Black Friday and Cyber Monday emails have become a firmly entrenched part of the collective American experience. In light of this (and wanting to see what I could learn about their email marketing), I took a deeper dive into the last 5 years of Amazon.com emails I’ve gotten each November.
While Amazon’s emails are remarkably personalized and targeted, what’s most clear is that Amazon has adapted their email strategy based on broader trends (the rise of Cyber Monday), new learnings in what’s effective (significant changes in subjects based on the rise of mobile), and offline competition (expanding the Black Friday focus) numerous times over the years. The lesson for other companies isn’t so much specific subject lines or topic areas – but instead in how to keep email adaptive and effective.
Different: Emails have adapted extensively to external developments.
Consistent: Highly personalized, geared to making me (the customer) happy and consistent references to what makes Amazon stand out from competition.
5 Years of Amazon Subject Lines
Here are the subject lines:
Beyond the analysis I’ll do here, I’ve probably also revealed more than I ever intended to about myself (though I’ve still yet to figure out why Amazon tried to get me to buy the Large Print Edition of Heart of Darkness in 2009). What’s undeniable is that Amazon has customized how they communicate with me – in a way that is radically different from what existed before the age of Ecommerce.
The Rise of Cyber Monday
By taking a look at the number of emails mentioning “Cyber Monday” (i.e. the Monday after Thanksgiving known for electronics deals), we see that Cyber Monday first started being mentioned in 2009, but it’s being referenced more and more often.
What this means: Consumers are likely becoming more aware of Cyber Monday as an event, and there’s likely an opportunity for software / technology companies to take advantage of this awareness. For the first time this year, I got an early offer from a web host promising hosting discounts.
The Impact of Mobile on the Changing Email Subject Line
If we take a look at the first word in Amazon subject lines, we notice that there’s been a remarkable shift from starting nearly every email with Amazon, to an increasing use of the word Save in 2010, to a shift to less consistent titles in 2011. My hypothesis is that this trend away from consistent subject lines is largely due to a greater reliance on mobile – if people are reading an email on their smart phones, starting with Amazon doesn’t provide enough information to encourage them to open the email (especially when you’re emailing them every single day).
The Competitive Response
Finally, Amazon’s Black Friday deals started earlier and were more pervasive this year than previously. Black Friday deals started 9 days before Black Friday and were released hourly. Given that Target and Best Buy promised to match Amazon prices this year, this shift is hardly surprising.
Play to your Strengths
Each year, Amazon has consistently played to their advantages over other retailers by retaining a focus on why shopping online is better than offline. Their main taglines in their primary Black Friday email on Thanksgiving reliably focus on avoiding the lines of offline retailers:
- Don’t spend Black Friday jostling for parking spots (2008)
- Big Savings, No Waiting (2009 – 2012)
Thanksgiving Email Lessons
The key lesson here is that email strategies (described broadly as how you communicate with customers) needs to be adaptive to what’s happening in the world (And with your business), yet have underlying focus on being personalized and playing to your strengths.
A few specific learnings:
- Take advantage of events. Whether it’s holidays or competitor actions, leverage external events as a chance to reach out to customers and build your relationship with them. The greeting card industry gets a bad rap for inventing holidays – you probably don’t want to invent Valentine’s day, but there might be a way to create consistent communications around holidays, competitive launches or milestones.
- Adapt to changes in technology (i.e. if most people are reading your newsletter on mobile, make sure it fits their use case – not just in terms of content, but also in terms of subject).
- Personalize your communication. Take a look at the last 5 years of Amazon subject lines and you are learning more about me then you are about Amazon. That’s pretty remarkable – and given that they are the largest eCommerce retailer in the world, is what your customers are rapidly growing used to.
Even if all of these ideas sound good, you still have to be both willing to try new things and disciplined about taking a data driven approach to analyzing them afterwards. You send email for the benefit of your customers in the hope that that translates into a positive outcome for your business – so you better understand whether those emails are actually working. Try often, make sure you are being creative and ambitious enough that you sometimes fail, but know that you are continually improving.
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Having previously found that the Obama campaign ended 1 in 6 of their email subject lines in colons, I decided to dive into the last 30 days of election emails (available online thanks to ProPublica) to see what they might tell me about Americans and how we respond to email more broadly.
From free car magnets to exactly which friends we should tell to vote, I realized that the emails we get are about to radically change as political campaigns and businesses get even more sophisticated at poking our psychological triggers and leveraging our social networks.
Do vs. Believe
I decided to create two word clouds out of the subject line to see how the language of each campaign differed. For each campaign, I took all of the email subject lines, took out the candidate names and extremely common words / combined words with the same meaning, and then sized each word based on how many times it was used.
Take a look at the word cloud at the top. Which campaign do you think it’s from? Now, look at this next word cloud:
The top cloud is President Obama, and the bottom is Mitt Romney. The most common words in Obama’s emails were share (or forward, like an email), calls and free – compared to America, help and love in Romney’s emails. Many of Romney’s email subjects wouldn’t have been out of place on motivational posters, while Obama’s would fit better as the names on Facebook buttons.
1. Jump on Facebook, 2. Make some Calls
Diving deeper, this change seemed to be reflected in the purposes of the emails sent. Nearly half (46%) of Obama’s emails explicitly asked the recipient to do something in the email subject line – whether that was to make phone calls, forward a message to friends, or sign-up for something – compared to 28% of emails.
Romney’s emails tended to focus on ideas:
- “A Strong America”
- “This is a time for greatness”
- “We Will Recover”
While Obama’s focused on taking action:
- “Three Things you can do right now”
- “Forward this:”
- “RIGHT NOW: President Obama Needs you to make some calls”
These emails represent strategic choices and differences in voter base certainly, but given the deep sophistication of the Obama campaign covered elsewhere, it’s very likely that giving people you email a direct next step in the subject is actually just more effective in many cases.
Tell Jason, Jim and Leah to Vote
One of the most interesting emails from Obama came on election day and had a personal list of your friends in swing states you should encourage to vote – all mined from your Facebook account if you’d given the campaign permission to access it. Based on other accounts, the Obama campaign knew who the voters on the line were in swing states – and based on these emails, it looks like they also knew which of their friends could encourage them to vote for Obama.
FREE Shipping (and $5 off!)
At varying points in the campaign, Obama was offering free t-shirts, free car magnets, free tickets to see James Taylor and Dave Matthews, free shipping – all to get people to donate. While the idea of free stuff to get people to do things isn’t new, the prevalence of these offers in the campaigns may mean that it’s poised to take over all the marketing emails we get.
3 Key Trends in the Future of Email Marketing
- More and more marketing will come through people we know. By getting people to engage their friends, marketers are able to increase their reach and give a personal touch to an otherwise impersonal ad or email. From mining Facebook data to tracking your demographics and actions around the web, marketers will know who you are, who you know, and what message will be most likely to resonate with you and your friends.
- Direct and clear next steps will become more pervasive. As social psychologists and marketers have long known, giving people an explicit action to take significantly increases the likelihood of them doing it. The Obama campaign emails suggests more and more advertising might include a direct call to action that is tailored explicitly to you.
- Marketing will become better – and harder to resist. As marketers become more sophisticated and metrics-driven, they’ll be able to stop sending you marketing that doesn’t have an impact. If I show that I like celebrities and contests, more of my emails may include free contests to hang out with celebrities.
If the 2008 election was the first election where donations of the masses played a bigger impact than the donations of the rich, then the 2012 election might be remembered as the election where email meant that even the concept of the masses has ceased to exist. We’re entering an age when political campaigns (and business) will send us personalized emails based on who we are and what we like – and they’ll ask us to bring our friends along with us.
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Early in 2012, I signed up for the Barack Obama and Mitt Romney campaigns’ email lists with a rarely used old email address. While I knew that this small dataset couldn’t reveal the extreme sophistication of their email strategies, I set out to analyze the emails I’d received (and rarely read) – and discovered some surprising differences in strategy (at least as it related to the emails I was sent).
The Emails in Numbers
From June 1st through November 5th, I got 35 and 37 emails from Mitt Romney and Barack Obama respectively (see chart above showing cumulative # of emails sent to me over time since June 1st).
There are two main differences you’ll notice – first, the sharp daily dose of Romney emails right after June 1st. Second, the month-long gap that immediately followed them. This gap began June 18th – the same day that I clicked the unsubscribe button on the Romney emails from another email address (once I realized I was signed up twice). While I can’t prove it, impressively, the Romney campaign seemed to realize I might be close to unsubscribing and put me on pause for a month.
Who Sends the Emails
When we break the emails down by who sent them, the results get interesting:
The Obama campaign is twice as likely to send emails from Barack Obama (49% of overall emails coming from him) than the Mitt Romney campaign is to send them from Mitt Romney (23% of overall emails coming from him). While the campaigns are roughly equal on the number of emails coming from Michelle Obama vs Ann Romney or Joe Biden vs Paul Ryan, there is a major difference in the use of others – a bucket largely made up of Zac Moffatt and Matt Rhoades (other Romney staffers) and his son Tagg.
A few hypotheses for why this might be true:
- A difference in strategy to add increased importance to emails from the candidate by sending fewer of them.
- Less candidate allegiance from Republicans in this election (and a greater emphasis on the party).
- Individual targeting or testing differences based on who I am. Had I exhibited some personal behavior that I liked emails from Obama but would prefer other people on the Romney campaign to Mitt? Is there someone out there who see the exact opposite of what I see?
The most interesting aspect of this finding is that it may reflect very real perceptions of what drives voters for each candidate – namely, more voters relating to Barack Obama on a personal level, and more potential Romney voters holding deeper party than candidate allegiances.
The One Word Subject Line
In a similar vein, while none of Romney’s emails had single word subject lines, about 1 in 7 of Obama’s did. Examples:
- Hey (this was a common one)
The one word subject line evokes a certain casualness and personal relationship and this difference seems to parallel many of the media portrayals of the candidates. Are the one word subject lines actually less effective for Romney? It’s hard to say, but what might be most clear is that the campaigns have developed real stylistic differences in how they talk to their constituents – and those could be rooted in the real differences of who their constituents typically are.
The Enigmatic Colon
Very unexpectedly, 1 in 6 of the Barack Obama message subject lines ended in colons (and none of the Romney subjects). Here are a couple of examples:
- Real Quick:
- This Matters:
Given how high this number is, my guess is that the Obama campaign has tested (and shown) that ending a message in a colon makes people more likely to read it. While the circumstances of a presidential campaign are obviously very unique, this isn’t a piece of advice I’ve heard elsewhere (and certainly not one that the Romney campaign has acted on in their emails to me).
The Future of Email may contain more Colons
First off, all of these analyses are based on a single person, and as ProPublica’s attempt to reverse engineer email strategies is starting to show, there are wide variations in what you’ll receive based on where you live, how old you are, whether you’ve donated, etc. As these systems get more complex, it will become more and more difficult to analyze any company or campaign’s email strategy – because that strategy might actually be 300 million different strategies.
That said, the emails will likely always say more about the particular cultures and moods of a campaign or organization at a given point in time. Would Obama letting Biden send more emails have changed how much money was raised? Would a “Hey:” from Mitt Romney have increased his chances of winning my vote?
The email strategies of the political campaigns are among the most sophisticated in the world and are a great indicator of how email will be changing as companies get better at linking the emails they send to the behavior of consumers. Just as Obama and Romney know what makes you press the donate button, companies are getting better every day at knowing how to make you purchase. In the future, it might not just be presidential candidates who are ending emails in colons and varying senders to figure out who you connect with – it might be your local farmers market stand.
Please tell us more about the Obama and Romney emails you’re receiving in the comments and if you want to know more about the future of email marketing, check out Klaviyo. And – go vote.