Nine email marketing tricks that earn eBags $14 a head on email subscribers

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American online retailer eBags sells luggage. A lot of it. It stocks over 550 brands with 50,000 individual bags. Since it launched in March 1999, it has sold 18 million bags.

Email marketing is no small part of that, co-founder Peter Cobb told the eCommerce Conference in Melbourne yesterday.

The company employs a full-time email marketer, who’s recently brought on an assistant. Together, the two of them send out 2.3 million emails a week to the 800,000 people on the eBags database. Half of these are triggered automatically when customers do things on eBags’ website. These automatic emails are responsible for a third of the company’s email sales.

Overall, eBags’ sophisticated email operation is responsible for a fifth of its sales. For every single subscriber, the company makes $14 on average.

“Email is the most effective marketing channel we have right now,” Cobb told the audience. As Google refines its algorithms to favour larger companies and paying advertisers, it’s becoming increasingly expensive to be heard online.

But email still cuts through. If you do it right. In Cobb’s experience, customers aren’t unsubscribing as much as you would expect them to. “With smartphones, people are multitasking. They’re opening their emails on their smartphones while doing other stuff.”

Today, 40% of eBags’ email opens come from smartphones. This has meant the company has had to change how it does some things. But it’s also made email a more effective marketing tool.

Here are eBags’ tricks of the trade.

1. AB Testing: Why what works might not be what you think

When eBags began its email operation, it tended towards using the emails to come up with offers. ‘Buy now to get 15% off’, the subject lines would scream.

But then, eBags’ marketers got more creative. And they began to use AB Testing, where half the list is sent one subject line and the other half another, to test which subject lines were most likely to intrigue their audiences.

They found sales didn’t work as well as you’d think. “Maybe shoppers are sick of that sort of stuff,” Cobb said.

He gave a few examples of the subject lines that did brilliantly:

  • “The only bag you’ll ever need”
  • “The art of travelling light”
  • “Pack like a neat freak even if you aren’t one”

These subject lines were short, creative, and intriguing. Cobbs reckons with the rise of smartphones, short subject lines are the only ones likely to be fully read anyway.

2. When in doubt, opt out

Email marketing is hugely effective for eBags, so the company is keen to grow its subscriber base. However, they’ve always been careful about treading a fine line between self-promotion and annoying their customers.

The company always tests the bounce rates of its email marketing initiatives. If the bounce rate is low, customers can’t be too annoyed, they figure.

Using this method, eBags has settled on the use of a Light Box (a pop-up of sorts that appears over the page you’re viewing that you can close) on the second page a customer lands on. This box allows the user to opt into eBags’ subscriber offer.

“We also allow customers to opt out of our ‘steal of the day’ emails,” Cobb says. This email features a daily offer on a well-priced bag. “In our experience, most people opt-in”.

eBags gets about 2000 new subscribers a week using its Light Box pop-up.

Somewhat unexpectedly, eBags doesn’t ask people questions about themselves when they sign up, other than what their birthday is. “Customers get that, especially if we don’t ask the year,” Cobb said.

“We don’t know much about our demographics from their sign-ups – we get that information in other ways.

“The attitude of a lot of our subscribers is ‘I want to buy a bag from you guys, I don’t want to marry you’. So we back-tracked on that stuff.”

3. Fine-tune your creative

After every mass send-out, eBags reviews what parts of the email got clicks, and what parts didn’t.

“We actually found the most clicked-on bag was the top of the email, but the second most popular was usually our offer at the bottom.

“This is good, because it means people are scrolling down to the bottom.”

4. Personalise wherever possible

When eBags sends one of its subscribers an email, it personalises a couple of things.

Firstly, it puts an icon showing them how many items have been left unbought in their shopping cart.

Secondly, it puts their name on it, how many reward points they’ve accumulated, as well as a customisable header.

“We’ve got 13 different product categories, and 13 different tabs,” Cobb said. “The ones a customer looks at frequently are the ones that go in the header.”

So a customer who often looks at hand-bags won’t get advertised a category at the top of their email saying ‘camping gear’.

“The single biggest lift in our email engagement happened when we put in the header customisation.”

5. How to boost traffic when you need to

Another personalisation strategy eBags uses is timed emails. These feature animated images (gifs) with a countdown timer which begins counting down when the email is opened. When the countdown timer is finished, the sale is over.

Other tricks include mystery coupon emails, where a customer doesn’t know what their coupon is until they click through to the website. “That drives amazing traffic,” Cobb said. “People are curious.”

6. Say thank you

When subscribers make a purchase on eBags, it sends them a thank-you voucher that is redeemable within seven days. It also emails subscribers on their birthdays.

“It’s another reason to email without saying the word ‘sale’,” Cobb says. “We’ve done ‘Full Moon Tuesday’ emails just to avoid saying that word.”

7. Discounts without discounting

Many of eBags brands don’t want their bags ever put on sale. They want to preserve themselves as luxury products, and fair enough.

eBags finds ways around this. For example, its loyalty programs, through which customers earn loyalty points they can then spend on any product.

“The brands think this is okay, because it’s not about their product specifically,” Cobb says.

However, he says businesses have to remember to put an expiration date on loyalty points, or risk building up a large liability.

Other discount strategies include giving premium customers 50% off a new product if they write a testimonial of it.

8. Save your cart

If people don’t want to shop right now, eBags lets them save their shopping cart in a number of ways.

Through a ‘wish-list’ function, they can email it to a spouse or family member. It’s useful for birthdays and events like Father’s Day, Cobb said.

Another trick is to let customers email their cart to themselves to buy at a later date. “Our site person actually wants to get rid of this functionality,” Cobb said.

“But it does so well. We get $10 from everyone who emails their cart to themselves on average, because they come back later. So I was able to go to our site person and say, ‘no, because it’ll decrease sales by $1 million a year’.”

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