For any consumer application, email is an important tool to drive engagement. Last year, Fred Wilson went as far as calling it “Social Media’s Secret Weapon.” After optimizing the Hunch weekly recommendation emails for a few months last summer, I thought it might be useful to share some of the key lessons we learned to increase user engagement in emails and acquire new subscribers.
As background, while Hunch had transitioned from a consumer destinations site to more of a B2B approach (that eventually led to an acquisition by eBay), we found that sending weekly emails with personalized product recommendations was an effective way to showcase our technology and drive interesting partnerships. So we wanted to make them good. We ran countless A/B tests on groups of 10,000 users to see what worked best. For each test, we tried to constrain by cohort and keep all other variables constant. Below are a few things we learned along the way:
1. Previews in the subject line are key - People get numb to receiving the same subject lines every week, so if you can send a user something different from what they received last week, you’ll get a better response. But probably more importantly, by offering users a preview of the content of the email you’ll increase the chances you’ll catch their interest and get them to open it. Results:
Subject Line 1: 33% Open Rate
Subject Line 2: 40% Open Rate
2. People like clicking on their own name - People like what is familiar, and nothing is more familiar to you than your name. It grabs their attention and calls out that this email is just for them. You’ll notice that Amazon does this on nearly all emails. Results:
Subject Line 3: 44% Open Rate
3. Picture quality is important - Moving from Layout 1 to Layout 2 (shown below) boosted our click-through rates by 16%. It’s true across the web, but we were surprised by the strong effect that switching to large, high quality pictures had on engagement. Results:
Layout 1- 18% Click-out, 1.5% unsubscribe, 1.90 clicks per person.
Layout 2 - 22% Click-out, .9% unsubscribe, 2.44 clicks per person.
4. Editorial should not be overlooked - A/B testing is great for fine-tuning a strategy (climbing higher up the same hill), but often the greatest increases in engagement come from talking to customers and attacking the problem from a different angle completely (climbing a different hill). So, I asked our users what their favorite emails were, and what they loved about them. One consistent piece of feedback was that the best emails had some element of editorial (there’s a reason Groupon employs hundreds of writers). Adding editorial means that each time a user opens an email, they get a human voice talking to them. That is powerful.
Editorial is easy to overlook for a technology company because it isn’t particularly scalable. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t important. So, we developed a method where we chose the best recommendation descriptions for each item, using a combination of software and human judgment. We then included not just a title and picture, but also a description of why this recommendation was being made. As you can see from the results below, this was one of our big innovations in increasing engagement with these emails - people loved the descriptions. Results:
Layout 3- 28% click-out rate, .7% unsubscribe, 2.64 clicks per person.
5. Faded screen overlays are effective - We experimented on the acquisition side by asking people to sign up for our weekly emails on the Hunch website. At first we just put a bar across the top but eventually moved to a faded screen overlay (You’ll notice that Fab.com does this a lot).
It’s hard to argue that these overlays are anything but an annoying user experience. And this test does not take into account long-term usage of the product, which may be effected by this method. But, the facts were clear - it works (and yes we did check the database to make sure the emails we captured were real). Results:
Top Bar - .18% conversion to email signup
Overlay - .99% conversion to email signup
6. Clear messaging lowers the perceived cost of signup - I’d heard anecdotally that with Facebook Connect adding the messaging “We’ll never post to your wall without your permission” increases conversions by 50%. So I thought I’d apply the same principle to our email capture on landing pages. In fact, adding, “We hate spam too and you’ll never see any from us” to our popover increased conversions by 21%. Results:
Popover - 1.20% conversion to email signup
Final Note: Everyone’s product is unique. You’ll notice if you do a quick Google search for “best time to send emails,” the advice is all over the place. The best time to send an email for a content startup sending news articles might not be the best time for an e-commerce company. It’s important to run small tests to find what’s right for your product. But hopefully the above lessons we learned will help you get started.