Revealed: Marketers' love/hate relationship with email marketing

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Retailers have high expectations of email as a sales channel – not only do they rate their email campaign performance as the highest of any sector, but they rate email above other channels for ROI.

But what is it like working in email marketing day in day out? What do they love and hate? What are the challenges? Where do they spend their time? Which practices are they using? This year’s Adestra/Econsultancy Email Marketing Census surveyed over 1,300 marketers, and this article focuses on the results of the largest sector surveyed: retail, and investigates how retailers can sharpen their email marketing skills. 

In a first for this annual survey, it asked the emotive question What do you love or hate about creating an email campaign?’ and, interestingly, clear themes emerged. Retail marketers love ‘design’ and ‘creative’ above all else. This creative side, however, is the most time-intensive discipline (we examine this in more detail later). It’s no surprise that the time-consuming elements of email marketing are retailers’ top hate: ‘Time it takes’ and ‘poor segmentation’ appear most. Manual processes and the time it takes to set up campaigns go hand in hand. Poor segmentation can have significant effects on campaign performance: not least reduced relevancy and response rates.

On average, most love ‘design’, ‘content’ and ‘ROI tracking’, see tag cloud below.

Making your imagery and design work harder for you can pay big dividends. For example, clothing retailer Long Tall Sally identified a large proportion of their data used web-based email clients that would support animations. They then used a design-led campaign with animated gif product photos. The result was increased engagement and a huge 65% unique open rate.

Email performance

When asked ‘How do you rate the performance of your company’s email?’ most marketers admit that they feel their own email performance is below par. On average, 61% rate performance as ‘poor’ or ‘average’. Retailers view their own performance as the best of any sector. 53% of retailers rate their email campaigns as ‘good’ or ‘excellent’, ahead of travel/entertainment (50%), publishers (44%) and finance (43%).

So while retail marketers view themselves as performing ‘better’ than other sectors, it’s still nothing to be proud of. The negative angle is almost half (48%) see their campaigns are underperforming, with a ‘poor’ or ‘average’ rating.  It seems remarkable that marketers have been so open and self-deprecating. On a positive note, it does open up lots of areas for improvement.

How do you rate the performance of your company’s email:

Using your ESP

Retailers are more likely than any other sector to use an ESP beyond the basic broadcast of email (47% say this). As with all sectors, retailers use two top ESP services: personalisation and measurement/analytics heavily. So what does this mean? Some marketers just use their ESP as a campaign broadcaster, others use them as a complete outsourced comms partner. Most are somewhere in the middle.

If you’re not taking advantage of their technology and systems, as well as their collective knowledge, help desks and advice, you might be missing a trick. Using your ESP’s services and functionality optimally has a direct link to improving ROI.

Time spent & ROI

Retailers spend the most time on design and content compared to other sectors (63% spend 2-8 hours or 8+). This could imply that systems being used for the creative aspect of email campaigns are slowing things down, or marketers do not have the skills to make this an easy process for them. Additionally, retailers spend the least time of any sector on their data: 79% spend under 2 hrs.

Further investigation shows retailers say their top barrier to effective email marketing is ‘lack of time’ and then ‘lack of segmentation’. Lack of time is a running theme and how marketers use it is critical.

Retailers rate the email channel above all others for ROI: 41% say excellent (ahead of SEO with 34%). Email and SEO tie for ROI in retail when looking at ‘excellents’ or ‘goods’ - both achieved 69%.

So email continues to deliver serious sales for retailers. It’s measurable and cost effective and can prove to be a quick and easy method of driving sales.

Email practices

Basic segmentation is the most prolific email practice across all sectors. 70% of retailers are doing this, behind travel/entertainment and publishers. However, just 16% of retailers used advanced techniques, the lowest of any sector.

Retailers are most likely to use behavioural targeting (based on web activity), 26% do this. And they are most likely to use transactional emails for marketing purposes – 61% say they use this technique. Promoting customers rating/reviews is used most by retailers (36%) and they are the highest users of lifecycle programmes (20%).

Keeping your data clean is critical, yet only 43% of retailers regularly cleanse their lists – the lowest of the sectors. Also using email optimisation for mobile devices, retail is the lowest of any sector with 18%. Least likely to use content personalisation (beyond just name) are retailers (20%), almost half that of financial services (37%). Further, multichannel triggers (e.g. sales calls or direct mail) are used least in retail - only 14% employ this technique, less than half that of financial services (31%). Retailers are also the lowest users of lead nurturing (10%).

One further question concerned automation. It looked at which triggered emails companies were using. The standout finding is that retailers use abandoned basket triggers more than any other type of triggered email in any sector (19% of retailers said this). This is proven to deliver the best ROI of any automation activity.


One quarter of retailers don’t know if emails are read on mobile devices and 61% of retailers have only a ‘basic’ or ‘non-existent’ strategy for optimising emails for mobile. While these figures are better than other sectors, there’s still some way to go as it represents a lack of knowledge regarding the importance of optimised emails.

How well would you describe the extent to which your company has a strategy for optimising email marketing for mobile devices?

The first stage is to identify which recipients are using mobile and start to tailor communications for them to ensure they have a good experience of your emails irrespective of the device they are reading them on. Ensure their journey is easy and optimised, all the way from the email, to the landing page, to the purchase process.

What now?

Test what works for your brand, in your sector. Stats from the Census show undertaking any form of testing can double your ROI – and subject line testing, especially, is proven to be the best performing tactic. Plus it is a simple test that you could implement tomorrow.

Look at your email performance and your email practices in place – which elements can be improved, which elements can save you time, or can be outsourced, can you focus more on strategy? Can you work with your ESP to make campaign management more productive? Are there practices that are being used by your sector that you haven’t yet adopted?

Start with the basics, get them right (and ensure they are delivering sensible response rates) and then look to move on to more advanced techniques.

Reena Mistry is marketing director at Adestra.

About Reena Mistry


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