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The 10 most engaging emails of 2016

The 10 most engaging emails of 2016 Chris Marriott
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It's the holiday season, which means it's the time of year when email inboxes seem ready to burst with email. As I sit here writing this on Cyber Monday I can practically hear my email accounts groaning under the volume. And why not? Email marketing continues to be the best marketing tool for keeping customers engaged and spending money with your company. As we come to the end of 2016, we look back and think about how busy it's been in the email space. Zeta Interactive bought Acxiom Impact. Experian announced it was looking for a buyer of its marketing services (email) unit. There were senior management changes at Epsilon and MessageGears, as well as continued growth of the new European providers like Selligent, Emarsys, and Adestra. All these changes and then some could take up several pages of text, but that's not what we're here for right now because the holiday season is also when we traditionally come up with our "10 most engaging emails of the year" list. Faithful readers will recall that earlier this year we wrote about the five most engaging email campaigns of the year up to that point. Now we return to singling out specific emails to share with you.

As I write every year, this isn't a contest anyone entered. These are actual emails received by the team here at Marketing Democracy. The categories are the same we have used every year since first creating the list. And now, without further ado, I give you 2016's list.

Best abandoned cart email: Lands' End

Lands' End returns to the list this year with an outstanding example of an abandoned shopping cart email. The subject line reads "Your Cart is Ready for Checkout," which leaves nothing to the imagination for the subscriber. Nothing wrong with being direct about what you want your recipient to do. The email from Lands' End reflects many of the elements found in other emails making our list this year -- it's simple, direct, and uncluttered. There's a lot of white space, which is easy on the eyes and helps things stand out. It also makes it easy for the subscriber to do what Lands' End wants him or her to do. The email shows you what was left in your shopping cart, and lets you know that a simple click on the item will take you directly to checkout. As an added incentive, the copy lets you know that an extra 20 percent off will be applied directly to your order at the time of checkout -- all of which adds up to the type of experience one should expect from a brand like Lands' End. As in any other marketing communication, there are benefits to reflecting the core values of your brand.

Best coupon email: Thomas Dean

Technically speaking, this email doesn't contain an actual coupon. However, we've broadened our definition to include codes to be used at checkout. So what drew our attention to this email? For starters, we are partial to themed email offers -- when they are done right. This one from Thomas Dean hit our inbox Nov. 8, and it checks all our boxes -- from the "Elect to Save" subject line, to the code "VOTE," to the limitation to the category "Red | White | Blue." Clever copy for the sake of being clever isn't something that works very well in email marketing as it can obscure the message. But here, while the copy is indeed clever, it is also simple, direct, and to the point. This was a bruising election season, and by bringing a little levity and 20 percent savings to its email subscribers, Thomas Dean made election day just a little better than it otherwise might have been. This was something we could all vote for!

Best request for feedback email: NakedWines.com

One of the things that makes compiling this list so interesting every year is how the winners aren't always big brands with big budgets to spend. Each year it seems like at least one relatively obscure brand gets the nod in a category, and this year is no different. Our winner for the best customer feedback email is NakedWines.com. At first glance, this email seems incredibly simple. And from a layout perspective it is. But is also gets a lot of work done despite its simplicity. Choosing a rating of between one and 10 is very easy. Click on a number, and you're taken to a page where you're asked to input your reasons for that rating, and then you continue to the site. So not only are you providing feedback, you're also drawn back into the site where perhaps you will buy more wine! At the bottom of the email you are also informed that there's a mobile app you can download (for free!). And finally, a couple of social links to its Facebook page and Twitter feed. An email marketer will often spend a lot of time and words to communicate what this email does visually. Rate us, check out our app, and maybe follow us on Twitter. It sounds like a lot, but it doesn't look like a lot!

Best deal of the day: Gap

Deals of the Day are no longer the exclusive territory of flash sale sites. Other big retailers are getting into the game, and this year's winning email comes from the Gap and its "Happy Day" email. Most deals and sales focus on a limited number of items. I don't know about you, but nothing is more irritating than getting a code to use at checkout and finding out the exclusions include the very things you are purchasing. Gap solves that dilemma -- and bad brand experience -- by limited its offer to absolutely nothing. Anything you wanted to buy (other than gift cards) was eligible for the 40 percent off code. And when you include everything on your site in the offer, you don't need to clutter up the email with product pictures. Instead, you can focus on the offer in the most simple and direct manner.

Best welcome email: PetSmart

This welcome email from PetSmart shares several attributes with the email from NakedWines.com we looked at earlier. It's simple, while at the same time offering the subscriber several options to engage. A lot of the welcome emails we get are nothing more than that -- acknowledgement that you signed up and a "thank you." What made this email stand out from the pack was how it immediately reminds the subscriber of the benefits of joining, quickly followed by a request to create a profile so you can keep your pet information updated. (Pet owners who sign up for petperks are just the sort who would do this.) Lastly, the welcome email adds an incentive to go visit a store with both a coupon and a store locator. On a side note, this email was also considered in the drive-to-retail and coupon categories. Lots of options to engage combined with a simple layout seems to be traits many of this year's winners share.

Best triggered email: GrubHub

This may have been the easiest category of the year to decide. This is a great example of a new kind of triggered email. What's the big deal, you ask? What you can't see here is the subject line, which reads, "Hey Christopher, it looks like rain in Highland Park!" Highland Park is the town right next to Lake Forest, Illinois, home of the world headquarters of Marketing Democracy. So it was off a little bit from a geography perspective, but it was exactly right about the weather when GrubHub sent this email. Who wants to go out in a torrential downpour? Emails triggered by data outside the marketer's IT environment (like weather reports) have long been a subject of discussion among vendors and marketers, but rarely have they been executed. So it's great to see an example of a marketer using a weather trigger to actually generate business, not just to "show off." Leading email marketers are looking to other sources of trigger data outside of their own systems that can influence subscriber actions, whether it's the weather, the latest sports scores, or something not even thought of yet. But for now, GrubHub takes the top email in this category for 2016 -- and if we had a "best in show" it would be the front runner for that, too!

Best drive-to-retail email: CVS Pharmacy

If it's beginning to feel like CVS makes this list every year, it's because it has made it two of the previous three years. This year it gets the nod for the same category it did in 2014 -- Best-drive-to-retail email. But its winning tactic in 2016 was all new. This year's email leverages data CVS has on prior purchases of various products to drive you back to the store to re-stock. And it includes a coupon for $2 off on the hero product, which can be sent conveniently to your card with no download required. By populating the email with products you actually buy at CVS, the brand increases the likelihood that you will need to replenish your supplies, and the coupon provides an added incentive to do so soon before it expires. And while CVS could have overloaded the email with various products the subscriber previously purchased, it limited the layout to just four. Keeping it clean, keeping it simple.

Best newsletter: Amazon Echo

In spite of the billions of emails it sends each year, this is the first time Amazon has made the top 10 list. And it did it easily, getting the nod for best email newsletter of 2016. This is a newsletter sent to owners each week with news regarding the latest things you can do with your Echo. The decision to send weekly was key for a couple of reasons. First, it prevents each email from being overwhelming to the subscriber. Sending one each week versus once a month lets Amazon focus on only a few features each week. In addition, the weekly cadence turns this newsletter into one of the few emails a subscriber receives that they can look forward to receiving as it hits the same day around the same time each week. Keep the Echo customers engaged with the product keeps them talking about it to their friends -- and gives them things to talk about. As a marketing tool, this email newsletter gets very high marks!

Best re-activation email: Rodale's

This reactivation email was a no-brainer for this category this year. From the subject line "Is This Goodbye?," to the 15 percent savings offer, to the ease of using the offer by simply clicking on the email, this email stood out from all the other re-activation emails we collectively received this year. A lot of re-activation emails ask why you are no longer engaging and/or ask if you want to change your preferences and opt-down to receive fewer emails. Rodale's does a true soft sell, thanking you for your prior business with a 15 percent savings offer and leaving it at that. Not every "silent unsubscribe" is intentional, and sometimes we just need to be reminded that we haven't shown up for a while. If we are any indication of the results, we're guessing this email performed quite well!

Best timed email: StubHub

For the second year in a row a sports-oriented email wins this category. Sent in January of this year, this email reminds the subscriber of all his activity the prior year relating to getting tickets for events through StubHub. It's like a year in review of your sports and entertainment! And the beginning of the year is exactly the time to send such an email. Having reminded the subscriber of all the great events they attended the prior year helps keep StubHub top of mind for scoring tickets again in 2016. And coincidently it also serves the purpose of reminding you that you probably should have gone to a few more White Sox games the previous year. Like many of the other emails cited this year, this one is clean and simple. It doesn't overwhelm the recipient with too much detail, nor does it have unnecessary calls-to-action. Just a couple of possible event that might interest the subscriber listed at the bottom.

So there are your Top 10 for 2016 -- a very interesting mix of well-known big brands with some lesser known smaller brands, proving once again that email marketing is a craft that any size company can master and leverage for growing revenue. The common elements that helped make each of these emails a winner this year was simplicity, valuable offers, and clean layouts and design. It takes a lot to stand out in the inbox, and all of these passed the test.

In January I'll make my predictions for email marketing in 2017, and then in February I'll introduce you to three more email marketing companies to watch in 2017. You won't want to miss either of these! Since this is my last contribution of the year, let me conclude by wishing everyone a very Merry Christmas, a Happy Hanukkah, and a great New Year!

Chris is the President and Founder of Marketing Democracy, LLC. Marketing Democracy provides email marketers with a range of consulting services around vendor selection (RFPs), vendor migration, and email marketing optimization.  Clients...

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