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Because I’m a sucker for punishment, two weeks ago I signed up nine different travel websites in order to see how each company uses email marketing.

Here are the sites I chose: Easyjet, Ryanair, Thomas Cook, Secret Escapes, Voyage Prive, Expedia, Mr & Mrs Smith, The Weekenders and Skyscanner.

I’ll be looking at the frequency of emails, the use of subject lines, the email content itself, special offers, editorial voice, personalisation, relevance… All of the many tools that a company can utilise to coerce the recipient to open up an email or even engage with it.

Will this be the equivalent of leaving a skylight open during a storm, or your front door open during a riot?

Let’s take a look at my inbox, to see how it looks right now, two weeks after sign up. Please note, in a rare moment of sensible thinking, I set up a different email address to do this.

Frequency

Here’s the frequency of emails per company over the two-week period: 

  • Secret Escapes: 13
  • Voyage Prive: 6
  • Expedia: 4
  • Thomas Cook: 3
  • Mr & Mrs Smith: 3
  • Easyjet: 2
  • Skyscanner: 0
  • Ryanair: 0
  • The Weekenders: 0

The Weekenders, Ryanair and Skyscanner are definitely missing an easy trick here. I'm actually inviting them to send me email marketing for heaven's sake.

Secret Escapes on the other hand are really gunning for my attention with its daily emails. It feels a little much.

These are all fairly generic emails, with the same distributed content that all of its subscribers receive. There’s little personalised to the trips I’ve searched for on the site or enough variation in the subject lines.

How much email is too much email? Marketers need to strike a fine balance between remaining in a recipient’s consciousness and relevant to their customers without overwhelming them or coming across as spam. It’s a difficult line to straddle.

However for travel companies, I would suggest that as holidays are a significant investment and aren’t the most frequent of annual purchases, a daily email definitely becomes part of the general white noise of irrelevance.

That being said, Secret Escapes offers a wide-range of discounted UK based trips that won’t dent budgets significantly. Perhaps it feels like the frequency of emails is justified by offering a variation in price points?

This could certainly be more strategic, with emails specifically capturing the attention of someone who might like a last-minute weekend trip to somewhere a few hours away.

Going back to the point I made earlier about staying at the front of a customer’s mind. Secret Escapes are obviously making this part of its strategy. Filling up inboxes in order to make sure its not drowned out by other marketing emails.

It knows you’re not going to purchase a holiday every day, Secret Escapes is making sure its recipients are always aware that it exists and will likely think of Secret Escapes when they eventually come to booking a holiday.

At what point does a recipient tire of the deluge and hit the ‘unsubscribe’ or ‘spam’ buttons though?

Subject lines

Using some very simple guidelines laid out in the post email subject lines best practice - personalisation, relevance, good length, originality variation and avoiding these 45 words - let’s take a look at some of the best examples from my inbox.

I’ve said before how much I don’t like the use of symbols. Smiley faces, wingdings, hearts, … anything beyond standard text can make a perfectly legitimate newsletter look spam, which is not only off-putting to our eyes but can also trigger spam filters.

However, looking at the entire content of my promotions inbox, it’s clear which email stands out the most…

Travelocity achieved a 10.7% lift in unique opens by using a little airplane in its subject line. It proves that relevancy to content and uniqueness is imperative to proper symbol use.

Other than that, there are a lot of generic deals and offers that don’t exactly scream ‘open’ but here a few that caught my eye because of their variation.

I really like the provocative and attention-grabbing quote used from celebrity guest writer Sue Perkins by Mr & Mrs Smith.

It’s different, funny, stands out from the rest and also shows that Mr & Mrs Smith has a strong editorial voice that means that this won’t be a 100% sales-focussed email.

EasyJet is the only company here to use personalisation using the details I gave during sign-up.

However personalisation means nothing if your data isn’t correct and you don’t have 100% confidence in it, in fact using a person’s name doesn’t really impact the open rate and can come across as needy or begging. Personalisation tends to work best when it’s location or intent based.

Email subject lines are most appealing when they don’t sound like an advert. Words like free, save, % off, don’t miss, sale and hurry are catnip for spam triggers. Try more interesting examples like these:

This is one of the worst examples in my inbox…

A cynical attempt at hijacking the World Cup, which also has absolutely nothing to do with the second half of the subject, which is a generic discount offer.

This is horribly generic and manipulative too. It’s also meaningless.

Content

Finally we get to the content of the emails…

I wrote about Onefinestay’s commitment to strong editorial voice in five evocative examples of ecommerce copywriting, and this is carried over to its emails.

I also like the continuity between the subject line and content, the clear yet subtle call-to-action and the fact that the email solely focuses on this particular location.

This is in direct contrast to Secret Escapes endlessly scrolling emails that deliver offer after unrelated offer in a scattershot affair.

What you’re seeing above is the first of 14 offers in one email.

The only thing that separates Secret Escapes and Voyage Prive’s emails is the name of each company. They pretty much have the same format. Although Voyage Prive has twice as many offers per email.

This is the first of 30 unrelated locations in one email.

At least each one clicks through to a relevant landing page.

Expedia has some of the worst examples here. Getting past the ALL CAPS subject line with the filter-baiting ‘flash sale’, this email shows no examples of offers in the sale, the ‘live’ clock running down to create urgency doesn’t work and finally the email clicks-through to what feels like a fairly generic landing page.

The ‘stop, look, save’ email does exactly the same as above, only this time the content doesn’t really feel particularly relevant to the subject and again it leads to a generic search landing page. There’s nothing enticing, no concrete examples, just meaningless marketing sludge.

EasyJet has a better attempt at trying to find out what new customers might be interested in. It knows I’ve just signed up, hence the nicely inspiring ‘let’s work that passport’. Then I also like the feature below that gives you a handful of holiday types (beach, nightlife, business) with one offer example for each.

This is great as it doesn’t overwhelm the recipient (like Secret Escapes) yet does offer a few concrete examples of offers (unlike Expedia). Also when you click through, it takes you through to a search form with all the relevant details automatically filled in.

I like Mr & Smith’s focus on editorial and strong subject line usage. The only thing it trips on is within the body of the email itself.

This is the top of the 'Apparently that isn’t the done thing in a five-star hotel' email I mentioned earlier…

Despite the personalisation, attractive single image and well-written and laid-out copy, there is no reference to the subject whatsoever.

In fact you have to scroll through seven different offers and three screen lengths before you get to the content you were interested in reading.

It’s imperative that your subject lines are relevant to your content and offer immediate gratification when opening. This just feels slyly manipulative.

For a similar investigation, read how the fashion ecommerce industry uses email marketing.

For more on email marketing best practice from Econsultancy, download our latest Email Marketing Best Practice Guide

Christopher Ratcliff

Published 12 June, 2014 by Christopher Ratcliff

Christopher Ratcliff is the editor of Methods Unsound. He was the Deputy Editor of Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or connect via Google+ and LinkedIn

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Chicago Creative Agency

Thanks for the post, Chris. It's interesting that travel companies still use email marketing so much, rather than social media.

about 2 years ago

Pete Austin

Pete Austin, CTO at Fresh Relevance

Very good article. Interesting how travel company emails have improved over recent years.

Note that two of the points that you mention could be artifacts of multivariant testing.

(1) Secret Escapes and Voyage Prive emails are basically a long list of offers and I would expect them to run continuous testing to see what number of offers performs best - most emails with the current best number, some emails with less offers and some emails with more.

It's a dirty secret of email testing that, while most subscribers receive the best copy, a few don't. Maybe you were one of the unlucky ones who got an over-long list.

(2) The headline "apparently this isn't the done thing in a five-star hotel" smells exactly like a copy-writer experimenting with wacky subject lines for a multivariate test.

In cases like this they can't make the copy match all versions. But if it worked well for them I expect they would experiment with varying the order of the copy along the lines of your suggestion for subsequent days.

about 2 years ago

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Henri

I don't think those companies that didn't send you any emails in two weeks are necessarily missing out. After all, how often do people fly for leisure? Certainly not a holiday every month.

I certainly wouldn't put up with being spammed every day by these offers and would hit the unsubscribe button immediately. In fact, I never subscribe to companies' newsletters in the first place because I found out they are too commercial - no info, just sales, sales, sales.

I must be an odd one out given how many people subscribe to newsletters.

about 2 years ago

Pete Austin

Pete Austin, CTO at Fresh Relevance

@Henri I agree that most people don't fly regularly, but when someone signs up at a travel site, it's a very strong signal that they are planning to travel soon.

So sending email(s) as soon as possible is a good idea. Then reduce contact frequency later to avoid looking like spammers, if there's a period when the subscriber doesn't engage with the travel site.

about 2 years ago

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Lugassy Dan

in addition to Pete's comment, travel companies should also calculate the average number of days between subscription and booking or enquiries to estimate the right frequency of sending.

about 2 years ago

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Matt Lovell, Group Head of Customer Insight & Analytics at Thomas Cook AirlinesEnterprise

Really interesting analysis. Also amused that you picked out the Thomas Cook one to question the subject line of as it was something we flagged to the package holidays team when we received it too!

The thing that intrigues me, being signed up to the majority of these for work purposes is how little thought goes in to understanding what the customer is looking for and tailoring accordingly. With the Secret Escapes emails for example, while I have no doubt they optimise their content / length of emails, they do this generically rather than for an individual user which is almost worse than not optimising at all.

Similarly, I'm with Pete on the need to engage someone as soon as possible after they sign up for an email. After all, if they were already on your site it sounds like they may already be shopping. Leaving it two weeks to send them anything could result in you missing out with that customer.

about 2 years ago

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