks makes its customers’ day by sending them a delicious free chocolate cake as a birthday delight.
- Replenishement and reorder emails are the perfect way to remind users to restock on items that they will need periodically. Not only do users appreciate the reminder as a friendly customer service gesture, these emails result in incremental sales that are there for the taking. Feel Good Contact Lenses uses simple copy with strong imagery to remind its customers that it is time to reorder a new set of disposable contact lenses.
- Market research emails can be sent out to audiences that have experienced your products and services for a while. Simple surveys where users rate their experience with your business are an effective way to keep raising the bar and improving your service quality on a continual basis. It also helps discover problem areas as well as hidden business opportunities with minimal effort from your end. Women’s designer fashion retailer Kate Spade does this extremely well.
- Apology emails bring up the “last but not the least” sort of emails ecommerce businesses need to be sending. Who doesn’t have a customer who isn’t unhappy about some product or service? Use email wisely to placate your angry or disappointed customers, acknowledge the inconvenience and discomfort they are going through, reassure them that they’re being heard, and deliver on your promise to set things right. Netflix is proactive in such matters and doesn’t hesitate to offer customers free top-ups to keep them happy.
Want more ideas on automated emails? Then check out this article – 20+ Automated Emails you Should be Sending Today.
Although ecommerce accounts for about 5 to 10% of overall retail (depending on which country you’re in), the actual size of the market at $1.7 trillion is gigantic. Even a tiny bite of such a tantalizing pie can make all the effort worth your while.
To make your mark in a hyper competitive and attention-starved market, embrace the most intimate of communication modes – email marketing. As we just discovered, it’s easy to set up, inexpensive, highly customizable and most importantly, extremely effective. Need I say more?
How do you keep your email lists updated? What sort of brand messaging works for you? Have you found any success with design tweaks in your emails? Which of the marketing emails discussed above do you send out? Please share your successes and challenges in the comments!
About the Author: Rohan Ayyar is a creative content strategist, digital analyst, and CRO specialist at E2M, digital marketing firm par excellence. He doubles up as the resident UX authority at Moveo Apps, a premium app dev agency. Rohan is also an avid writer, with articles featured on The Next Web, Fast Company, and Adweek. Find Rohan on Twitter @searchrook
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