email engagement and deliverability study 2011

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Learn everything you need to know about email marketing list management, including the reengagement and re-permissioning of inactive subscribers.

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1Retail Email Guide / Holiday Guide 2011SWYN, FTAF and Community Links: November 2010 1

Email Engagement & Deliverability Study

Management, reengagement and re-permissioning of inactive subscribers by major retailers.

By Chad White

2responsys / Email Engagement & Deliverability Study

Being an email subscriber is a temporary commitment. Interests and circumstances change; expectations may not be met over time; email addresses are changed; perhaps other channels become preferred. And while things change, subscribers often dont bother to unsubscribe for various reasons, leaving marketers with inactive subscribers. What a marketer does next can have serious repercussions on their deliverability, in addition to depressing their email metrics.

To examine the state of inactivity management, we subscribed to the email programs of over 100 major retailers using fictional personas. We opened and clicked on the emails we received until one day we stoppedand let 40 months pass

2responsys / Email Engagement & Deliverability Study

At the end of that more than 3-year period, we found that the majority of retailers were still sending emails, many of them at exactly the same frequency that they mailed their active subscribers.

ISPs are increasingly using engagement metrics to determine deliverability, says Kevin Senne, Director of Deliverability & ISP Relations at Responsys. This makes sense for the sender and the recipient. Senders should want to communicate with interested customers and vice versa.

So continuing to email disinterested subscribers that dont open or click puts brands sender reputations in serious jeopardy, as the mounting levels of inactivity lower engagement levels among subscribers, as well as increase the chances of an inactive address being converted into a spamtrap.

Continued mailing, no frequency reduction

Continued mailing at reduced frequency

Stopped mailing, no frequency reduction

Stopped mailing after reducing frequency

31%

23%14%

32%

Retailers react to inactives

How major retailers treat subscribers who have been inactive for 40+ months

If over 50% of your distribution list has not clicked or opened a single email in one year, weve seen major ISPs filter all the incoming email, even that going to engaged subscribers, says Heather Goff, Senior Deliverability Consultant at Responsys. ISPs tolerate even less inactivity from high-volume senders with list sizes in excess of 1 million subscribers.

According to Return Path research, only 81% of all permissioned email worldwide make it to the inbox, with the remainder either routed to junk or undelivered. Poor list hygiene and management of inactivity levels are big contributors to the reduced deliverability, which translates directly into lost revenue.

In order to consistently achieve high levels of inbox placement, marketers must develop a comprehensive plan to address inactives. This report will cover all the necessary steps to creating such a plan.

3responsys / Email Engagement & Deliverability Study

Defining inactivityThe first step in developing a system for addressing inactives is to define what it is to be an inactive subscriber. Its important to separate this definition from any existing definitions of inactive customers.

Often clients have an internal definition of an active customer and inactive customer that have to do with website visits, purchase history, customer or account status, says Goff. While these definitions make perfect sense from a business standpoint, from a deliverability standpoint they have little bearing. ISPs need to see engagement with email specifically.

Metrics

ISPs have gone on the record saying that they track user activity in two categories: positive engagement and negative engagement.

Recipient actions that contribute to the positive engagement quotient are:

Clicking through links

Adding to an address to their contacts or address book

Enabling images

Opening the message

Scrolling through the message

Recipient actions that contribute to the negative engagement quotient are:

Reporting as spam

Deleting the message

Moving the message to trash

Marking messages as read

Ignoring messages

While all of those are factors, the single best measurement of engagement for marketers to look at is clicks.

From a deliverability perspective, clicks are the only fully accurate measure of activity for an email recipient because a click is a definitive action taken by the recipient, says Goff. Opens are secondarily helpful as an engagement metric, although there are potential inaccuracies with opens because of preview panes usage and image suppression.

Duration of inactivity

ISPs each have their own tolerances for how long an address can go inactive, but in general any activity inside of 1.5 to 2 years is acceptable. This time frame allows for subscribers who are season shoppersfor instance, those that only purchase from a brand during the holiday season.

Of course, this recommendation should be tempered by the percentage of the marketers list thats inactive and their sender reputation. If a large percentage of a list is inactive, the acceptable duration of inactivity decreases.

I recommend breaking a distribution list into active and inactive segments and tracking conversion, revenue, complaints and spamtrap hits by segment, says Goff. That way marketers can learn what the risk segments are for their own mailable universe, as this varies.

4responsys / Email Engagement & Deliverability Study

Reengagement strategiesOnce a definition of inactivity is in place, the next step is to trigger changes in content or frequencyor both, as we would recommendas part of a reengagement strategy. Ideally, changes should be initiated well before a subscriber meets the definition of inactive.

Instead of waiting for recipients to become inactive, says Goff, its best to observe their lack of engagement as it develops and send them your best offer or highest performing campaigns and potentially at a lower frequency.

Its also wise not to wait too long before making these efforts, as the longer subscribers are inactive the more difficult it is to reengage them.

In tests that weve done with clients, the vast majority of reactivated subscribers were inactive for less than 18 months, says Jon Stanesby, Responsys Associate Director of Strategic Services, EMEA. Weve seen very few coming back after being inactive for more than 18 months.

Reducing frequency

Decreasing the frequency at which inactive subscribers are mailed is a defensive tactic used to boost the level engagement seen by ISPs while continuing to give these subscribers opportunities to engage.

This approach reduces the chances for inactive recipients to complain and improves the senders reputation at the ISPs, says Goff, because theyll be sending to a more engaged audience most of the time while still keeping their less engaged audience warm.

Case Study

Locating the Line on Engagement

After sustained filtering and sometimes blocking at some of the major ISPs, a large retailer set out to establish what level of engagement was required among their audience to maintain revenue goals and also avoid costly deliverability issues.

SolutionWe worked with the client to establish a safe mailable universe by using a testing methodology that allowed certain engagement types to be mailed on certain days as separate campaigns, allowing us to track and monitor engagement, conversion or revenue generation, bounces, complaints and spamtrap hits by segment type. Once we determined the more risky and less risky segments, the data guided us to the tipping point of deliverability issues vs. the safe mailable universe. It was imperative to apply this criteria to all email programs and not just the full file mailings as spamtraps and inactive email addresses can be mailed from triggered programs as well.

ResultThis retailer established that recipients that had opened or clicked in at least one email within the last 9 months could be safely emailed routinely. The more engaged then recipient the more frequently emails could be sent. The inbox deliverability rate went from low 80% to high 90% based on establishing a global business rule policy to the universe selection process.

5responsys / Email Engagement & Deliverability Study

We found that the majority of retailers in our study reduced the frequency at which they mailed inactives at some point before the 40-month mark. On average, retailers reduced how often they mailed inactives by more than two-thirds compared to how often they mailed active subscribers.

69% Amount that email frequency is reduced among major retailers that reduce the frequency of mailings to inactives

16% Percentage of major retailers that send reengagement emails to inactives

55% Percentage of major retailers that eventually reduce the frequency of mailings to inactives

Content tactics

One of the reasons that subscribers become inactive is because what is being sent to them isnt resonating, so changing up the content can be an effective component of a reengagement strategy. However, we found that only 16% of retailers tried to reengage inactive subscribers with different content.

Here are some content tactics that marketers can try to catch an inactive subscribers attention:

Most compelling emailsWhen marketers reduce the frequency of emails that they send to inactives, it gives them the opportunity to only send their t