July 14, 2015

Email Marketing Chart: Tactics used by the top 1% of viral emails

SUMMARY: Your email marketing success is not limited by the size of your list. Every subscriber on your list has friends, family and colleagues that can be reached through email forwards.

How do you reach beyond your own list to get your email sends out into this social network?

In this week’s chart, we explore factors that influence commercial email forwards based on data from 400,000 email sends. Read on to discover what these successful emails have in common and how you can create emails that your customers will forward.
by Daniel Burstein, Director of Editorial Content, and Dr. Liva LaMontagne, Editorial Research Manager

For the past two years, Litmus has collected and analyzed more than 400,000 commercial email sends to both B2B and B2C audiences with at least 500 opens. Its research shows that the most viral commercial emails have employed the following tactics:

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Chad White, Research Director, Litmus, categorized these emails into two categories — the top 1% of viral emails (the 99th percentile) and emails that were shared an average amount of times (the 50th percentile). The average commercial email generated one forward for every 370 total opens, according to Litmus. The viral emails got 17.6 times more forwards, generating one forward for every 21 opens.

White took a random sample of 202 emails from each group and examined what percent used different tactics — segmentation, triggered messaging, personalization and a prominent "Share with Your Network" CTA — in their email. The above chart shows what percentage of viral and average emails used each of the tactics studied.

Only a minority of forward-worthy emails (15.8% for triggered messaging) used any of the four tactics. According to Litmus, the relatively low usage of these tactics shows that there are a variety of other ways to spur forwarding behavior. "We didn't expect to find a silver bullet, and we didn't," White said. "That said, we fully expect usage of all of these tactics to continue to increase in the future."

Consider a "share" call-to-action

Author Nora Roberts has said, "If you don't ask, the answer is always no."

This is good advice in marketing and sales. We can’t assume that our audience knows what we want them to do, or why they should do it. We must "ask for the sale" or conversion action — ideally, while communicating the value of that action.

Most commercial emails do not include a prominent "Share with Your Network" CTA placed within the primary content block rather than in the footer of the email. In fact, a minuscule 0.5% of emails that were shared at an average rate included that CTA.

However, 6.4% of the viral group of emails included a "share" CTA. This tactic had the most impact — viral emails were 13 times more likely to have a prominent "share" CTA than average emails. "The best way to get subscribers to do something is to simply ask them," White said. "For example, if you want them to shop, include a 'Shop Now' button. Marketers asked subscribers to 'Share' and so they did."

Still, just a small minority of viral emails did that, and for good reason.

In this article, we’re necessarily talking about viral emails in isolation. In your real-world decision-making, you must decide what the goal of your email is. If your goal is to create action at the beginning of the customer buying journey, a "share" call-to-action may be most appropriate. However, if the email is intended to propel customers towards the end of the buying journey, a "shop" or similar CTA could underperform if forced to compete with a "share" CTA in the same email.

Make It Relevant: Personalization, segmentation and triggered messaging

While including a prominent "share" CTA was by far the most powerful tactic identified, sending relevant emails — a best practice that often impacts overall email results — also appears to impact the rate at which emails go viral. The other three factors were all relevance-related:

  • Message-based relevance: Viral emails were 4.5 times more likely than average emails to have personalized messaging in meaningful ways, such as providing customized product/service recommendations or dynamic content like photos of the recipients taken at previous events. Superficial forms of personalization — such as using customers' first names, providing account numbers and rewards balances — were not included in the study.

  • Attribute-based relevance: Viral emails were 4.3 times more likely than average emails to be segmented by geographic, demographic or behavioral attributes, such as geo-segmented "new store opening" announcements and emails sent to attendees of previous events.

  • Action-based relevance: Viral emails were 2.9 times more likely than average emails to use triggered messaging based on customer actions — welcome emails, post-purchase emails, post-event emails, application-related emails and the like. This was the most used tactic of both viral (15.8% used this tactic) and average (5.4%) email.

Information-based email most likely to go viral

We started this Chart of the Week talking about tactics that drive virality because tactics can be easy to imitate.

However, it's important to put the above data into context. As seen in the chart, even the most used tactic — triggered messaging — was only used by 15.8% of the most viral emails.

Likely, the topic of the email has the most impact on its virality. White studied which topics were most likely to go viral.

Among the viral emails studied, the most prevalent topics were:
  • Free trial or product offers (viral emails were eight times more likely to have this topic than average emails)

  • New product or service/store opening announcements (six times more likely)

  • Transactional, account change and action required notifications (4.6 times more likely)

  • Discontinuation, store closings and product recalls (3.5 times more likely)

  • Event invitations requiring registration or RSVP (3.2 times more likely)

  • Charity or fundraising calls (three times more likely)

A common theme among these emails is that most of these are strictly useful information emails (with charity/fundraising calls as a notable outlier).

This may be surprising to many marketers. We may look at online memes and think we need to send emails about pop culture to keep customers engaged. However, people share "boring," pragmatically useful information that could affect others.

"One of the key drivers of sharing is social capital. Sharing something of interest to our network is a way of showing that we’re in the know. It is a means to build our professional, cultural or social standing among our circles," Alfred Hermida, Associate Professor at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of British Columbia and author of Tell Everyone: Why We Share and Why It Matters, said.

Promotions, deals and discounts were more prominent among "un-viral" content. According to previous MarketingSherpa research, a vast majority of customers (92% of those earning $100,000 or more) want to receive promo emails, but apparently they do not want to share them.

Contrary to what we might expect from previous research, emails that featured news and helpful content were found slightly less in viral emails compared to average emails — 20.8% of viral email and 23.8% of average email.

According to Litmus, helpful content is a staple of email marketing, so subscribers are only driven to forward those that are truly great. "Creating remarkable email experiences worth evangelizing happens pretty rarely," White said. He mentioned Litmus’s own regular email newsletter as an example. "It performs well in terms of traffic generation, but it's not likely to be considered truly remarkable."

However, a recent email promoting tickets for The Email Design Conference produced by Litmus that included a live Twitter feed generated more than 1,000 mentions of the conference hashtag in three days. "For our audience of email designers and marketers, that's what it took to be remarkable, but it's different for every brand," White said.

"It is virtually impossible to predict what will catch fire and go viral, but you can maximize your chances by tapping into the psychology of sharing," Hermida said.

There is an opportunity here. You have their attention. The lesson to marketers is, if these emails are forwarded to people who aren’t on your list, what messaging can you add to these emails to build affinity for your brand? A transactional email doesn’t only have to talk about the transaction.

Combining tactics and topics

According to the Litmus study, IKEA was able to send a forward-worthy email by geo-segmenting an announcement about a new store opening. JustGiving, an online fundraising platform, was able to create a viral email by telling their most active members that the company was in the top 1% of fundraisers for 2014.

With some planning, every brand should be able to routinely generate remarkable email experiences — whether it's because of a special event, an amazing deal, exclusive news or an experience that captures the imagination.

How to create emails that go viral

It is virtually impossible to predict what will become the next ALS Ice Bucket Challenge or the next email your mother forwards you.

However, the following tips should not only increase your odds of getting your email passed along, but also help you better serve customers and improve overall marketing results.
  • Tip #1. Help your customers share their passions

    "Sharing is a form of self-expression," Hermida said. "The key here is that your customers see themselves in what they share, empowering them to show they care about something.

    You can tap into your customers’ passion by creating CTAs that allow people to self-identify. "We want to be able to say, 'Look at me, I know this, I did this.' Make it possible for people to insert themselves into the story," Hermida said.

    For example, a viral email from Chevrolet Safe & Fun helped its Canadian International AutoShow visitors share their passion for hockey. The email included their Safe & Fun hockey helmet photo taken at the event to download and share on Twitter and Facebook, and provided prominent buttons with clear asks, "Share photo on Facebook" and "Share photo on Twitter," in the body of the email.

  • Tip #2. Plan remarkable experiences in your email marketing calendar

    "It's important to recognize that you can't meet all subscribers’ needs all the time," White said. "Otherwise, we'd see subscribers converting and forwarding all the time, which they're not. However, you can plan your email content calendar so that you’re occasionally sending an awesome deal, exclusive news or similarly impactful content. "

  • Tip #3. Respect your subscribers and give them a functional experience

    Ask permission, set expectations and manage inactive subscribers. Ensure that your emails render and function appropriately across email clients.

    "Every email experience a brand delivers should be respectful and functional," White said. "Even triggered emails should not be ‘set it and forget it’ programs, but instead ‘review and renew’ programs. Things like broken links or out-of-date messaging immediately kill the experience."

  • Tip #4. Measure success

    Find out how you generate value for your customers by measuring email forwards, and linking them to conversions and revenue. According to the Litmus email analytics study, if your monthly forward-to-open rate is less than 0.11% (the bottom 25th percentile), then your email program is probably not delivering relevant experiences.

Related resources

Subscribe to MarketingSherpa Chart of the Week — Get the data and discoveries you need to better serve customers and improve results, delivered to your email

How to Code a Live Dynamic Twitter Feed in HTML Email (from Litmus)

Nothing in Email Marketing is 'Set It and Forget It' (from Litmus)

How to Create a Viral Email Campaign That Circles the Globe in 15 Minutes (Sample Included)

Two Campaigns for the Price of One: Holiday ecard goes viral twice

Email Research Chart: How often customers want to receive promotional emails

MarketingSherpa Email Summit 2015 Replay Videos — MarketingSherpa email newsletter subscribers can get instant access to sessions from MarketingSherpa Email Summit 2015

Email Messaging Online Course (from MarketingSherpa's parent research organization, MECLABS Institute)

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