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Abandoned Cart Emails: Best Practice vs. Common Practice

By Feb 16, 2011

In the third of four research reports on email marketing, Epsilon’s Email Institute and Multichannel Merchant (a sister publication of Chief Marketer) analyzed how 101 top retailers and online merchants responded to abandoned shopping carts. Below are key takeaways from the 2011 Abandoned Shopping Cart Strategies Report, by Email Institute senior editor Amy Tierney, which is available at www.emailinstitute.com. To read the first article in the series, “Email Registration: Best Practice vs. Common Practice,” click here. For the second article in the series, “Welcome Emails: Best Practice vs. Common Practice,” click here.

No matter how compelling your offer or how effective your website, you’ll always have some customers who place items in their virtual shopping cart, then leave without completing the sale. Sometimes you can minimize the risk of this happening by including all pertinent information, including shipping and handling rates, early in the shopping process, so that site visitors don’t have to begin the checkout process to discover exactly how much money in total they’ll be shelling out.

Other times, though, the reasons visitors abandoned their cart is beyond your control. Perhaps they didn’t have their credit card at hand, or ran out of time, or decided to check out a few more websites to see if they could get a better deal.

Fortunately, as a marketer you have a highly effective tool with which to win back these shoppers: automated follow-up emails.

That an abandoned-cart email can work wonders is a fact, as numerous studies and examples have shown. Yet of the 101 retailers analyzed by the Email Institute and Multichannel Merchant between November 2010 and January 2011, only 30.7% sent a follow-up email in response to an abandoned cart containing at least $100 worth of merchandise.

If you’re among the more than two-thirds of retailers that have yet to implement an abandoned-cart email program, here are some tips to get you started:

* Sooner is usually better than later—so long as it’s not too soon. The plurality of the retailers surveyed (32.3%) that use abandoned cart emails send the first one 48-72 hours after the cart was abandoned. That’s generally an effective time frame: If you send an email immediately after the person leaves, he’s apt to feel as if you’re cyberstalking him, but if you wait more than two or three days, he may have forgotten what he’d been shopping for or, worse, might have already purchased it from another merchant.

* Include customer service messaging. Subject lines or copy such as “Did you have a problem at checkout?” or “Need help?” position the trigger email as more of a service nicety and less of a sales pitch. For the same reason, be certain to include links to your customer service pages in the email.

* If at all possible, include a link to the abandoned cart, and refer to the abandoned items in the message. You want to eliminate any obstructions that stand between the customer and the sale, including extraneous clicks. That’s why allowing the shopper to go directly to his abandoned items with just one click is best. And referring to the left-behind products by name and, ideally, with photos is great for jogging memories and reactivating consumers’ desire to buy.

* Include images of related products for cross-selling and upselling. Perhaps by the time he receives the trigger email the shopper has decided against buying that particular widget, or maybe that model has sold out. The inclusion of several similar items, however, may persuade the shopper to return to your site for another look.

* Instill a sense of urgency. You can do this by including an expiration date for when the cart will be cleared or with copy such as “Get it before it sells out.”

* Don’t feel compelled to offer an incentive—but if you do, set up a few business rules for protection. Only 16.1% of the retailers with abandoned cart programs offered a discount, free shipping, or some other sort of sales incentive to lure back shoppers. Some avoid doing so for fear that customers would begin intentionally abandoning carts in hopes of receiving better offers. To avoid that scenario, establish a few business rules within your automation program so that a repeat abandoner receives an incentive only once. Alternatively you could set up rules in which only every nth abandoner is offered an incentive.

* Quantity may equal quality. Of the retailers surveyed that have cart recovery programs, only 16.1% sent more than one follow-up email. The others—and you—would be wise to consider sending two or even more follow-ups, however, as you can’t assume that every recipient opens, let alone reads, every email he receives. If you do opt to send a series of emails, however, make sure to establish business rules that remove a shopper from the series once he completes his purchase. And you should probably also temporarily remove him from receiving your standard promotional emails during the time period in which you’re sending the trigger emails, so that he doesn’t feel bombarded with messages and conflicting offers.

* Test, and test some more. Well, no article on email marketing is complete without a reminder about the importance of testing, is it?