At a time when retailers are feeling the pinch, it’s more important than ever to adopt the right marketing activity, in order to attract buyer interest, drive sales and deliver a return on that investment, says Tink Taylor, Business Development Director at dotMailer.

With this in mind, dotMailer ran its annual major benchmark study ‘Hitting the Mark’ this year, looking at the effectiveness of major name retailers’ e-mail marketing campaigns. While the study recognises retailers such as Marks and Spencer and H.Samuel for using brand-enhancing design and compelling calls to action, others including Somerfield and H&M showed little signs of improvement on 2008, failing to use best practice techniques to engage with recipients.

We’ve analysed the results and picked out the key techniques that marketers adopt to make the most of their budget.

The power of recommendations 

Simply by encouraging e-mail recipients to pass the message on to their friends and peers, e-mail gives you the opportunity to reach a far wider audience than just your subscriber base. However, over half of the retailers we surveyed failed to even include a forward to a friend link in their e-mail campaign and just two of the 41 used links to make it easy for their recipients to post the e-mail to social networks, missing out on valuable brand interaction.

Social networks are now visited by over two thirds of the global online population, and online word-of-mouth has never been such an effective marketing tool. Social recommendations can hold much more sway with consumers than other marketing communication channels.

Getting personal

A general greeting like ‘Dear subscriber’ suggests that you are simply blasting the same e-mail out to thousands of other people; but addressing the recipient by name gives an altogether different impression. Such a simple personalisation step can make your recipient feel special, instantly engaging their attention and helping to build what they perceive to be a one-to-one relationship with your brand.

Given that this should be simple enough to do via an e-mail service provider, we were shocked to discover that over 70% of the brands we analysed did not personalise opening salutations. What’s more, a third of those who did attempt to personalise the greeting did a poor job of it, with errors and formatting issues abounding.

The importance of testing

One in five e-mail recipients won’t open a message that hasn’t rendered (or appeared) properly in their preview pane. We used the ‘Inbox Preview’ tool within dotMailer to test how consistently the retailers’ e-mails appeared across a range of over 20 popular e-mail clients. Just five of the 41 e-mails we tested managed to render across them all, meaning that the remaining 36 failed to adhere to coding best practices which would ensure the e-mails were viewed correctly.

Text versus images?a delicate balancing act

As most e-mail clients now receive e-mails with images turned off as default, it is essential to ensure that your e-mail makes as much sense when the images are missing as when they are visible. Of the retailers we surveyed, 40% failed to even achieve half marks in this area; e-mail designs tended to fall down because they used background images with no alternative.

Initiating some action

The call to action is the core of any direct marketing campaign, as it leads the recipient toward the point of conversion. In the course of our research, we found that many e-mails did not make it clear what the recipient was meant to do next; and in many cases conflicting calls to action were confusing, bearing no relevance to the key message. Other retailers had some enticing offers but these were hidden way down below the fold where they could easily be missed. We were surprised to find that most retailers fell down when it came to providing effective calls to action, with a third of the retailers scoring less than 40%.

Weathering the storm

Whilst the recession may have done its worst, the experts are leaving us under no illusions that there is a long way to go before the economy feels a recovery. It’s clear that online retailing provides a relatively safe haven for retailers, with Brits spending £43.8 billion online in 2008. Recent forecasts show that UK online retail sales are set to grow by up to 137% or £12.3 billion, by the end of 2011. It therefore makes sense for retailers to gear communications to an audience who are active and secure with interacting with brands online.

Fortunately, many of the best practices can be exploited with simple, straightforward— and affordable—changes, so there is no reason a retailer of any size can’t take full advantage of the power of e-mail marketing. Entry prices and ongoing sending rates are low, but add in some best practice know-how and the results can be impressive. Retailers who set out to implement best practice in e-mail and online marketing will be the ones who buck the trend and enjoy revenue growth—in spite of the gloom on the high street.