August 09, 2011
How To

Email Relevance: 8 tactics for leveraging timing, segmentation and content

SUMMARY: Delivering highly relevant content is critical to the success of your email efforts. Yet, how can you stay relevant when so many uncontrollable variables affect your subscribers at the time your content hits their inbox?

By harnessing three key controllable elements – timing, segmentation and content – you increase the odds that your emails will find a receptive audience. Learn eight tactics you can use to wield this control, and improve your chances of engaging subscribers with more relevant emails that boost conversion rates.
by Jeri Dube, Freelance Reporter

Email marketing has always been a numbers game. The prevailing wisdom for email marketers remains, "the more you send out, the better the chances of eliciting reactions and behaviors you want."

However, when you consider the possibility of fatiguing your audience, this numbers game changes from sending out the most emails to the biggest possible list, to increasing the odds of reaching a receptive audience. And the way to keep your subscribers open to your messages is by ensuring what you send is relevant to recipients’ needs and desires.

Of course, this isn’t news to most experienced email marketers – The MarketingSherpa 2011 Email Marketing Benchmark Report indicates that 65% of respondents find the delivery of highly relevant content to be a very significant challenge, and another 30% find it somewhat significant.

The question you’re likely asking then is, "How do I continue to deliver relevant emails to my audience?"

How simple this would be, if only relevancy wasn’t so complex. This complexity stems from the many uncontrollable factors impacting your target audience. Typically, you don’t know:

o What your subscriber is thinking when they receive your emails
o What other news or messages they have received
o How the emails changed your subscriber’s mood or mindset

And, thanks to the ever-increasing use of smartphones and mobile devices, you don’t even know where they are when they receive your emails.

However, timing, segmentation and content – three elements you can control – are powerful weapons in the battle to find and maintain a receptive audience.

In this how-to article, we break down relevancy by looking at these three control points, offering two sample tactics for each. We also address how to build a foundation for leveraging this control, with the ultimate goals of making your email sends more relevant, engaging your subscribers, and improving your conversion rates.


Insightful intelligence about your subscribers is the only way you’ll know the best time to reach them, how to group them and what they want to hear from you. Knowledge about your subscriber base serves as the foundation for determining optimal timing, developing logical segmentation schemes, and building relevant content.

Tactic #1. Collect as much customer data as possible

The more data you have, the stronger your foundation and the more flexibility you have for exercising your creativity around these three control points. Acquiring intelligence about your subscribers requires going beyond email, incorporating what you learn from all customer interactions, regardless of where and how they occur.

"It’s very easy to lose track of what’s relevant to your customers if you leave the email channel isolated," said Len Shneyder, senior product marketing manager, IBM. "There is a finite set of information that you can cull from email."

When you go beyond email to collect data, you open up the possibilities of what you can do in terms of timing, segments and content.

The MarketingSherpa article, "How to Refine Your Database: 4 Important Variables to Track for Ultimate Segmentation Strategy" identified the four types of data you can use:

Endemic data is information solicited from – and provided by – the subscriber. It includes contact and demographic information, as well as preferences.

Transactional data, as one might expect, is information captured during transactions. It includes financial information, as well as when and where the interaction occurred.

Behavioral data encompasses actions that occur once, such as abandoning a cart, as well as activities observed over time that help you establish patterns of behavior. These include when subscribers open emails, types of websites they visit and their tendency to use coupons.

Computed data is created by performing calculations on one or more variables. The resulting factor can be as simple as distance from a retail store or as complex as expected lifetime profit value.

Tactic #2. Learn about new subscribers and set expectations

Loren McDonald, VP of Industry Relations, Silverpop, professes that what you learn during initial interactions with subscribers drives your ability to be relevant moving forward.

Since multiple tests have found that asking for more information than just an email address at opt-in decreases conversion rate, only use secondary tactics after you’ve captured the email address to build that data. For example, use a two-step process that asks for additional, optional information on the "thank you" page.

Likewise, you can take advantage of the higher-than-average open rate of welcome messages to gather endemic data. You can introduce a preference center that allows subscribers to identify their interest areas in your first email.

Along with collecting data in your initial correspondence, McDonald also recommends setting expectations to build a foundation for future content.

"If you don’t set expectations explicitly, subscribers make assumptions based on your website," said McDonald. "For example, if your site is content-rich and all you send are discount coupons and notices, no matter how great those offers are, it’s inconsistent with expectations."

You want the tone of your initial email to match your brand voice so successive messages don’t surprise your subscribers or catch them off guard. The first content delivery should demonstrate value and establish the habit of opening your future emails.


The right information, delivered at the right moment, creates a distinct competitive advantage. Not only can it transform a vague desire into a sale, it can also build loyalty. Conversely, when the timing isn’t right, even the most relevant content proves worthless.

Tactic #3. Use triggered alerts

McDonald calls time-triggered mailings “set and forget” emails, in that once you’ve prepared the sends, there is no further action required.

- Time-triggered emails

One of Len Shneyder’s fundamental principles of marketing is to make it "so good it feels like service." One proven way to accomplish this is through triggered emails that anticipate customer needs and desires.

For example, if in the beginning of the relationship, you’ve gathered endemic information, such as a family member’s birthday, you can send a timely, relevant email suggesting gift ideas. With big-ticket items like cars, leveraging transactional and computed data, such as the date of their first purchase and how long they’ve had your product, lets you estimate when they’ll need to start searching for their next one.

- Replenishment programs and notices

Replenishment programs, a special case of time-triggered emails, are another way to stay relevant during a window when your customers’ have an especially high propensity to purchase. For example, you can remind customers that it’s time to buy an air conditioner filter or that they’re due for an oil change.

Or, as in the case of SmartPak Equine, you can garner an upsell from an automatic replenishment program. The e-commerce site, which sells equestrian and other horse-related products, has an automatic replenishment program for its vitamin packs.

An email goes out to SmartPak customers two days before their order ships, making sure they are satisfied with their submitted order. This correspondence also offers the additional incentive of free shipping if customers spend a certain amount, including what’s being spent on the standing order.

Of SmartPak’s various email sends, these replenishment notices generate the most revenue. Even more impressive is that revenue from the standing order is not included in that calculation.

- Behavior-triggered emails

Immediacy is almost always relevant, which is why sending cart abandonment notices can be a powerful way to connect (or reconnect) with customers. For example, Demco, a library supplier, generates 19% of its email revenue through cart abandonment notifications, even though they comprise only 0.3% of its total email volume.

Tactic #4. Optimize when you send

Although you can’t control when and where someone gets your email, you can increase the probability that they’ll have the time and inclination to read it.

Rather than focusing on one measurement at a time, Shneyder suggests marketers use a combination of variables to uncover human patterns.

By looking at peak deliverability times, mobile device usage and email volume, Shneyder found the best time to engage a mobile audience was during lunch hours, when they would likely be reading email on their smartphones while waiting for service. He also decided against Tuesday, the day when email volumes typically peak.

Initially, Girl Scouts of America explored send-time optimization solutions to prevent its email systems from failing and website performance from slowing. Girl Scouts has a list of 1.4 million email addresses, and during times when they have sent particularly successful promotional emails, the increased traffic and transaction activity would crash the site.

By using an optimization application that records the time of day a subscriber opened the last three to six emails from Girl Scouts, and using those data points to determine the optimal send time for future emails, the marketing team not only smoothed out traffic flows to the site, but also increased the performance of those emails.

Within three months’ time, open rates improved by 20% alongside a 12% increase in conversion rates. And the systems stopped crashing. Over a two-year period, the Girl Scouts’ e-commerce revenues grew 15% per year.

"I would say at least 5% of that increase is coming from optimized send times," said Tom Hassett, assistant director of marketing, Girl Scouts of America. "Also the open rate is higher and the conversion rate is higher."


Findings from the MarketingSherpa 2011 Email Marketing Benchmark Report showed more than half of B2C marketers use campaign segmentation, based on behavior, to improve relevancy. Segmentation prevents marketers from overwhelming subscribers with seemingly random offers because it narrows their focus, based on the segment’s characteristics.

Tactic #5. Develop segments based on long-term behaviors

When you collect behavioral data over the long term, you learn enough about customers to accurately group them with others who behave and respond similarly. Segments create a collective intelligence useful and often actionable for members of that grouping.

For example, you can determine if subscribers are brand- or price-sensitive. Or, for specific products such as 3D televisions, you can group consumers by the size of the TV they bought to recommend what type of glasses they need.

Once you’ve identified a behavior-based segment with shared behaviors and tastes, it opens up the possibility for customer-generated content – namely recommendations, ratings and reviews. You can leverage the probability that people within a segment will resonate and respond to the opinions and views of others in that grouping.

Tactic #6. Treat inactive subscribers as a segment

Not all segmentation needs to be complex. By using email analytics to recognize and group inactive subscribers into a segment early in the process – perhaps after six weeks, rather than six months – you improve your chances of re-engagement. In general, the approach to reactivation is simply doing something different than you usually do in emails for that specific segment.

A reactivation program can be as simple as reducing the amount of email you send that segment of your list. Moosejaw, an outdoor gear and apparel retailer, uses this approach. When the company finally sends an email to the disengaged group, they employ humor and surprise to earn back their interest. We discuss this in more detail in the next section.


Without relevant content, timing and segmentation are meaningless.

"In this highly marketed world people have less and less patience for generality," said Jeffrey Rice, lead author of the MarketingSherpa 2011 Email Marketing Advanced Practices Handbook. He explains that even if you have permission to send an email, people will not open it, read it or stay on your list very long if the information and offers you send aren’t relevant.

Tactic #7. Humanize email content

If you’re going to stay relevant, it’s not enough to tout the benefits of your product; you need to sell an entire experience. With the rise of social media, your customers expect more than information; they expect personality. Providing value or a service to your email audience entails meaningful human interactions.

In the past few years, Moosejaw used "madness" campaigns centered on such things as a break-up service that made relationship-ending calls, a kissing service that helped lovelorn customers kiss their crush on New Year’s Eve, and a pizza bribe service that helped subscribers motivate friends and colleagues by feeding them.

And yes, Moosejaw actually performed these services for their customers. The break-up service was aimed at people who were too chicken to end their relationship on their own. To have Moosejaw do it, they had to send Moosejaw an email with the following information:

o The phone number of the person being dumped

o Three good things about the person (Moosejaw wanted to say a few nice things during the call)

o Three reasons for the break-up

With only that information, a representative made the call. Moosejaw posted several videos of real conversations on YouTube.

For Moosejaw, this approach is both human and reflective of the brand. The company tone mirrors the personality of the founders and its electronic communications are a translation of the customer interactions and experiences that occurred in the first store.

"Moosejaw Madness," as VP of marketing Eoin Comerford calls it, helps achieve some of the company’s core values – specifically "make customers love us," "be notable" (so that people will tell 10 friends about us) and "be engagingly engaged."

Comerford explains that the company values help it to stand out in a crowded space, where people are bombarded with media. His team uses Moosejaw madness to reengage inactive subscribers.

"Every so often we work in these non-sales-related emails, just to reengage people who have tuned out to the more sales-oriented pieces and to bring them back in and help them love the brand all over again," said Comerford.

Moosejaw’s metrics prove the campaign works. Disengaged subscribers open these "100% madness" emails twice as much as they do emails featuring product information or special offers.

The Moosejaw madness tests well, too. Recently the marketing team tested two subject lines:

o: Free Moosejaw Tee with any item over $20 (REGULAR)
o: You probably look terrible with your shirt off (MADNESS)

Based on open rates, the “MADNESS” option performed 24% better.

Tactic #8. Develop content around transactions

McDonald maintains that once you get customers to the point of purchase, there are lots of valid reasons to continue emailing them:

o Before delivery, you update them with the order status.

o Immediately after delivery, you can make sure the product arrived on time and in good condition.

o A few weeks later, you can find out how satisfied they are with the purchase.

o And a month or so later, when they’ve experienced your product, you can ask them to write a review.

McDonald added, “With the review you’re really engaging your customers and creating opportunities for another set of touch points about something they bought.”

When customers send in reviews, you get a new opportunity to drive them back to the website or the store with a thank you discount or other kinds of sweeteners. McDonald noted that although emails concerning reviews make up a very small percentage of total emails, the conversion rate is typically high.

To receive relevant email marketing case studies and how-to articles in your inbox once a week, subscribe to the free MarketingSherpa Email Marketing newsletter.

Useful links related to this article

1. Moosejaw break-up service YouTube video
2. Everyone is topless and it’s awful email copy

2011 Email Marketing Benchmark Report

2011 Email Marketing Advanced Practices Handbook

Members Library -- How to Refine Your Database: 4 Important Variables to Track for Ultimate Segmentation Strategy

Silverpop – solution provider to SmartPak, Demco, Girl Scouts of American and Moosejaw

SmartPak – replenishment emails

Demco – cart abandonment emails

Girl Scouts of America – send time optimization

Moosejaw – humanized content

IBM Unica Products – uncover patterns in data

RichRelevance – segmentation solutions

Baynote – segmentation solutions

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