December and January are often seen as “peak” periods for many marketers as the new year often means new budgets — and all too often old stock. For retail, e-commerce, and travel, January tends to be a busy period.

In this month’s report, we look at seasonal trends in email marketing as well as the key metrics, such as overall customer engagement rates, across the thousands of clients we work with and the campaigns they send out to billions of their customers. A common theme here is that despite the comfort of stable engagement and revenue, as modern marketers, we must always challenge ourselves to work smarter, faster, and more accurately.

Trends in Email: Flat and Safe vs. Rising and Innovative

When we look at Emarsys email marketing rates across all verticals, we want to ensure that we help our clients understand what “good” looks like by providing you with a way to benchmark your own results against three axes — Top 25%, Median, and Bottom 25% as shown in Chart 1. To improve your overall marketing efficiency, you have to understand the things you’re already doing well and where you can still optimize.

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Chart 1: Email rates across all verticals as of Feb. 2018.

To get an idea of the averages across these three performance groups, let’s take a closer look at open and click-through rates (see Chart 2) for February 2017 through February 2018 to see how much these averages peak and drop.

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Chart 2: Email open and click-through rate trendlines across all verticals (Feb. 2017 — Feb. 2018).

There is not a lot of variance among the three groups, but we see very steady results across all verticals. In fact, we see that more and more clients are getting consistent results in many of their key marketing metrics.

Within e-commerce, we see that despite marketing planning (and stress levels!) being focused on the all-important holiday period year-round, email open and click-through rates are pretty stable over time (see Chart 3).

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Chart 3: Email open and click-through rate trendlines in e-commerce (Feb. 2017 — Feb. 2018).

Even when we look at revenue, we don’t see a lot of deviation in conversion rates for first-time buyers or active repeat purchase customers, as shown in Chart 4.

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Chart 4: Conversion rates by lifecycle status in e-commerce (Feb. 2017 — Feb. 2018).

But are these relatively flat trendlines a good thing?

Stable is safe, but safe also means we’re not innovating or improving our marketing effectiveness. Many businesses want to test out new ideas and improve, but all too often they find that “Business as usual” gets in the way — no one has enough free time to experiment with something new.

How Timing Alone Can Move the Needle

A quick win for optimizing email campaigns (to drive opens, clicks, and conversions as well as lower unsubscribes) is to lean on AI to answer a key question: when is the best time to send each campaign?

We looked at client email campaigns that used one of our AI Marketing (AIM) tools, the Send Time Optimization (STO) application, and the results were staggering. As shown in Chart 5, of the 346 million opens in the period from August 2017 to March 2018, the average uplift was 2.59%. The content, subject lines, and audience are all the same; the time of send was the only difference.

Chart 5: Send Time Optimization monitoring, showing global performance and effect on open rates (Aug. 2017 — Mar. 2018).

We see similar rises in click-through and conversion rates from campaigns using STO against a control group (the normal time the campaign is scheduled for), but make sure you’re changing the control times as you optimize to ensure you get statistically relevant results.

Another insight the data shows us is that we can also use STO to impact unsubscribes. Again, when sending the same content and subject lines to the exact same audience, the send time makes a big difference in unsubscribe rates (as shown in Chart 6). Ultimately, applying STO means more marketing opportunities in the future, less database attrition, and better customer lifetime values — without any extra effort from the teams using it.

Chart 6: Send Time Optimization monitoring, showing global performance and effect on unsubscribe rates (Aug. 2017 — Mar. 2018).

Better Campaign Performance with Automation

One great sign of our commitment to innovation is that we continue to develop and make new AIM tools available to our clients that will help boost static results. One of the simplest tactical tools is our Automation Center, which allows you to deploy trigger- or behavior-based campaigns. Automation also makes it possible for you to introduce new email or multi-channel campaigns into your BAU which can drive more opens, clicks, and revenue. As you can see in Chart 7, automation makes a huge difference in campaign performance.

Chart 7: Automation Center vs. ad-hoc click-through rates across all verticals as of Feb. 2018.

For top-performing brands, click-through rates of Automation Center campaigns are on average 6.46% compared to 3.08% in their ad-hoc emails — more than double the effectiveness! Automated campaigns are always on a smaller scale (because audiences for automated campaigns are smaller than those that ad-hoc campaigns target), but because they’re “always on,” you can set them up, let them run, and spend your time on other campaigns and strategy.

Throw Down the Gauntlet at Your Own Feet and Challenge Yourself

If every business introduced one new Automation Center campaign each month or quarter, they could drive huge gains in their revenue streams. Create a challenge for yourself and your marketing team — do something different. Just one thing, in a timeline all stakeholders can agree on, and ask yourself what’s the one thing you’ll do above BAU in the next 3 months?

If you don’t know where to start, take a look at our “Complete Beginner’s Guide to Marketing Automation” as well as our whitepaper “7 Steps to Successful Retention Automation.” We’ve also created “Marketing Automation Blueprints” within the Emarsys marketing platform where you can access an ever-growing library of blueprints to help get you started based on the most common high-impact marketing problems you might encounter across the customer lifecycle. For example, among Emarsys clients, abandoned cart and post-purchase automations often bring in “undiscovered” revenue for a brand within weeks — not months — of deploying.

We’ve also built content blocks into our Email Recommender toolset that will pre-populate these marketing blueprints with content directly from the available products on your website, mobile site, and mobile app. These blocks can also be used in your ad-hoc marketing campaigns in the drag-and-drop editor, leveraging AI-driven personalization in your content strategy.

For many of us, changing BAU and optimizing those “static” results require AI and machine learning to help us take in all the data we generate and help us make better decisions about not just what to send, but when we should send. Once you take these tasks off the marketer’s plate and give them to the machine, we can focus on the human-driven elements like strategy, content, and creative that drive long-term effectiveness of our marketing.