CAN-SPAM, Deliverability, Design, Dynamic Content, Email marketing, Live Mail, Personalization, spam, Subject Lines

The Year in Email: A Look Back At 2016

By all accounts, 2016 was an extraordinarily eventful year. It saw the deaths of Fidel Castro, Muhammad Ali, David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Carrie Fisher, George Michael, Leon Russell, Debbie Reynolds, Gene Wilder, and a whole host of others. Politically, it was the year of Brexit and a presidential election that caused the New York Times to take a hard look at their polling methodology. In sports, it was the year that the Chicago Cubs, after 108 years of losing, finally won a world series in a final game that played out like a movie script.

It was an eventful year in email too, but not necessarily in a good way. Some might argue that email—or, at least, email that wasn’t meant to be seen by the general public—helped lose the election for Hillary Clinton. August saw an organized subscription bomb attack of suspicious origin that temporarily landed several respectable news organizations on spam lists and caused Spamhaus to update their opt-in verification recommendations. In one respect, 2016 was a better than previous years. We saw fewer of the kind of clumsy design errors that we’ve seen in the past. Most of the really terrible errors came from sources that were questionable to begin with.

The Importance of Testing Across Platforms

It should go without saying that whenever you send out a message you should test it. If you are using Goolara Symphonie, or another ESP that has a preview feature built in, I’d start there. If you want to be extra careful, you can also send test mailings to several different addresses, or use the email previews available from Litmus and Email on Acid. Sometimes, a message looks fine in one email reader, but not so good in another. Here are some examples.

Aw Gee-Mail

misaligned iamges

If you’re going to have a problem displaying your email design in one provider, the provider should never be Gmail. After all, it is the most popular email reader out there, and it doesn’t cost anything to get an address, so what’s the problem? The folks at Orchard apparently didn’t learn this lesson, though. This particular email looked fine everywhere else, including the always problematic Live Mail, but completely fell apart in Gmail.

Dynamic Content Mishap

Bad dymamic content

One time when you absolutely must test before sending is when you are using mail merge or dynamic content.1 The example above is an actual email, sent to us with the subject line: “Your email.” A blank space between “Hello” and the comma would have been better than this. Well constructed dynamic content instructions would have prevented this from happening.

Hide and Seek

images covering type

A picture’s worth a thousand words, but this is email is pushing it. At first glance, it looks like Wired expects these images to do all the work, but look closely at the right edge of the top photo, just below the horizon. There’s a series of small dots there. A closer investigation reveals that those dots are the text hidden under each photo. This particular problem occurs in Microsoft’s recently abandoned Live Mail, and if Live Mail was the only email reader that had trouble with this mailing, I probably wouldn’t bother mentioning it. But Thunderbird also has trouble with the file, pushing the text and social links out to the right of the main table. Live Mail, at least, brings the text and social links back into the area where they belong, but then plops the photo down on top of everything. This wouldn’t matter if Wired bothered to provide meaningful alt tags, but the alt tags read: “Image for story 1,” “Image for story 2,” etc. Not exactly helpful.

A close inspection of the source code reveals the problem. Whoever put this email together did go to the trouble of using tables, but then they inserted divs into the mix. The code is also littered with ids and class tags that have no corresponding style instructions. It’s worth noting that all of the other mailings from the magazine look fine, and the ones for subscription offers include highly descriptive alt tags.

Honestly Missing Logo

Missing logo

That “Honest Mail Email Marketing” logo, looks suspiciously like nothing at all. A quick check of the HTML code reveals the problem:

<img src=”” alt=”Honest Mail Email Marketing Logo” width=”160″ height=”50″ border=”0″ style=”width:160px; height:50px;” />

They remembered to include the height, width, and border information. They even added alt text There’s only one thing missing: the actual source location for the image. Honestly, one test preview would have revealed this problem. There’s no excuse for it.

Code Fails

Some problems are simply the result of bad HTML. Sometimes it’s an out-and-out typo, but sometimes the problem is something subtle like including the DOCTYPE and HTML tags when you paste the email into the ESP app. Test previews and test send should catch most of these problems.

It’s Important, Procrustes

Bad image sizing

This email from Keurig suffers from a few problems. The image of the people chatting over coffee and the “Shop Today” button are obviously stretched. The designer put the correct size information in the properties for each of these images, but they forgot to add !important, so the sizing information was overridden in favor of the master table, stretching the images to match the master table’s 100% width requirement.

Knowing When to Link

button design

Having linking buttons is always a good idea, but knowing where to put the link is important. In this example from Camper, only the words “Women,” “Men,” and “Kids” are links. Since this text is placed in its own table, and that table has a bordered cell, it would make more sense to add the link to either the table or the cell. As it stands now, clicking anywhere inside the black border does nothing unless you click directly on the words. It’s a minor thing, but one worth remembering. Judging from the number of div tags in this email, I suspect that the author of this email is new to the form.

Button, Button, Who’s Got the Button?

fake button

Providing buttons that link to web content is never a bad idea. What is a bad idea is providing a button that is not a button at all. This email from Template Monster makes that mistake. Clicking on “Learn Now” simply brings up the image. To make matters worse, they’ve given it a blue border, further enforcing the perception that this is a link and not just an image.

Oops, I Did It Again!

Not to rag on Template Monster, but they don’t seem to have anyone checking the email before they send it. Here is the top of one of their emails:

Missing code

And here is the code for the logo at the top:

<a href=”#” style=”border:none;” target=”_blank”><img alt=”TemplateMonster” border=”0″ height=”40″…

Look at the href at the beginning of the line of code. This should link to their website, but it doesn’t. The pound sign (#) is a placer that indicates that although there is a link, it’s not going anywhere. Hover over it and it appears active, but clicking on it accomplishes nothing.

A little further down the page in the same email we get this:

Typo

The text in the orange button reads “Download You Gift.” I confess, I am always typing “you” instead of “your” so I can relate to this one, but a second pair of qualified eyes would have caught this immediately.

In the same email, every headline and image has a different link, even when they go to the same place. The headline about 20 free writing tools goes to the same page as the image next to it. I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt on that one, and say that they did this to find out whether the images or the headlines are responsible for the most clickthroughs, but in the long run, isn’t that less important than the fact that they did click through?

That’s Code for …Code!

badly coded spam

I love it when spammers screw up. This was already obviously a spam message without having to even open it, but upon opening you’re presented with the HTML code for the message. When putting together a mailing in your ESPs visual editor, always make sure you are in the right tab (usually marked HTML) before pasting HTML code. Otherwise this might happen to you. Of course, any decent email marketer would have previewed the mailing, but these people tend to work fast. I’m surprise this doesn’t happen more often, actually.

Shopping Links

Sometimes there’s nothing wrong with an email, until you click on one of the links. Then you suddenly find yourself staring at a page that has nothing to do with anything. Retail stores appear to be the worst offenders, which is odd since so much of their business is contingent on people getting to the right page and ordering the product they want.

I Know It’s Here Somewhere

missing products

Fab has, in the past, shown products in their mailings that aren’t on the landing page. In most cases, the products shown are available, but buried on the second or third page of the sale listings. That’s fine. Lots of companies do this, so the public is used to it. But in the email shown above, the “Cosmo Complete Set” and Captain America print don’t even show up in any of the lists. Clicking on them takes you to the a sale page, but neither product is on any of the sales pages. If you want to buy either of these items, you’ll need to enter them as search queries on the web site.

Now Go and Find Me

not on site

Normally, Bed, Bath & Beyond is one of the better companies when it comes to email marketing, they always provided meaningful alt tags, their design is easy to read on both a desktop computer and a mobile phone, and their links, in most cases, go directly to the products shown. Here is one of their rare missteps. Clicking on this product does not take you to the products, or even anywhere near the product. A clue lies in the button labeled “Find a Store”—only it’s not a button. Clicking anywhere in the image will take you to BB&B’s Find a Store page. I suppose they justify this by pointing out that the product isn’t available online, but that’s no reason that this couldn’t be included on a page with more information on the product.

Alt, Right?

I bring it up every year, but every year there are plenty of examples of companies forgetting to add alt information to the img tags. While it’s true that services such as Gmail and the iPhone display images as the default, some people still prefer to keep the images turned off. Alt tags not only impart information on what they are missing, they also can provide incentive to display images as well. Here’s an example from Warby Parker that demonstrates the worst case scenario:

no alt tags

Now here’s a company that knows how to do it right, Bed, Bath & Beyond:

Good alt tags

Quite a difference. Perhaps the guys at Warby Parker assume that people will always want to display their images, a questionable assumption.

Unsubscribe Catastrophes

Unsubscribing should never be a hassle. Nobody is happy when a recipient unsubscribes, but it’s better than having that person mark your mailings as spam because they can’t figure out how else to get you to stop sending them things. Some marketers go to extraordinary lengths to making unsubscribing difficult, treading very close to the legal requirements of CAN-SPAM. A few cross over to the dark side. Here are this year’s worst offenders.

Unsubscribe? fUGGedaboutit!

No unsub link

CAN-SPAM has a few hard and fast rules. One of them is that you have to have an unsubscribe link. You also have to have a physical address. This email has neither. The supposed unsubscribe link takes you to the home page for the company. Not surprisingly, this email is not from an official UGG site at all, but a spammer that is trying to make their site look as legitimate as possible.

Email Purgatory

Missing unsub link

Unlike the previous email, this one is from a legitimate company (T-Mobile). This part of the email—which is commented in the HTML as “legal footer”—contains the physical address, privacy policy information, links to their various plan options, and instructions for how to ensure that email from them does not wind up in the spam folder. What it doesn’t include, however, is an unsubscribe link—an unequivocal violation of CAN-SPAM.

Go Ahead and Try to Unsubscribe! I Dare You!

bad unsub link

When it comes to anti-spam laws, the USA is about the most lax, but they still require two things: A physical address and an unsubscribe link. So when I get an email like this, it makes my blood boil. Here’s what you get when you click the unsubscribe link:

unsub fail

As one might imagine, this one went straight to the spam folder.

Crouching Promo and Hidden Unsub

unsub in image off

A nearly as devious method of hiding the unsubscribe was used by Lids, a company that specializes in sports caps. Here’s the bottom of their email with the images turned off:

You can see there’s a physical address, but where’s the unsubscribe link? Now here’s the same section of the email with the images displayed:

unsub in image on

Ah, there it is! They’ve made unsubscribe part of an image. To make matters worse, they used an image map to separate the various categories shown. I’m not sure what the thinking was here. Attempts to reach them went unanswered. Just to add insult to injury, I never signed up for this email, it was someone entering the wrong address either accidentally or on purpose.

Sure, There’s an Unsub. It’s Just Not Yours.

Another highly questionable approach to handling unsubscribes came from, of all companies, Salesforce:

Salesforce CAN-SPAM violation

I’ve blurred the names to save some embarrassment, but I can verify that the author of this email comes from Salesforce, promoting a webinar Salesforce has co-sponsored. Yes, there’s an unsubscribe link, but only in the forwarded content. Presumably that will only work for the original recipient, not for the person to whom the email was forwarded. This means that Salesforce, the largest SaaS-based, customer relationship management (CRM) provider on the planet, a company with its own email marketing solution, just sent me a promotional email without an unsubscribe link. It is a tactic worthy of a Viagra spammer. It doesn’t help that there’s a typo in the very first sentence. I dearly hope the author of this email is new to Salesforce.

Subject Line Fun

The subject line is the most important part of your mailing. If a subject line doesn’t provoke the recipient to open the email, then all your hard work providing good content and responsive design is for naught. Here area few subject lines that either failed miserably or worked brilliantly, or, in the case of the first example, simply overdid things.

Hello, It’s Me Again

Too many emails

Some email marketing experts are big fans of the practice of sending high quantities of email to your recipient list. It is a topic hotly discussed on email marketing forums, and each side can back up their position with plenty of facts and figures. But even the most ardent fan of high-volume sending would agree that Travelocity is pushing it here, sending an email every hour or so from two in the morning to five. It doesn’t help that all of these were sent at times when no others were sending out email, leading to all four messages being bunched together. Perhaps that was the idea, to create a sort of billboard for Travelocity residing in the inbox.

Did I mention…?

same email

It’s not usual for companies to offer multiple newsletters. Nor is it unusual to send these newsletters out on the same day. What is unusual is the use exactly the same subject line and content on both mailings, right down to the “You are subscribed to PCMag Tech Deals as…” at the bottom of each page. Given that a normal announcement from PCMag reads “You are subscribed to PCMag Announcements as…” and is usually some sort of deal on a PCMag subscription, I’d chalk this one up to either a mistake or laziness.

I’m Either a Realtor or a Marketer

email goof

Even we email marketers make boneheaded mistakes. To their credit, the folks at EEC caught this and quickly followed up with an apology.

A Special Odaer, Ordrre, Ordeorr…Oh Forget It!

typo in subject line

“Order” is a hard word to screw up, but whoever put this email together seems to have had a terrible time with it. They misspelled it in the subject line, and then again in the content.

Okay, I’m not REALLY Out of the Office

Out of Office trick subject line

I think I know what Sephora was trying to do here. This was an attempt to equate being out of the office with their summertime contest. Sending a fake out-of-office autoreply isn’t the worst misuse of a subject line, but it’s pretty sneaky and isn’t likely to endear you to anyone.

You know nothing, Jon Snow.

Game sof Throne subject line

As a fan of Game of Thrones, I enjoyed the use of GoT references in the subject line and “friendly” from, but I’m not sure that a company that specializes in predictive marketing is the right place for this approach. This link leads to a series of videos in which they try to show the marketing lessons available in the HBO series. That is more a testament to the ability of the human brain to find patterns where none exist than any marketing subplots lurking in George R.R. Martin’s on-going saga. This kind of subject is better served on a site such as ThinkGeek, which specializes in products attached to all aspects of geekdom, from TV shows or computer games. For them, even this is acceptable:

Konami Code subject line

A combination of keystrokes known as the Konami Code, a cheat that gives gamers additional powers while playing. If you’re in the real estate business, this probably isn’t a good subject line, but it works quite well for a company whose primary audience resembles the cast from The Big Bang Theory.

Location, Location, Location!

Deliverability fail

Sometimes, a subject line, by itself isn’t anything special, but where you find it makes all the differences. I found this one in my spam folder. I could say “Physician heal thyself,” but this just demonstrates what a complicated subject deliverability is.

That’s it for this year! We can’t wait to see what 2017 will bring. We predict more email address providers will follow Gmail’s lead in allowing CSS in email. On one hand, this means we can get more creative in our email designs, but on the other hand, it means more places for things to go wrong. If there is a moral to this blog post, it should be obvious by now: test, test, test. For more on the subject of how to deal with email mistakes, check out our white paper on the subject: Oops! – Handling and resolving email marketing mistakes.


1. If you’re not using dynamic content, you’re missing a real opportunity to improve your email engagement results. Jordie van Rijn explains how and why in his article, Making the most out of Dynamic Email Marketing. For more on Goolara Symphonie’s powerful dynamic content visits, visit our dynamic content page.

Automation, Content Blocks, Dynamic Content, Segmentation, Workflows

Automated Email Workflows, Part Four: Shopping Cart Abandonment

empty shopping cart parked in a car parking spot
In the retail marketing field, one popular use of email marketing automation is to create shopping cart abandonment programs, and it’s no wonder: Shopping cart abandonment rates are higher than ever, with various sectors reporting an average rate of 75% abandonment. Some sources estimate the amount in lost sales in the billions, although these figures are extrapolated from a scenario where all of these shopping cart sales are completed. In truth, a lot of shopping cart abandonments never amount to anything; they are comprised of people who are just looking, or realize they can’t afford the purchase. But even if only 5% of these abandoned carts are ever fulfilled, 5% of a billion is still 50 million, and that’s nothing to sneeze at. In this, the fourth installment in our Email Automation series, we’ll look at the things you’ll need to consider when setting up an abandonment program.

Shopping Cart Solutions

Before we get too deep into the details of creating a shopping cart abandonment workflow, let’s look at how shopping carts are created and how they work. For most businesses, the shopping carts exist separately from their main websites. They are purchased from third-party vendors rather than made from scratch. For anyone looking to buy a shopping cart solution, there are almost as many of these as there are email marketing solutions, and, as with email marketing solutions, shopping cart programs range in price from free to hundreds of dollars. Not surprisingly, the ones listed as free, are usually anything but, and require additional (expensive) modules to handle things such as shopping cart abandonments. Even some of the more expensive solutions sometimes require additional fees for inclusion of an abandonment extension or module. Some shopping cart software doesn’t include any type of abandonment solution, expecting you to implement it through your ESP either via webhooks or an API.

The Right Tool for the Job

A few shopping cart systems do offer email abandonment programs, but there are some important downsides to this approach. The biggest downside is that it separates the shopping cart actions from the data in your ESP where things such as clickthroughs and opens will have more use for determining shopping behavior. Some ESPs let you import that data in the form of external data tables, and this can help, especially if you plan to combine your shopping cart solution with another program, such as a recommendation engine (a little more on this later).

It is also important to remember that shopping cart software is not designed with email in mind. Its primary function is to process purchases, so features such as personalization, content blocks, and segmentation are either non-existent, or available only in their simplest forms. You might be able to merge a person’s first name and cart details into a mailing, but you won’t have the options of changing subject lines and individual content blocks based on the recipient’s shopping behavior. This can turn into a major downside if you want to tweak the individual abandonment reminders for each customer based on factors such as past purchases or other actions.

Lastly, email marketing software has a distinct edge in deliverability. Deliverability is the bread and butter for any ESP, so most do everything in their power to ensure that the email deliver rates for their clients run into as few problems as possible. For a shopping cart provider, the ramifications of email deliverability are less of a concern, and you may find yourself having to hire a deliverability expert to keep things on track.

Communication Techniques

There are really only two basic pieces of information that the ESP needs to run an abandoned cart campaign. The first is a notification that someone has started a checkout procedure with a shopping cart, but has left the purchase unfinished for a specified amount of time. The second is the indicator that the cart is now empty. This information can come in a number of forms, such as webhooks and API calls, but they all do essentially the same thing. Sometimes these functions are wrapped up in a neat little package and presented as an extension or an app, but these handle the same call-out information as the processes described above, just wrapped in a slightly more user-friendly format.

As far as Goolara Symphonie is concerned (and, presumably, other ESPs that offer automation), the format matters very little. Once Symphonie checks on whether a cart has remained unfulfilled, and learns when it has been emptied, it should be possible to go ahead with a shopping cart abandonment email campaign. The basic structure looks something like this:

  • Did the customer put an item or items in the cart and then leave?
  • If so, send them a reminder.

Some cart abandonments stop at this point, while others continue with three or more reminders. Some will increase the incentive by offering an additional discount, depending on the nature of their business.

Don’t Miss the Bus

You should act quickly on cart abandonments. The longer you wait, the less likely it is that a customer will return to the shopping cart. If you are planning an abandonment program, you’ll need to work more closely with your IT department than you would with other types of automations. Cart abandonment programs need to kick in as soon as it becomes apparent that the person is not proceeding with the purchase of the items in their cart. If you already have systems in place to notify you to the actions of visitors to your site, the process becomes somewhat simpler.

Different Strokes

In research for this article, we tried abandoning carts on various sites, to see what happened. A remarkable number of them sent no notices. Of the ones that did send notices, the strategies were quite varied and, in some cases, were contingent open the type of products they sold. Here are a few examples:

Company A

Company A specializes in high-end, expensive items that appeal to the fashion conscious. They had the most thorough abandonment campaign. It started with a notice that items were placed in the shopping cart as soon as it happened, followed by a reminder the next day. Two days later, another reminder was sent offering $5 off the chosen product. Two days after that, another reminder was sent with the subject line “Last chance for $5 off on that item you liked.” No further notices after that.

Company B

Company B specializes in clever devices for fans of science fiction films and television shows. They took a very different approach. They only sent one notice, which also added a $10 discount to the purchase. After that, they sent one more email that contained suggestions for similar products. This is a very clever approach, but it also means either utilizing a sophisticated recommendation engine as part of the process, or including a field that indicates each recipient’s preferred product line or department. For this type of sophisticated approach, the ability to accept external data tables is a must.

Company C

Company C had the weakest campaign, sending only one reminder two days later, which contained no discount offers. For them, this makes a certain amount of sense. This site specializes in heavily discounted products that are only available in limited quantities, so there is already a built in discount for each product, and the limited quantities discourage one from dawdling too long before purchasing a product.

As you can see, cart abandonment does not have a “one size fits all” solution. The type of commerce your company engages in will determine the best approach. If you are already offering substantial discounts, it might be counter-productive to offer more. If your products fall into specific categories, you might also want to offer alternatives when that is practical, although keep in mind that setting this up, will probably mean more work on your end.

Targeting the Messages

As with any email, the more personal the message, the more likely the recipient is to respond to it. One nice thing about shopping carts is that most sites require a sign-in before a customer can add anything to a cart. You should have a customer’s first name and email at the very least. If your site collects other information about a customer’s shopping habits, so much the better. Additional data can help you decide which messages to send. Here are a two very different examples of ways using an ESP can improve the shopping cart results.

The Serial Abandoner

Everyone has decided at some point to skip purchasing something that they put in their shopping cart, but there are some people who make a habit of it. There are also those who have become aware that you offer discounts when carts are abandoned, and start abandoning carts on purpose to get price reductions. The first group is an annoyance, but data shows that these people are still good potential sources of sales. The second group is a little trickier. Wouldn’t it be nice to know who these people are well before they start loading up their shopping carts with items, and what their previous shopping behavior is like?

Most cart software doesn’t address the issue of serial abandoners, but if your cart is communicating with your ESP, it’s easy enough to store information such as this in your recipient data. Once the information is in the email marketing software, it’s an easy matter to tweak the automation to either skip these people—if they commonly abandoned cart without purchasing—or eliminate or reduce the discounts if they appear to be routinely using abandonment strategies to get additional discounts. You still may want to offer those discounts, but wouldn’t you prefer to know if your doing it for a select group of people and not the general public?

Tweaking the Message

At the other end of the spectrum is the person who buys things regularly. Just as with the serial abandoner, the regular purchaser is a great source of personalized data. If person tends to purchase certain products, then even cart reminders can act as a source for additional sales. This data can also clue you into when a customer has changed their buying habits, switching to other products, or dropping the purchase of certain items completely. Knowing things like this offers some excellent opportunities to sweeten the message with additional offers.

These two extremes point out the main advantage of using an ESP in conjunction with your cart software. Using an ESP with good automation capabilities doesn’t just enhance the shopping cart experience, it supercharges it. Used well, with the inherent advantages of dynamic content and interchangeable content blocks, an ESP automated workflow will not only save you time, it can increase your sales.

Calling it Quits

Shopping Cart abandonment programs kick in quickly, and often end just as quickly. We’ve received abandonment notifications as far as two weeks after the event, although these are rare. Most businesses give up after three days. We certainly wouldn’t discourage anyone from a one or two week follow-up notification, but this should signal the end of the process. What happens to the shopping cart after that will vary. Some companies automatically empty abandoned carts while others leave items in the cart forever. Whatever the case, you’ll need to address what happens when a customer comes back to the site and either looks and leaves, doing nothing to empty the cart, or adds new items and leaves again without proceeding to the checkout.

Don’t Overstay Your Welcome

Care must also be taken to ensure that you aren’t sending abandonment notifications to the people who went back and made the final purchases or deleted the unpurchased items from their shopping cart. Once the shopping cart is empty, any notices regarding sales at this point will be met with confusion at best, or hostility at worst. Once the purchases are made, that recipient should drop off the workflow. For this reason, a drip campaign is a poor substitute for a real automated workflow. If a person has emptied their cart, the last thing they want or need is another email telling them that they haven’t. By using automation, you will avoid this problem, ensuring that only those who really do have items in their carts are being reminded to finish their purchases.

Where to Find Help

As you can probably tell, shopping cart abandonment is not something to be taken on lightly. If you need help either setting up a shopping cart abandonment program, or getting your shopping cart software to communicate with your email marketing software, either contact us via our website, or give us a call at 1-888-362-4575. You might also want to take a look at the workflow automation features included in Goolara Symphonie. To find out more, click here.

Automation, Dynamic Content, Email marketing, Workflows

Automated Email Workflows, Part One: A Primer

Automated workflows
[Note: This is the first in a series of posts about automated workflows for email marketing. In this, the first part, we will look at what you need to know before you get started creating an automated workflow. The examples used in these articles were created using Goolara Symphonie’s Automation features, but the information presented here is applicable to other systems as well.]

Automation is an important part of a complete email marketing program. It allows the person in charge of email marketing to work on other things while the emails that don’t require their attention are sent out automatically. If you are not using automated email workflows yet, you might be leaving money on the table. While they can take some time to set up, studies show that automated workflows improve sales results and pay for themselves in no time.

There are many interesting things that can be done with a flexible automation tool: drip campaigns, on-boarding programs, and shopping cart abandonment, to name but a few. But how do you get started implementing some of these programs? Let’s take a look.

Data is King

Your ability to personalize and tailor a program to an individual depends considerably on what you know about that person. You cannot, for instance, address someone by their first name in an email if you don’t have that information as a field in your demographics. Collecting useful data and providing it to your digital marketing solution is key to the success of any email marketing program. When working with automation, data is also king. A shopping cart abandonment program will only work if the data indicating an abandonment can be transferred from your shopping cart software. That leads us to the next question: How do we get that data into our system?

Real-time vs. Batch Processing

With automations, the sooner you can act on the data you’ve collected, the better. The ideal situation is when data can be transferred immediately. This is generally done through an API call responding to something that happens outside the system, such as a cart abandonment, a webinar sign-up, or a white paper download. If possible, you’ll want your programmers to setup a call to the digital marketing platform to transfer this data and activate the automation as soon as an event has occurred.

If it’s not possible to transfer data in real-time, you can try collecting the data once a day and transferring it to your digital marketing platform. This is an imperfect solution, however. Most people nowadays expect near instantaneous responses, but some examples where a response delay is more acceptable include, a drip associated with a webinar, follow-up to an event, such as a trade show, or something long term, such as a birthday reminder.

When There’s No External Data

If you can’t get real-time or batch data out of your internal systems, don’t panic. There are some situations where you can automate actions based on the data that is already in your digital marketing platform. One example is an on-boarding program. When a new recipient is added, they are automatically added to a drip campaign that provides automated emails to help them get started. Another example is automation based on open or clickthrough behavior. This can be dangerous, as many recipients don’t react well if they feel that their actions are being tracked, but it can be a useful tool to send administrative alerts to the salesperson or follow-up on the recipient’s demonstrated interest.

What Data?

So, what data should be provided in external data tables to facilitate a good automation program? Obviously, the email address. You won’t get far without that one. The email address is also the best identifier of each recipient since it’s the one piece of information that will be unique for everyone. Beyond that, it is a question of which data is actionable by your automation tool. You should be able to offer different paths within the automation flow based on the data provided. For example, knowing the date of the webinar will allow you to coordinate the drips so they are sent at the appropriate dates and times before and after the event.

Data to merge

Another important consideration is what data you will want for merging purposes. As an example, a shopping cart email that references some vague statement like “there are items in your cart” will not be as effective as one that references the specific item(s). The data may be usable in its native form (names, dates, and such), or it can be inserted into the message directly as HTML (as an invoice layout, for instance).

Utilizing Past Data

You’ll also want to look at the capabilities of your automation tool to make sure that it can handle simultaneous workflows for the same recipient, and that previous data is available for decision points in the workflow. If you offer events that have any overlap, like several webinars a month, it is important that your workflow can handle keeping track of which webinar the recipient has and hasn’t signed up for. Additionally, using the data from previous events can help you make the best decisions within a workflow. For example, you may offer a discount for a redeemed shopping cart the first few times a recipient abandons, but after a pattern of abandonments has been established you may want to cut out the discount to make sure recipients aren’t gaming your program. A good automation program should allow you to make decisions based on this previous history.

Next steps

Gathering data for your automation, deciding what data should be collected, and making a workflow that is intelligent based on past behaviors are several of the key things to consider when starting an automation program. After that is specifics of the different types of workflows, which we will look at in subsequent blog posts.

Next: Part Two—Creating an On-Boarding Drip Campaign.

A-B Split Testing, Deliverability, Dynamic Content, Email marketing, Infographic, Personalization, responsive design

The Email Game

The Holiday Season is upon us, so we thought it might be fun to offer an infographic in the form a simple game of chance. Of course, your email marketing efforts should be anything but a game of chance. Careful planning, design, and testing will go a long ways toward improving your open rates. Keeping aware of your metrics and avoiding quick fixes, such as list purchasing, will keep your deliverability out of the red zone.

emailgame

You can find more on information on the topics listed in the Email Game in the following blog posts and in the guides and white papers in the Resources section of the main website:
The Complete Preheaders and Snippets Tutorial
Personalizing Your Email Marketing
Using Content Blocks and Dynamic Content
Deliverability Enhanced (downloadable white paper)
Oops! – Handling and resolving email marketing mistakes (downloadable white paper)
Using Text & Images (downloadable guide)
Best Practices Enhanced – Vol. 1: Content, List Management, and Testing (downloadable guide)
Best Practices Enhanced – Vol. 2: Design and Image Management (downloadable guide)
Responsive Email Design (downloadable guide)

Design, Dynamic Content, Email marketing

Geolocation Tricks and Techniques

Geolocation tipsIn our last blog post, we talked about assembling an email that uses location-specific data to personalize an email. We showed how you can use content blocks to offer information for specific store locations based on the subscriber’s address. In this article we will talk about how to use geolocation in email to personalize each mailing. We won’t be discussing how to obtain address information for your subscribers. There are plenty of articles on that subject, and most of the techniques (surveys, special offers, etc.) are easy to come up with. For now, we will assume you already have this information and would like to put it to better use. For our example, we’ll be using the address locations for the recipients, to show information about the nearest store.

Finding Geolocations for Email

You may have the street addresses for your recipients, and the physical locations of your stores, but these won’t do you much good as they are. It is hard to compute anything from a street address. After all, 1945 Polaris Place, North St. Paul, MN is a lot harder to use in a formula than 45 and -93. To find the actual geolocations, you’ll need the geographic coordinates—in other words, the latitude and longitude. This may sound a bit daunting, but obtaining this information is relatively easy. There are several online sites, such as Batch Geocode and GPS Visualizer that can generate latitude and longitude numbers from street addresses automatically. Now you have the geolocation data you need for your email marketing campaign, but you still need to convert that data into nearest store location information.

More Than Maps

There are some web sites that will automatically take your store address list and your subscriber list and convert these into maps, with arrows showing the store locations. This is relatively easy to do thanks to the online map features in Google, Bing, Mapquest, and others, but there are surprisingly few sites that will give you the same information as text, and it’s text we want to enter in our subscriber database. Online maps are fine for website use, where you are free to use Javascript in your design, but email affords us no such luxury. We can create our own maps as images to insert in the email, which is exactly what we did in the previous post with the content blocks, but we’ll still need actual data that identifies which map (or content block) to display for each customer.

If you have an IT department with a programmer available, the formula for finding the nearest store locations based on each of your recipient’s location information is a simple one. For those using SQL Server or MySQL, it is easy to compute because the formulas are built into these relational database management systems. For the IT department using other methods to compute these distances, here’s a web page that lists nearly every programming language method of accomplishing this.

Using Excel

For the company with a limited number of stores and/or a minimal IT department, we’ve created an Excel spreadsheet that computes the closest store based on each customer’s geolocation information. It has an area where you enter your store latitudes and longitudes, and another where you enter the latitudes and longitudes of your recipients. These should be simple copy and paste procedures from the data you’ve already obtained using the geocoding applications. The formulas in the spreadsheet then compute the distances between the stores and the addresses, and compare them to find the closest store.

Excel geolocation spreadsheetAside from any adjustments you need to make for additional stores (our sample is set up for three), the only things you need to know are the latitudes and longitudes for your stores and your subscriber addresses. The best thing about this spreadsheet is that you don’t have to figure out the formula to use it. We’ve already entered the basic trigonometric function for finding the nearest location. You can simply plug in the values and let Excel do the rest. Computing the closest location involves several steps. We have broken these steps down in our Excel spreadsheet to make it easier to understand. Download the Excel spreadsheet here.

Once the values are computed, it’s a simple matter to import this data into a column in our original subscriber list. Now we have values we can work with. We can use this data to match the content block with the recipient, as we demonstrated in the previous post:

dynamic content blocksWe can also use the data directly via mail merge or dynamic content to add individual details to the content, or the subject line (example: “Don’t miss the 40% off sale at our Stonestown store, this weekend”).

All The Data You Want

Of course, you don’t have to create a field containing the nearest store location. You can enter the geolocation data into your recipient demographics and work with it directly. With some email marketing software (such as Symphonie), you can create a custom mail merge tag that will run the mathematical logic to calculate the nearest store on-the-fly. This can be useful if you are computing many different distances, or your IT department can’t provide the resources when you need them.

Also keep in mind that it doesn’t have to be store locations. In our last post, we used similar data to compute the favorite teams for various locations. By creating separate fields for favorite teams we were able to use the data both for dynamic content purposes (example: If recipient lives in San Francisco, show the Giants image) and for merge purposes (Inserting the “favorite team” field in the email content).

Fine-tuning the Data

One thing this technique doesn’t take into account is the fact that some people don’t choose to shop at the store nearest to them. They might not like the location, or the personnel, or maybe they are using a mail drop that is located in another part of town. Gathering actual in-store data requires either a POS system that connects to membership information, or the credit card information obtained during purchases. As a rule, this isn’t that critical. Most people will understand why you showed the closest store. If someone does complain, you can always adjust their nearest store information to reflect their preference.

If you’re collecting address data as part of your email marketing effort, the best way to maximize the usefulness of that data is by adding geolocation data to the mix.

Content Blocks, Design, Dynamic Content, Email marketing

Using Content Blocks and Dynamic Content

Content Blocks
Too often, articles and blog posts that talk about Dynamic Content never go any further than telling us we should use it because it’s good for open rates and clickthroughs. While this may be true, there is seldom any actual information on how to use Dynamic Content in a mailing. Partly this is because every ESP is different and giving specific details on a procedure might only confuse someone who is not using that software, but mostly it’s because it is a lot harder to come up with examples that are relevant without getting into the details.

In this article, we’ll be creating an email using Content Blocks and Dynamic Content to show you how to generate highly personalized mailings. We won’t go into the details of adding the preheaders and menu bars to the top of the mailing or the CAN-SPAM information at the bottom—we’ve covered that material elsewhere on this blog and in the Goolara white papers. Instead, we’ll be looking exclusively at effective ways to use Content Blocks, Mail Merge and Dynamic Content in a mailing. You won’t find some of these features in low-end email marketing software, but most of these features should be available from the better ESPs. We’ll be discussing two parts of an email: A paragraph using Dynamic Content for personalization, and a Content Block for sales purposes. Here is an example of the final email as it would appear to someone living in San Francisco:

Anatomy of an EmailWe’ll discuss the two sections indicated above in reverse order, starting with the map and store information at the bottom of the email, which was created using a Content Block.

Set Up

In our example, the content changes dynamically based on two pieces of information about the customer: their store location and the nearest sports team. How this data is collected is beyond the scope of this article. The information you’ve collected is almost certainly different from what we are using here, but this should provide an ample demonstration of the power that one or two pieces of demographic information can have on an email when you use Dynamic Content.

Content Blocks

Content Blocks, as the name suggests, are blocks of content that are created outside of a mailing and are inserted into the mailing based on different qualifiers. In our example, we’ve used a Content Block to display a specific store’s information based on the recipient’s location. Content Blocks can be substituted into a message in the HTML or the plain-text section, or both, but the HTML section is the more interesting one. Any HTML elements can be added to a Content Block, including images, links, text, and all the standard HTML formatting.

You may have hundreds of stores, and creating a Content Block for each one will take some time, but once the work is done you can reuse these Content Blocks over and over in any messages you send. Make sure that the opening and closing tags for every HTML container inside of a Content Block (table tags, for instance) fall within that Content Block. Closing them outside of the Content Block will break the design.

In the email, Dynamic Content will identify which Content Block to insert using simple IF/THEN logic. If the recipient is in a certain city, then show that city’s Content Block:

If-then exampleIn the example shown above, the recipient’s location is listed as San Francisco, so they’ve received the Content Block for the San Francisco store. If the person had no location information, either no Content Block appears, and the area collapses, or you provide a generic default Content Block. Note that some ESPs will not collapse the Content Block area, so you’ll need to provide alternate data if this is the case. Otherwise, you’ll end up with a gap in your design.

As with the Content Block creation process, entering these IF/THEN rules might also take some time if you have hundreds of options, but once the logic is defined, the rules can be saved and easily be inserted into subsequent messages without having to re-enter anything.

Dynamic Content Inside Content Blocks

With some ESPs (such as Goolara Symphonie), it is also possible to use Dynamic Content inside of a Content Block. When this feature is available, it increases the power of Content Blocks exponentially. In our example, most of the information remains the same, but we’ve inserted the recipient’s membership number below the store hours. You could also use this feature to add information to the URL’s query string for tracking purposes, although you’ll need to contact your ESP on the correct procedure for doing this.

Dynamic Images

The primary content in the example shown above features a sale on baseball team bedspreads. You could pick a team, and use that image for everyone, but we have location information for the recipients already, why not make this more personal? Recipients living in San Francisco will receive email that shows the San Francisco Giants bedspread, while those in Boston will see the Red Sox design. Likewise, the links in each example take the recipients to the corresponding product pages. Recipients who do not live in cities with products tied to their local team will receive a more generic version of the information that takes them to a page displaying all the choices.

Of course, the fact that a person lives in a certain city does not automatically mean they support the local team, but the odds favor it. Even a New Yorker living in San Francisco who continues to support the Yankees will understand why they received the information for the Giants. You’ll still need to watch your clickthrough and open rates to see if this campaign proves successful, but that will always be true, no matter how sure you are of a campaign’s potential.

Personalizing Messages with Dynamic Content

The first section in the email is the primary sale area. We could have used a Content Block for this section as well, but it’s more work than is necessary. Since most of the primary message stays the same, and we are only planning to make this offer once, we’ve used Dynamic Content to accomplish the same effect with less set up. In our example, we’ve used the location information to determine which sports team-related product to display. We’ve also used it to change certain words in the text to reflect a specific team. Here is the final result with the areas changed using Dynamic Content highlighted in yellow:

Dynamic Content hightlightedWe were also careful to make sure that all our images are the same size. Technically, this isn’t necessary—the software will replace the image no matter what size it is—but it does help avoid potential layout problems. As you can see, most of the text in the first paragraph remains the same. In this case, the city is part of the demographic data, so a simple merge is used to insert the city name, while the team name is inserted dynamically based on the city.

Dynamic Changes within the HTML

An even faster way to make dynamic changes to your content is to use customer data to make link and image changes directly in the HTML. For instance, if we had a data field for the team name, we could use this data to easily change each link in the email like so (dynamic changes shown in red):

dynamic content in HTML linksThere are some limitations to this approach—words with special characters and names with spaces are not recommended, and not all email mail marketing software can track the resulting links, but under the right circumstances, dynamic changes to the HTML is a fast and efficient way to incorporate personalization into your mailings.

Adding A Coupon

Below the first paragraph is a coupon offer. As mentioned in our last article, coupons are a great tool for retail marketing. You can use generic codes that are the same for all mailings, but with Dynamic Content, you can change the codes accordingly. Using the same logic as shown above, you could make a code for members (for example: GOGIANTS) and another for non-members (GOTEAM). If your email marketing software allows you to create Dynamic Barcodes, you can create even more sophisticated coupons using Dynamic Content.

In our example, the paragraph above the coupon also changes dynamically based on the recipient’s membership status. Premium members are given a bigger discount than regular members, and non-members see a special offer for joining.

Using Preview for Multiple Testing

As with any email, you should always test it before you send it. When dealing with mailings, such as this one, that contain large chunks of Dynamic Content, sending test emails isn’t always an efficient way to check if everything is working correctly. You could create several different test accounts, each with different demographic information, and send to these, but there’s a quicker way. If your email marketing software includes a preview function, try selecting a gamut of recipients, each with different demographic information, and view these in your ESPs preview function.

Only Limited By Your Data

As you can see, the possibilities, while not unlimited, are vast. You are really only limited by your own data and the capabilities available to you. Using either Content Blocks or Dynamic Content in your mailings expands the possibilities for personalized, relevant mailings. Using them together can push your email marketing to a new level of engagement. If you’d like more information on using the features discussed here in Goolara Symphonie, contact us toll-free at 888-362-4575.

A-B Split Testing, Dynamic Content, Email marketing, Personalization, Segmentation, Subject Lines

The Emailing of a President

Obama and Romney

The 2012 presidential election demonstrated better than any previous election just how important good email tactics are to a successful campaign. Some people have gone so far as to avow that it was email that won the presidency for Obama. Whether that is true or not, one incontestable fact that emerges from the campaign is that Obama’s team spent a lot more time and effort taking advantage of the most important aspects of any successful large-scale email campaign—testing and metrics.

The Obama campaign is a testament to the power of split testing and report analysis. They tested nearly every aspect of each email, from the subject line to the content, and even the formatting. In some cases, they tested as many as 18 variations before choosing one to send out to their subscribers. “When we saw something that really moved the dial, we would adopt it,” said the campaign’s email director, Toby Fallsgraff.[1]

They tested everything from mild profanity (“Hell yeah, I like Obamacare”) to extremely terse subject lines (“Hey,” “Wow,” “High five!” “Me again”), to the downright weird (”Sometime soon can we meet for dinner?” “It doesn’t need to be this way,” “You must be at least a little curious”). They even tried “No subject,” which yielded strong results the first time they used it, but was largely ignored after that. Out of all of these, “Hey” yielded the best open rates. Perhaps ironically, or perhaps not, the subject line, “I will be out spent” was the most successful at generating donations, pulling in almost three million dollars.

Obama’s director of digital analytics, Amelia Showalter, was often amazed by which emails yielded the best results. The crew in the marketing department eventually started to bet on which ones would perform well and which would flop. Most of the time they were wrong. It became apparent to Ms. Showalter that trying to run a campaign without split testing would have been a study in futility.

When something worked, they would use it for a while, but usually the novelty wore off quickly and the crew would have to go back to testing to find the next winning Subject Line. The proof of the effectiveness of this technique shows up in the open rate results. The Obama emails had more than twice the open rate Romney’s emails.

The biggest complaint from nearly every quarter was the astounding amount of email sent by the Obama campaign, sometimes as many as ten emails per day. It shouldn’t surprise anyone, then, that more of the Obama campaign’s email got marked as spam—5% compared to Romney’s .08%.[2] It undoubtedly helped Obama that most people recognized that this onslaught of email was a temporary thing, guaranteed to end after November 6th. A retail store trying the same tactic would certainly face a much higher complaint rate. Nonetheless, Toby Fallsgraff paid close attention to the metrics throughout the campaign, making sure that deliverability wasn’t affected. This was no “spray and pray” operation.

Another unexpected hit was profanity. Dropping in mild curse words such as “Hell yeah, I like Obamacare” got big clicks. But these triumphs were fleeting. There was no such thing as the perfect e-mail; every breakthrough had a shelf life. “Eventually the novelty wore off, and we had to go back and retest,” Amelia Showalter said.[1]

Most of the news article focused on the Obama Team’s use of the A/B split testing of subject lines, but that was only part of the story. They were also using segmentation and dynamic content to make the emails more personal. “There were lots of interesting behavioral and personal markers that we used to make the content more dynamic and relevant for our supporters,” Ms. Showalter said. “[We added] language thanking people for previous volunteer service when putting out a wide call for future volunteer service, for instance. And there was a lot of personalization in the fund-raising emails, of course.”

When it comes to email marketing, Ms. Showalter acknowledged, it is best to leave no stone unturned. “We pretty much tested everything!” She said.

References:

1. The Science Behind Those Obama Campaign E-Mails, by Joshua Green. Bloomberg Businessweek, 11/29/2012

2. The Race for the Inbox, Return Path infographic