Email Marketing

Your abandoned-cart email program is valuable to your bottom line, don’t neglect it

While auditing a client’s email program recently, I noticed that the company had not updated its abandoned-cart program for a few years. In digital marketing timelines, that’s like leaving it alone for light-years.

Among other problems, I found that the message template no longer resonated with the brand and missed some obvious optimizations.

It’s regrettable but not unusual. We set it up and then forget about it because it runs in the background while we wrestle with email’s day-to-day issues.

I know what you’re thinking right now. “How long has it been since I checked up on our abandoned-cart emails?” You’re right to be concerned, too.

We think of abandoned-cart programs as a B2C issue, but they also apply to B2B programs where people begin processes like downloads or registrations but never go through with them. Whether you’re in B2B or B2C, you need to stay on top of this automation because it’s one of the most valuable triggered emails you can send.

Why abandoned-cart emails matter

Having a good abandoned-cart reminder lets you reach out in real-time, to a person who showed high intent. This is incredibly valuable.

If you haven’t reviewed your abandonment emails in a while, keep reading for tips to review and update your messages, to be sure they still line up with your brand message, that the images are up to date, your links and calls to action still work and your messages look and function right on mobile.

But first, a little history

We’ve come a long way, baby. Back in the day, the abandoned-cart email was one of the first automated messages we could send.

Companies like Omniture would send files with contact information for all the people who had abandoned their carts in the previous 24 hours. Some of us figured out how to automate the process so we could take in the information and send out abandoned-cart reminders the next day.

We experimented with details like design, time and message content, too. Sound familiar?

Then, in the early 2000s, a company called SeeWhy, introduced technology that would allow marketers to send the abandoned-cart email within an hour instead of waiting for that overnight file delivery.

Why was the one-hour window so important? Because the company also found that response rates were highest in that first hour after abandonment. You can’t believe what an earthquake that caused.

Talk about minting money!

What the technology and thought leadership showed us was that no matter how hard we think about a particular thing in direct marketing, there’s always something we aren’t thinking about or another way to think about it.

I’m all about thinking outside the box, and that’s what SeeWhy did. They redefined email automation and thinking in a way that still continues today.

5 areas to optimize in your abandoned-cart program

If you’re one of the 32% of marketers who send abandoned-cart emails (according to Econsultancy’s 2019 Email Census), congratulations! Now let’s look at five areas that you should check to be sure your program is running at peak production and efficiency.

1. Timing

SeeWhy changed the pendulum from 24 hours to 1 hour for sending out your first cart-abandonment program. But that doesn’t mean you should just accept that, set your reminder for an hour and forget about it.

Every business is different, with different verticals and customers. Your customers might respond better to an earlier message or one sent later. Test to find your optimal time, given your customer expectations and demographics.

If you have your first email set to go at an hour, why? Did you do it because somebody said the hour was best or because you tested it yourself? A few tweaks can make a huge difference in results.

For one client, we merely changed the timing of three emails. The conversion rate increased and continues to rise.  Small tweaks can move the needle.

Millennial audiences might want to see that reminder email within 5 minutes. An older customer might be fine with one or two hours later.

2. Discount or no discount?

While I was at Acxiom, we studied how shoppers at different income levels bought fashion. What we learned refuted the conventional retail thinking that everybody needs a discount to be persuaded to buy something.

Instead, the two most valuable cohort groups were motivated by “How does this look on me?” and “What’s the label?”

For your abandoned-cart email, TEST a discount. Like everything else, your decision should depend on your brand equity, your customers,  your merchandise array and other factors. But not everybody needs a discount.

But be careful about using discount codes as incentives to persuade someone to purchase. Savvy shoppers know about sites that offer permanent discounts to bring back abandoners. So they deliberately abandon their carts because they want that extra 10% to 20% off and they know they’ll get it.

So, the company gets the sale, but then they sacrifice margin when they might not have had to.

One retail company tested to see whether discounts would encourage more purchases when included in a welcome email. It found that discounts didn’t really matter.

Set up your own tests to see whether a discount will bring back more abandoners, the amount that moves the need and where the discount is most effective in the email series.

3. The brand voice in the email

Note: All emails are from my personal inbox; I am not affiliated with any of the companies listed.

Abandoned-cart emails have three general voices in the inbox:

  • Helpful: It says, “Did something happen?” It recognizes that one reason people abandon carts is because something came up. Shoppers get distracted. The doorbell rings. The baby cries. The dog wants to go out or come back in. Or they want to keep shopping or just think about a purchase before clicking the “Buy Now” button. These emails say, “If something happened, call us to help.” These work in B2C but are very effective in B2B.
  • Matter of fact: These have a neutral tone. “You left something in your cart. Add it back.” As a consumer, I find these messages to be ineffective and sometimes lazy. As a marketer, I see them as a prime opportunity to express your brand voice in a high-opportunity message. These emails state facts but don’t give shoppers any reason to go back to their carts or offer them any help in solving problems or getting questions answered.
  • The presumptive close: These emails are more assertive. I see these frequently in travel and hospitality. Instead of asking me to complete my transaction, they say, “Are you ready to go to Nashville?” or “Let’s get that trip booked today.” The key is on the excitement of going somewhere, not just completing a transaction. They also assume you have high intent and just need to push the button.

The voice and tone you use in your abandonment emails need to fit with your brand voice. Look at how you communicate across every other touchpoint in your marketing arsenal. Is that reflected in your abandonment emails?

4. Online advertising

This is something I’ve been seeing more of, and it’s annoying. One is browsing remarketing. If I browse dishwashers on a retail website, then I’m seeing dishwashers everywhere I go.

The other is companies that use the item I put in a cart to advertise to me. Not in the sense of “Hey, you left things in your cart,” but more like featuring it as an in-store special. We all know this comes from browsing the website. We aren’t fooled.

If you pair online advertising with your abandonment email, what’s the effect? Does it help redeem more carts? Try using a soft sell. Mix cart products with more innocuous products to make your email appear less creepy and annoying.

Take advantage of everything you can do in your marketing channels to maximize responses. This includes direct mail.

5. Test, test, test and test. Then, test again

What we learned 20 years ago, and what we must remember today, is that abandoned-cart email is not a cookie-cutter program. From timing to voice, design to a number of emails in a series – it can all get daunting. But it’s an important program to get all the variables right.

Look at everything that could help raise response rates, and test them thoroughly. You need to be able to say with authority, “I know this is set up the right way.”

You also need to create a testing plan and then a log of your testing results. It’s important to remember whatever path you chose, make sure you’re testing appropriately to know you’re set up for success.

I could write a book about how to design, test and time these emails, so this is not the end-all and be-all of what you can do. But it’s a start!

A few more starting points:

  • Test emails with product images in the cart and without images
  • Test different levels of personalization
  • Test how many emails to send
  • Test how soon to send out your first abandonment reminder
  • Test cadence – the timing between email sends

Also, measure the revenue you earn from each abandonment email instead of just looking at the total revenue.

Wrapping up

Your abandoned-cart email program is a money tree program. These are programs that run in the background and make you money every day. They’re essential to your revenue mix. Be sure you have optimized these emails and keep looking at them to be sure they’re still on the right track.

And remember – We just started the third decade of the 21st Century. We don’t have to wait until midnight to get daily files on our abandoning customers anymore.


Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land. Staff authors are listed here.


About The Author

Ryan Phelan is co-founder of Origin Email and brings nearly two decades of worldwide online marketing and email experience. Ryan is a respected thought leader and nationally distinguished speaker with a history of experience from Adestra, Acxiom, BlueHornet, Sears Holdings, Responsys and infoUSA. In 2013 he was named one of the top 30 strategists in online marketing and is the Chairman Emeritus of the EEC Advisory Board. Ryan also works with start-up companies as an advisor, board member and investor.

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