What are the key factors marketers must understand to improve their email relevance? Guy Hanson identifies three themes that emerged from a recent DMA meeting.

The DMA’s latest Marketer Email Tracker 2021 research posed the following question to marketers: Based on the emails your customers open and read, what percentage do you believe to be relevant and/or useful to the recipients?

Fifty-nine percent of marketers reported more than half of their emails met this definition. However, three months previously the Consumer Email Tracker 2021 report asked the same question. The answer was a far less flattering 15% – a staggering difference of 44%.

DMA research suggests that the reason behind this may not be directly related to the effectiveness of email marketing. In the DMA’s “Customer Engagement: How to Win Trust and Loyalty 2020” report, 73% nominated email as their preferred marketing channel – much higher than any alternatives – and a key reason was relevance.

So, perhaps marketers and consumers just have different definitions of relevance.

It is a perennial topic, and we had a vigorous and broad-ranging discussion at the DMA’s last Email Council meeting, where experts in email marketing gather to discuss important issues surrounding the medium.

There were three key themes that emerged.

Relevance has multiple facets

We all know the relevance mantra of “Right person, right message, right time” but our highly mobile and multi-channel world means additional factors come into play.

Relevance is about how users consume their emails. Do they use traditional devices like desktops and laptops, or new devices like smart watches and speakers (YoY usage is up significantly)? Do they read emails in full, or just skim them? And which email elements are their eyes attracted to first?

  • Timing is not just about the best time of day to send emails. It is also understanding where a customer is in the buying cycle – knowing I like holidaying in the Greek islands is not relevant if I am not planning to travel! Knowing whether I am active/inactive/dormant is another important relevance factor, but almost a third of senders fail to do this.
  • Context operates globally as well as personally. The pandemic has re-defined email relevance so it now embraces new themes like trust, empathy and kindness. The Marketer Tracker showcases the increased importance of personal touch and senders have stepped up, adapting their messaging to be more helpful, reassuring, and understanding of their customers’ changed circumstances.
  • Channel selection is important. While email is a popular marketing channel, marketers should be objective about other channels which may be more appropriate. The report shows, for example, that social media is a highly effective channel for promoting competitions, events, and exclusive content.

Bridging the gap

Even when these additional dimensions are factored in, there are further reasons why consumers and marketers think about relevance differently.

  • The promise created by a great subject line can be undone by lacklustre content that makes an email less relevant than it initially appeared. Ensuring these two elements are strongly connected, and that the email drives the intended action, is an important part of the overall equation. Click-to-open rates are marketers’ most important relevance KPI.
  • Targeting is typically based on historical data, but purchases may be once-off, or do not truly reflect personal interests. Real relevance comes from using data to pre-empt what customers are looking for. As one council member noted: “If I’ve just bought a jet wash from Amazon, I don’t want to receive four more emails about jet washes!” Relevance means identifying other products and services subscribers may be interested in, something Netflix does exceptionally well.
  • There is also a strong argument in favour of using more qualitative data. Asking consumers more questions can help to personalise their journeys. Beauty brands do this very well, asking questions around skin/hair/body challenges as part of their onboarding programs, which help them tailor relevant messages throughout the customer lifecycle. Subscription models, where data can be curated from repeat interactions, also provide a great starting point for increased relevance.

Understanding your customers’ needs

Relevance moves the needle for customer communications more than for prospects. There are also times when relevance maps onto brand rather than channel or product.

It could be the channel/program itself remains relevant even if the individual emails do not. Relevance even goes wrong sometimes, and that is okay – unintentional mistakes sometimes generate the highest response rates!

One aspect of relevance where all online channels fall short is their inability to fully replicate the in-person experience. When you visit a shop your body language will make it apparent whether you are there to purchase or there to browse, whether you would like assistance, or prefer to self-serve.

With online customers these visual cues are not available, so marketers must instead use their behavioural data to read customers’ “digital body language”. Doing so demonstrates respect by better understanding the context of the interaction, and this will be an important next step on the journey to increased relevance.

You can find out more about the Marketer Email Tracker and Consumer Email Tracker research, sponsored by Validity, on the DMA website.