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, Email marketing, Segmentation, Workflows

Automated Email Workflows, Part Three: Event-based Campaigns

event-based email
In the previous article in our Automated Email Workflows series, we looked at on-boarding campaigns and how to use email automation to simplify the process. As we saw, this was a variation on the classic drip campaign, but with some automation added to make sure that the mailings properly reflect the actions and requirements of the recipient. This time we’ll look at event-based campaigns, where the recipient has signed up for a specific event. An event might be online (e.g., a webinar) or at a physical location (e.g., a trade show).

An on-boarding automation has a fairly clear entry point—when new recipients are added to the system, they are automatically added to the on-boarding workflow as well. With an event-based workflow, you first must to decide who to invite, and decide how to handle the entries that come in late. In most cases, the recipients are identified through segmentation, based on what you know about each recipient. Your target audience could be anyone who’s purchased something, anyone who’s downloaded certain whitepapers, or—when it’s expedient and makes sense—everyone on your distribution list.

Where to Start

Once you’ve identified the audience, you’ll next have to decide the point at which the automation workflow begins. Should it start after a the initial invitation, or do you want the invitation to be the first step in the workflow process? It’s really six of one, half a dozen of the other. Sending a mailing targeted to the segment of recipients is easy, and then make the workflow use that same segment. Alternatively, you can start the workflow going with the segment as the target, and then have the first step in the workflow be the sending of the invitation.

Late to the Party

The next thing to consider is what to do with late arrivals. If the event is more than a few days after the initial invitation, there might be new people added to your list that you’ll want to tell about the event. If you don’t care whether or not new subscribers get invited to the event, then don’t worry about it, but if you want to take every opportunity to get the word out, you’ll need to make sure your workflow can properly handle entry at any point.

The basic idea of an event based workflow is to work backwards (or forwards) from the event’s date, sending reminders or confirmations as needed. For example, a webinar might start with an initial invitation three weeks before the event. If no enrollment is received, the recipient could be sent several more reminders before the webinar, and perhaps one more afterward. If we lay this out on a timeline, the flow would look something like this:

Visit goolara.com for more information.Running concurrently is the timeline for the recipients who have registered for the event. Once a recipient registers, the logic of the workflow needs to switch to one where advertising the webinar is no longer the focus, and instead the emails are sent to remind the recipient of the upcoming event. That flow would look more like this:

visit goolara.comThere are several ways a flexible workflow design tool would allow this structure to be diagrammed, and every ESP or digital marketing automation tool has its own method. One straightforward choice is to put each of the email steps shown in the diagrams above into the workflow with conditional logic to determine if it should be done or not. For example, the unregistered path has an email sent at nine days before the event. A logic node (sometimes called a decision diamond) should be put into the workflow to check at this nine-day-out point to see if the recipient has registered. If so, the email node is skipped, since we don’t want to remind recipients about an event for which they’ve already registered. In the same way, at the week-before point, a logic node should check if the recipient has registered, and only send the email if that is true.

Taking Care of Stragglers

That takes care of most of the logic, but what do we do about the recipients who’ve entered the list after the automation has begun? In our example, let’s say a recipient signs up to receive email eight days prior to the event. This is where the initial choice we discussed about whether the first email is sent outside the workflow or as the first step of the workflow makes some difference. If the first workflow step is to send the invitation email, then recipients who are newly added will automatically get that invitation, which could be ideal in this case. But we don’t want to send them the nine-day announcement a few seconds later, even though they would have received it in the standard flow. Workflows that allow entry after an initial invitation has been sent must have another piece of logic before each send node to determine if the timing is right. In this case, since we know the recipient entered at day eight, we should skip the nine-day announcement and let the workflow pick them up again at the four-day point.

Getting Help

With good workflow software these steps should be easy to implement. If you’re using Goolara Symphonie to implement the workflow, we’ll be happy to help you create any workflows you need. If you plan to do webinars or similar events on a regular basis, then you will want to set your automation up with master mailings that you can modify for each campaign. This requires even more forethought and work at the start, but can save hours of work in the long run.

In our last post, we looked at drip campaigns, which start at certain points, based on when the subscribers takes action, then send out regular mailings after that. With event-based workflows, everything revolves around the date of the event. All actions are based on this. While they are more complex than standard drip campaigns, event-based automations can also be quite simple, especially if you don’t allow new recipients to enter the workflow once the initial invitation is sent.

Next: Part Four—Shopping Cart Abandonment Programs

Deliverability, Email marketing, List Management, Segmentation

List Segmentation Landmines

But I've already unsubscribed!

Everything in email marketing starts with your list of recipients. How your particular ESP handles lists varies from provider to provider. Here’s a quick rundown of things to watch out for when you are working with list segments. A good understanding of the various models used to create lists will go a long way toward helping you avoid problems.

But I unsubscribed already!

A question frequently asked by email recipients is, “Why does a company keep sending me email after I’ve unsubscribed from their list?” It’s a good question, and the less tolerant respondents in the audience are apt to answer, “They are violating CAN-SPAM! Report and/or mark their email as spam!” While it is easy to understand the anger anyone feels upon getting more email months after unsubscribing, this time the marketer is not entirely to blame. They may be using an email marketing solution that creates separate lists for each segment. If you are faced with this problem, here’s a brief primer on how this happens and how to avoid it.

Here a list, there a list…

Let’s say you start with List A. This list has everyone who has opted in to receive your mailings on it. When a person unsubscribes from this list, they are immediately removed from all subsequent lists.

Start with a list...

So far, no problem. Now you create a second list (List B) as a segment of List A, and two more people unsubscribe from it. Everything seems to be in order, but because you are no longer working from your List A, the unsubscribes are only reflected in List B. We have two more unsubscribes, and as long as you are working from List B, everything is fine.

Create a new segment...

But if you go back to List A to create a new segment (List C), the two people who unsubscribed after the mailings from List B (outlined in red) are unpleasantly surprised to find they are back on your list. This time, they mark your email as Spam and all future email from you goes directly to the Junk Folder. In the meantime, another person has unsubscribed. Now you have three lists all with different unsubscribe information.

Create a third segment...

Pulling information in from other lists can further compound these problems. “I’ve got a great list in Excel on my computer,” someone might say. “Let’s use that too.” Unfortunately, this list has people who have previously unsubscribed from the other lists. Unless someone is riding herd over all of this, things can get pretty messy. Every time you create a new list and the changing from the various other lists are reflected in it, you run the risk of more and more people marking you email as spam. At a certain point, the ISPs start to notice this and move your email directly to the Junk folder for everyone.

Combining lists

Some ESPs solve this by treating every unsubscribe as a global action. In this way, the segments won’t matter. The problem with this approach is that sometimes you really do want to give people the opportunity to unsubscribe from a specific subset or topic. For instance, if you send out an email about an upcoming trade show, you may only want to target the people who have expressed a specific interest in trade shows. Any unsubscribes from a list like this shouldn’t be treated as global unsubscribes. They may still be interested in your products, just not in attending trade shows.

By the same token, the person doing the unsubscribing may, in fact, want to stop receiving email from you and their unsubscribe really is intended as a global action. Ideally your email marketing system should be able to offer a topic-level unsubscribe, a global-level unsubscribe, or both, all within the email, so recipients can make the choice that is best for them.

Unsubscribe Strategies

How your ESP handles segments, then, must be the determining factor on who you need to approach this issue. Ideally all segments pull their information directly from the master list, in which case, topically and globally unsubscribed recipients should automatically be removed from future distributions. However, if your ESP uses separate and distinct lists of recipients for segments, you’ll need to stay on top of those segment unsubscribes. Check with your ESP to see if they’ve provided tools for consolidating these lists, otherwise, you’ll need to handle it manually. Set up a schedule for checking and consolidating your lists. This isn’t even a best practice—CAN-SPAM requires you to honor your unsubscribes. If you don’t, technically, you are breaking the law.

Our solution

In case you’re wondering, yes, Goolara Symphonie does solve this problem. Our email marketing solution does not require you to generate separate lists. All recipient information is stored in a master database and the information is accessed as needed according to segment or “topic.” You can create as many different topics as you need, and these will all support both global and topical unsubscribes. You can create unlimited segments that target any recipient in the system based on any available criteria. Recipients who unsubscribe are automatically removed from any posting sent to that unsubscribe topic. To learn more about this process, or to see Goolara Symphonie in action, click here, or contact us at 1-888-362-4575

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