Winning sales from abandoned carts, 3: Email best practices

In the past couple of posts, we’ve looked at how techniques on the eCommerce site and retargeting advertisements can recover sales from visitors who’ve abandoned their shopping carts — a potentially lucrative audience that includes 88% of U.S. consumers, according to industry researcher Forrester.

But the most commonly-known technique for reconnecting with cart abandoners is via email — with merchants sending follow-up reminders to shoppers to entice them back to the site and complete their purchases. Although well understood, this tactic still isn’t widely-used: a recent study by email services firm Listrak found that just 18.5% of merchants in the Internet Retailer 500 — that’s less than 1 in 5 — use email to reengage with cart abandoners. The number is even lower for merchants in Internet Retailer’s Second 500 ranking of smaller merchants, Listrak found — just 10.7%.

For merchants who do deploy cart-abandonment recovery campaigns, the payoff can be significant. Food purveyor SmileyCookie.com reported recapturing 29% of abandoned carts — nearly 1 in 3 — with a targeted series of three emails. And remarketing services company SeeWhy found that abandonment email campaigns recover more than 20% of sales on average, and generate a whopping $17.90 per email sent — much higher than typical non-targeted email promotions.

With results like that, merchants should make deploying cart recovery emails a top priority for 2012. To implement effective an effective program, consider these tactics:

Collect email addresses early, but avoid forced account creation.

In order to send cart abandoners a targeted email enticing them back to the site, merchants need to have captured their email addresses in the first place. Increasingly, merchants are attempting to collect addresses via forced account creation — but with 14% of shoppers reporting that a lack of guest checkout drove them to abandon carts in the first place, according to Forrester,  we don’t recommend resorting to such extremes. Instead, use subtler methods to capture this information:

  • Link abandoned carts to email subscribers. Use behavioral tracking technology to flag when a shopper who’s signed up for email updates, then goes on to abandon a shopping cart.
  • Ask for an email address in the very first step of checkout, and explain why. Collect an email address on the initial checkout screen, and clearly state it will be used to contact shoppers if there is a question about their order. Include links to privacy information to boost trust, as Walmart does on the first step of guest checkout.

Email collection example from Walmart

Send a reminder immediately, then follow up.

Fully 54% of cart abandoners who intend to buy will do so in the first 24 hours after leaving the site, SeeWhy found. Another 10% will act within 48 hours; within a week, 82% of those who intend to buy will have pulled the trigger. With the gains after the first 24 hours being incremental, it’s crucial to trigger follow-up emails promptly — sending the first within an hour or two of cart abandonment and the second within a day.

In the case study cited above, SmileyCookie.com sent its first email within 30 minutes of abandonment; the second 23 hours later; and the final message four days later. The first email garnered the highest open and click-through rates.

Message content: don’t default to a discount …

When sending shoppers abandonment email offers, the temptation is strong to offer a discount, such as free shipping, to help close the sale. But such immediate payoffs can “train” shoppers to abandon carts in anticipation of a discount. Instead, experiment with the following messaging:

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