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The 10 most innovative emails of 2015

The 10 most innovative emails of 2015 Chris Marriott

It's the New Year, and with the changing of the calendar comes a topic I cover annually -- the 10 most innovative emails of the year. With platforms continuing to get better, and email marketers continuing to get savvier, this might have been the toughest selection process yet!

As a reminder, this isn't a contest anyone entered. Like usual, email marketers had to get into my email inbox, or get noticed and shared with me by other email mavens. The categories reflect my thoughts on which types of emails are most strategic in nature and, when done right, can have the biggest impact on a marketer's business. So, without further ado, I give you 2015's list.

Best abandoned cart email: Dick's Sporting Goods

The use of abandoned cart emails continues to be leveraged by a minority of email marketers even after they have proven their value over and over again. And yet they are the easiest way to re-engage someone who has already raised his or her hand and indicated interest in purchasing something from you. In the early days of abandoned cart emails marketers were always concerned not to appear like "big brother." These days that concern justifiably feels a little outdated, which is why this email from Dick's stands out.

The subject line, "Check out today," is direct, and to-the-point, offering the incentive of free shipping to induce the desired action by the recipient. It's not an overly complicated email -- it features a picture of the exact product left in the cart with a button you can click on to return directly back to you cart to check out. Reinforcing the subject line of the email, a large graphic sits above the product with the copy "Purchase today and we'll take care of your shipping and handling." Incentive, product, and one-click return are what made this email stand out.

Best coupon email: Sears

This email from Sears seems to follow the principal that if one coupon is good, more coupons are better, which proved to be a winning formula for this category this year. There are several smart things at work in this email. First is the timing, as it landed in my inbox just as people are starting to think about all the holiday entertaining they were likely to be doing during the 2015 holiday season. If there ever was a time when you think about the state of your household appliances, the prospect of upcoming houseguests and dinner parties is probably that time. The second really smart thing at work in this email is that it provides coupons to both repair existing appliances and buy new ones. This coupon option conveys the idea that Sears in here to help you with all your holiday appliance needs, and isn't just trying to sell you something new: "Hey, we're happy to fix it for you!" (I'll bet many of you didn't even know Sears did in-home repairs.) 

Finally, the layout of the email itself is smart and hard-working. At the top you see the repair team, the coupon value, and the "repair" button to click and get things started. At the bottom you see shiny new appliances, your two coupon values, and the "replace" button to get things started. And between both areas is a row of icons representing the types of appliances Sears will repair. That's a lot to cover, and it's done is a simple and direct layout.

Best request for feedback email: Six Flags

Like I wrote last year, this category is a tough one as most people can't be bothered to do what is, in essence, something that could be viewed as doing a favor for a company. Unless you have had a terrible experience with a product or service, you're not necessarily going to take the time to respond to such a request. In that light, there are several things that moved this email to the top of this category. First, it's both a "thank you" and a request for feedback -- feedback Six Flags wants to make your next visit even better. People liked being thanked for their business, particularly since generally the price of entry to theme parks can be quite high for the right to wait in long lines for short rides.

The second thing about this email is that it comes from the "Office of the Park President." Now I don't know if he is actually going to read each survey response, but being asked to fill out a survey by people in high places certainly beats the same request from some minor marketing functionary. (P.S., I checked and Charles "Hank" Salemi is real, and is really the president of Six Flags Great America). Finally -- and this is a common element of many of this year's winners -- I like the simple design with two prominent calls-to-action: take the survey and sign up for the newsletter. And whether deliberately or not, they downplay the chance to win tickets to the park if you take the survey. Given that 99.99 percent of the people who do so will not win, it's a good move in my book.

Best deal of the day: Sierra Day Post

If you happened to catch a recent webinar in which I was a participant on the subject of -- what else -- email marketing, then you already know I'm a big fan of Sierra Trading Post's emails. Broadly speaking, in the category of flash sales and daily deals, the emails tend to feature as many products as possible in the hope that something catches the eye of the subscriber, which is fine if your goal is to look like everyone else in the category. Where Sierra Trading Post stands out is in its ability to combine good branding with offer-oriented content. This email alone manages to communicate 3 distinct offers -- $.99 shipping with no minimum, at least 80 percent off, and destination deals extra 15-20 percent off -- while at the same time using a hero image that feels very much like the brand itself. By building up its brand, Sierra Trading Post is able to move beyond the "good deals" positioning of most flash sites to more of a "good deals for someone like me." That's likely to result in higher open rates over the long haul.

Best welcome email: Sur la table

The trouble with a lot of welcome emails these days is that they try to do too much at once. That's not the case with this welcome email from Sur la table. The key objective of any welcome email is to confirm for the new subscriber that they have, in fact, successfully subscribed -- and it's always nice to start with a "thank you" like the one in this email. It sets a nice tone for the relationship going forward. Following that, a short and simple reminder of why the person subscribed promotes continued engagement with the brand via email and web. Options are limited for the email opener to either click to go shop, or click to learn more about gift cards or the gift registry. Both of the latter click options are fairly predictable activities for someone engaging with this brand and feel at home in this welcome email. Simple, clean, and elegant design all service to reinforce the brand image of Sur la table. The runner-up in this category deserves a mention as the decision came down to the wire -- Nordstrom has a great welcome email, too.

Best triggered email: Petco

One of the more frustrating things to happen when you are ordering something online is to get to checkout only to find that the product you are trying to purchase is not available. Oftentimes that is all the information you are provided, so you're left wondering if what you are trying to buy is gone forever or simply out of stock at the moment. Offering someone the ability to sign up for an email notification when the product is back in stock neatly solves this problem for the customer, and makes it that much more likely that he or she will come back and make that purchase at some point in the future.

This type of triggered email demonstrates that oftentimes good old marketing commonsense makes for the best triggers. One doesn't need to overthink triggers to make them brutally efficient -- "Hey, just check this box and we'll let you know when you can get it." Overall, this is a very strong email. However, the customer doesn't need to be told that the internet sale price is no lower than the regular price… it's a good rule of thumb to not go around promoting a sale price that isn't a sale price.

Best drive-to-retail email: Bed Bath & Beyond

I really like emails that work hard, and like the Sears email shown earlier, this email from Bed Bath & Beyond does many things simultaneously -- without coming across as cluttered or confusing. In one email, Bed Bath & Beyond communicates, 1) there's free shipping over $49, 2) you can order online, and pick up at your local store, 3) there's an in-store clearance event with up to 50 percent off, 4) sheets for 30 percent off, 5) there's a circular coming in the mail with a coupon, and 6) a reminder where the closest store is. Despite the volume of information hitting the subscriber, thanks to some good design work the key message regarding the circular and in-store coupon comes across loud and clear. It's likely the first thing you see upon opening the email. The combination of a coupon in the mail and an in-store clearance event is as good a drive-to-retail email as I've seen recently, which is why this email rose to the top this year.

Best newsletter: American Airlines

American Airlines, a past winner for "Best triggered email," gets the prize this year for best newsletter. Given the ongoing consolidation of AA and US Airways, there's a lot of news to be disseminated, and AA's email newsletters do an excellent job of navigating customers through the process, while at the same time highlighting all of the good things going on. The section headers of the newsletter are clear and helpful to get you to what you want to read without having to read everything -- remember, people don't read email, they scan it. It is a lot to scroll, however, which is something AA should bear in mind for future editions. Cutting the copy in the email in half would make it a lot better. Despite that, it's the top choice this year for email newsletters.

Best re-activation email: Avis

Usually when we think about a re-activation email, we think about an email intended to provoke re-engagement with a company's promotional emails. What made this email stand out in the inbox was that it takes re-engagement a step further by providing the subscriber with a very compelling reason for the subscriber to transact, as well. This makes sense since the more business one does with a company, the more likely that person is to engage with that company's email campaigns. People don't normally open emails from a company they don't do business with.

Best timed email: Wrigleyville Sports

Retailers of sports apparel have gotten pretty good in the last few years at sending emails for championship teams' apparel after a championship game is played, usually almost immediately. What made Wrigleyville Sports stand out for timing this year was its series of three emails in successive days, pitching apparel and other items associated with Joe Madden (Manager of the Year), Jake Arrieta (Cy Young Award), and this one for Kris Byrant (NL Rookie of the Year). The email team at Wrigleyville had all three of the emails teed up and ready to go, depending on the outcome of each award category a Cubs player could win. And while the 2015 Cubs didn't finish the job on the field, they swept all three of these categories. These emails were well-designed, single-minded, and timed perfectly to launch right after the winners were announced.

So there are your top 10 for 2015. We had some repeat winners and welcomed several new brands last year. Email platforms keep getting better, as do email marketers themselves. It seems to get harder every year to pick the winners. So congratulations to the 10 brands featured here.

Chris Marriott is president and founder of his newly launched, email-focused RFP consulting business, The Marketing Democracy.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia at @iMediaTweet.

"Businessman pointing at an email icon" image via iStock.

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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