The Q4 2018 Megaphone Report surveyed the email marketing campaigns of 44 brands and retailers, which sent a total of 644 emails during December 2018.

This Megaphone Report is available to all members. Future Megaphone Reports will be exclusively available to Plus, Team and Premier Members.

Our research calculates and classifies marketing via two different channels: email marketing and paid digital marketing, which includes Facebook and Instagram. Our analysis of these channels gives you an inside look at how consumer brands and retailers are navigating the marketing landscape, while allowing you to benchmark your own company’s marketing efficiency.

Surveyed companies are identified by Origin (Traditional, meaning it started either offline or both offline and online; or Digital, meaning it started online only) and Type (Brand or Retailer). When relevant, brands and retailers are analyzed separately.

Facebook and Instagram advertising

Loose Threads surveys all active paid Facebook & Instagram advertisements during the middle of each quarter. For special reports, data is captured during the pertinent week, such as during the Black Friday long weekend.

As Facebook and Instagram ads run on the same ad manager, they are surveyed together.

Email marketing

Loose Threads receives emails from each brand and retailer in the Megaphone roster. Our current approach is grounded in surveying how these brands market to a potential customer, versus an existing one.

The RealReal set the record for the highest number of marketing emails at 77, or almost 20 per week, followed by Revolve and Everlane.

With 77 marketing emails in December 2018, Revolve had one of the largest multi-channel marketing presences. It was also the sole company to be a top-five contender for highest number of marketing emails and highest number of paid Facebook & Instagram ads—recall that the retailer’s 431 Facebook & Instagram ads during the survey period were bested only by Nike—possibly driven by its upcoming IPO. In contrast, Nike sent only 14 marketing emails compared to its whopping 778 active Facebook & Instagram ads during the survey period, proof that it is using more personalized messaging on social platforms than in its emails, which it treats more like generic brand advertising.

Two traditional retailers, Nordstrom and Nordstrom Rack, sent out the fourth and fifth highest number of marketing emails during the survey period, respectively. This illustrates that while digitally-native brands and retailers have a vast presence on both social media and in shopper’s inboxes, traditional companies are also active online, albeit in a more traditional channel.

In any case, brands and retailers must be wary of oversaturation. The RealReal and Revolve need to be the most careful about continuing their respective barrage of emails. While Revolve is often associated with influencer marketing, the company claims that it spends 75% of its advertising budget on data-driven performance marketing—email campaigns, paid ads and mobile push notifications—that seem to be converting to sales, at least for now. The effectiveness of these performance marketing tactics—and the ability to own the customer relationship without being disintermediated by platforms like Facebook—will become increasingly important as social media ad costs rise.

Playbook

  • How do you square your email campaign frequency with your short-term and long-term revenue goals? How much is too much?

Supreme sent only one marketing email, while Allbirds and Hims each sent two during the four-week survey period.

* This table excludes Dirty Lemon, Louis Vuitton, Tuft & Needle and Zara, each of which ran zero marketing emails during the survey period.

Cult-favorite Supreme sent only one marketing email during the survey period, staying true to its brand image that is built around its weekly product drops, which drive sales more than anything in a shopper’s inbox. The brand does not need to advertise the weekly drop since it’s habitual for anyone paying attention (e.g. anyone who is a core customer). In fact, the brand’s single email previewed a new collection based on Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” thereby driving Supreme’s drop model forward.

Low email marketing activity is not always representative of a company’s holistic marketing strategy. Peloton, for example, ran 249 ads on Facebook & Instagram during the survey period, despite sending only three emails. This imbalance suggests that Peloton expects more of its shoppers and potential customers to be actively perusing their newsfeeds than sorting through their inboxes—or that the brand views social media (and increasingly television) as a better medium with which to market its products. Out of the three emails Peloton sent, one discussed applying for an installment payment plan and one highlighted the basics of a Peloton subscription—two explanations that require more space than a small Instagram square or Facebook ad would allow.  

Playbook

  • How can you use email campaigns to boost a core aspect of your brand like Supreme did with previewing a new collection of product drops—a central tenet of its merchandising and brand?
  • Might saying less actually better represent your brand? How little digital and email marketing can you get away with? What is online marketing presence best reflects your brand identity and reputation?

Online retailers Matches Fashion and Net-a-Porter relied heavily on email marketing while Revolve poured most of its energy into digital advertising.

Though similar to the online retailer Revolve, Matches Fashion has a much higher price point and also lacks its competitor’s robust influencer marketing—a trait likely tied to its generation (Matches was founded in 1987). But more importantly, both Matches and Net-a-Porter heavily skew their marketing strategies in favor of email campaigns—more than three quarters of their surveyed digital marketing outreach came via email, with Matches sending almost seven emails per week and Net-a-Porter sending almost six per week. Net-a-Porter’s email-heavy strategy is reflected in its employee makeup—less than a handful of digital marketers, with more than ten times the number of traditional marketers, according to LinkedIn. Relying on emails to connect with shoppers makes more sense for Net-a-Porter’s more sophisticated brand and older demo (it has an average customer age of 38) and while Matches Fashion has not publicly reported the age of its target shopper, its high price point likely necessitates that its shopper is older and more responsive to email campaigns than paid digital ads. Ninety percent of the retailer’s sales stemmed from ecommerce at the time of its 2017 acquisition—a massive success for a more than 30-year-old brand that started offline in the eighties. But over time, Matches may need to attract younger consumers whom it’s not currently connecting with on Facebook & Instagram.

At the same time, the marketing discrepancies between Matches and Revolve raise questions about why only one retailer going after millennials is putting energy into digital advertising. While Revolve arguably ran an excess of paid digital ads and sent out too many email campaigns (almost 13 per week) during the survey period, Matches’ minimal Facebook & Instagram presence means it’s getting drastically less traction among shoppers scrolling through social media.

54.5% of subject lines were straightforward, while 45.5% were catchy or clickbait-worthy.

With the number of emails populating any given consumer’s inbox, subject lines are the first barrier to entry. A dull subject line may spell instant death for an email, left unopened or sent directly to the trash folder.

More than two-thirds of brands and retailers in the Q4 2018 survey period stuck to straightforward subject lines that told recipients exactly what to expect inside the body of the email. Often, these subject lines were bland renditions on repetitive themes: “Stay Warm in Holiday Fleece” (Vineyard Vines), “Up to 50% off coats and more” (Nordstrom), and “Elevate your Nike experiences” (Nike).

On the flip side, Revolve’s “new dress, who this?” or Reformation’s “MAY CAUSE COMPLIMENTS”—and the cheekier “who cares” (Goop), “I Quit 🙄 let’s go to Turks and Caicos” (Fenty Beauty) and “It’s Called Fashion” (Pop & Suki)—fostered click-worthy mystique. These brands and retailers tempted consumers to open their emails with personality and wit, but even companies that play with upper- and lower-case text and emojis (see Brandless’ “🎁Need a gift? There’s a bundle for that 🎁”) may be rewarded with a higher open rate—it’s all a question of how to stand out in a sea of emails.

Brands also attempted to stand out by including discounts in their subject lines, though the tactic can downgrade brand equity over time. Especially when framed by a drab subject line—“Last chance to get an extra 20% off sale items online and in store!” (Sephora), “stocking stuffers for 20% off” (Hims)—discounts will associate a brand with markdowns over all else. Particularly in a holiday quarter, which already sees peak promotions, a bit of witty copy can go a long way.

Playbook

  • Subject lines are the gateway to an email marketing campaign. How can you spark curiosity—with puns, emojis, capitalizations—among recipients that inspires them to see the meat of your campaign?
  • How can you embed urgency into the subject line, inciting consumers to open your campaign up before they miss out, without losing their trust in the short-term?

62.1%, or almost two-thirds of marketing emails contained a discount, promotion or exploding offer.

Just as many companies relied on a discount-heavy Facebook & Instagram marketing strategy, promotions played out across almost two-thirds of marketing emails—more than any other category. These discounts were often included in the subject line, many pushing short-term sales and manipulating FOMO to incite shoppers to purchase an item “before it’s too late.”  

Many of Nordstrom Rack’s exploding offers featured online flash sales on individual brands, such as Converse, adidas, theory and kate spade new york, often with a follow up that same day to catalyze last-minute purchases (“PSA: kate spade new york is ending!”), even though most events lasted three days. In Q4 2018, the full-price Nordstrom also featured one-day-only exclusive sales on products from specific brands in its “Daily Drop” series. The 21st drop, for instance, was an Outdoor Voices women’s activewear set.

Both of these promotional strategies honed exclusivity by featuring one-time events. The Nordstrom Daily Drop series also borrowed from the “product drop” model popularized by brands like Supreme, which builds suspense each week before releasing previously undisclosed SKUs. However, even though the off-price Nordstrom Rack brand is synonymous with deals, discounts weighed exceptionally heavily in both brands’ marketing. This commonality, plus the difficulty to distinguish between the full-price and off-price brands, can also confuse recipients who are signed up to receive marketing communications from both brands. But it’s a bigger problem for Nordstrom and its brands—the emails look very similar, even though they are serving different customers.

More broadly, emails provide so much room to storytell, which neither brand is taking advantage of. This prevents either Nordstrom or Nordstrom Rack from crafting a brand identity around anything but deals—a common problem for traditional retailers striving for relevance today.

Some brands went a step further with their discounts, sending exploding offers—short-term sales or markdowns that inspire urgent action. Nordstrom Rack sent a host of emails about branded flash sales, from Vince to The Lucky Brand, while Pop & Suki emailed shoppers to “Order by Midnight” and Warby Parker used an email to remind customers about a time-sensitive expedited shipping discount. While exploding offers may be more effective than ordinary discounts given their time-based scarcity and the FOMO they induce, they can equally erode a brand, especially when multiple brands and retailers are urging consumers to act quickly at once.

Playbook

  • For a specific campaign like a new product launch, how do you square email frequency with revenue goals? How can you provide information to your customers in phases, giving first access to your most loyal customer bases and then to newer shopper cohorts?
  • What marketing tactics have you enjoyed as a consumer that you can apply to your own company? How can you pull ideas from other brands and retailers across the consumer ecosystem—and across other industries—and apply them to your own advertising, as Nordstrom’s Daily Drop did by drawing from Supreme?
  • If are a parent or holding company, how easily can consumers distinguish between each of your brands and which is being marketed in your ads?
  • What other forms of scarcity can you play to in your marketing aside from times? How else can you craft a campaign that induces consumer FOMO without offering a discount?

13.7% of emails encouraged shoppers to sign up to a membership or loyalty program, or download a shopping-related app.

Among the emails surveyed, 13.7% included signups, either to membership and loyalty programs or company-related apps—a surprisingly low number that speaks volumes about how these companies are thinking about and nurturing loyalty.

The RealReal and Sephora were both winners in this category—100% of The RealReal’s campaigns included a button to download its consignment and shopping app, and 100% of Sephora’s included a button to download its shopping app, as well as a box featuring its loyalty program, Beauty Insider.

While these retailers are working to convince customers to download their individual mobile shopping apps, both buried signup buttons at the bottom of their campaigns, many of which are relatively long, which could limit the number of downloads. Though it’s helpful to remind shoppers about these offerings, Nordstrom Rack, which devoted an entire email to its shopping app only, might be doing more with less.

Only 2.3% of emails featured images of customers, rather than models—a field where Fenty Beauty excelled.

For all that brands are leaning toward influencer marketing, very few are using customer engagement—though the communication channels are open and content readily available—to their advantage in email campaigns. Fenty Beauty, however, proved adept in this area with the “Rihanna’s got her eyes on you!” monthly series. This series, featured both in emails and on the brand’s site, embeds Instagram photos and quotes from shoppers wearing Fenty products. It then recommends products stemming from the customer’s look. (Customers can submit their own photos and stories at FentyBeauty.com.) The feature is a natural extension of Fenty’s brand inclusivity, as well as a way to showcase the diverse application of its products and an opportunity to productize customers’ looks.

Despite the customer-driven brand-building approach that made Glossier the company to watch, only one of the company’s emails during the survey period featured someone who appeared to be a consumer, though the brand’s recent paid video marketing push (more on this in our forthcoming Q1 2019 Megaphone Report) might be reversing this. While digital marketing may be more conducive to posting shopper-created content (retweeting, reposting Instagrams, etc.), companies can incite greater brand engagement by letting customers speak for them in campaigns. This can be as simple as Away’s tactic, which aggregated photos of customers with their luggage in Barcelona, Paris, Stockholm and Hunter, NY from Instagram into an email. Additionally, only 0.6% of emails focused on social networking, which more companies can use to extend engagement with customers from the inbox to the newsfeed, creating more fodder for featuring customers in their marketing down the line.

Playbook

  • Where do your products live “in the wild”? How can you mimic this visually in your advertising campaigns to drive more authenticity?
  • What balance of approachability versus exclusivity do you seek for your brand and how can you master this in campaigns, thinking about both visuals and rhetoric?

More than three-fourths of emails included static images, while only 20.5% included gifs. But nearly all emails included an image.

Among the least-common attributes, a meager 2.3% of emails surveyed were plain-text only. Given the ease of embedding photos or gifs into emails, this number comes as no surprise. However, with the amount of visual stimulation online, plain-text emails may actually stand out more than graphics (some of which also load incorrectly or slowly).

While Outdoor Voices and Dia & Co. chose an odd route, stripping discount messages of imagery, Tecovas used plain text to send a message from its founder and Brandless ditched graphics to send out a 2018 end-of-year message. The latter two strategies worked to cultivate an intimacy with shoppers about the brand and its values, instead of relying on shiny objects to sell products.

Playbook

  • How long does it take your images and/or GIFs to buffer? How can you optimize their buffering speed and accuracy to provide more engaging emails without hurting the experience?
  • Imagine that you stripped your emails of all graphics. What would you write in a plain-text email and how might it convert better than full-HTML campaigns?
  • How else can you catch the eye of a consumer and also drive sales without relying on shiny object syndrome? 

Of emails featuring products, 19.5% spotlit a single product, while 80.5% of emails included a product grid.

Of all emails featuring products, product grids overwhelmingly stole the show and were particularly common among retailers. All product-based emails sent by Matches Fashion, Net-a-Porter, Nordstrom Rack, Revolve and The RealReal were organized in grids, often around a particular theme. Revolve, for example, featured a grid of gold products, while Nordstrom Rack used a grid to call attention to new markdowns across various product categories and brands. Brands also turned to product grids, especially when featuring a specific product category. Best Made, for instance, sent out an email highlighting its knives and also used a grid to feature low-in-stock items.

Product grids help retailers like these to meaningfully sort through their massive inventories with edited selections that are more palatable for shoppers. They are a way to offer shoppers a more limited assortment, but with wider application than single-product emails, which run the risk of being irrelevant to a large number of recipients.

Compared to Nordstrom Rack, Revolve’s color-centric email has greater visual appeal, but will only convert to sales for shoppers who are interested in gold SKUs. On the other hand, Nordstrom Rack’s grid, which is significantly less aesthetically pleasing, is predicated on discounts, which are almost always of interest to consumers—and particularly catered to those who shop at the off-price retailer. Still, because the Nordstrom Rack email does not organize markdowns by product category or brand, it is more chaotic, requiring recipients to search closely for SKUs of interest. This may not be something they are willing to do with an inbox full of other emails from the prolific Nordstrom Rack and other companies.  

Oddly, when it comes to featuring products, retailers were reluctant to spotlight private labels. Nordstrom, for instance, explicitly placed its owned brands, Something Navy, in the limelight only once as part of its Daily Drop series, otherwise relying fully on wholesale. This is unexpected as retailers have legitimate reason to promote owned brands—Amazon, for instance, continues to plug its owned brands on its site and even on listings for competing brands and products.

But more commonly—especially among younger brands—emails highlighted individual products (especially for new releases). Bevel used this tactic to launch a beard balm, and Kylie Cosmetics to debut Metal Lip Kits. While retailers also turned to single-product emails (e.g. Nordstrom’s Daily Drop holiday series), they understandably had greater appeal among brands, which are developing SKUs more slowly relative to the retailers pulling from massive pre-existing wholesale inventories.

Playbook

  • How do you thematize your inventory in marketing emails—by color? By trend? By brand? By product category? How can you segment your inventory into less expected categories to give consumers both a wider-ranging look at your product assortment, while also diversifying what they see from your brand?
  • When using product grids, what is your ideal aesthetic—minimalist or maximalist? A magazine-like layout or one that mimics a social media newsfeed?
  • How can you organize your emails to avoid chaos? How easy it is to distinguish what product or service you’re spotlighting versus everything else added to the campaign?
  • What do you typically bury at the bottom of your campaigns? What if you featured this at the top of your campaign? How is the order of your content in the campaign affecting the results?
  • If a retailer with private labels, what can you do to feature your owned brands more effectively in your marketing campaigns?

Brands most commonly used emails to market multiple products, followed by exploding offers and discounts.  

* This table does not include new store or founder message-focused emails, which did not appear in any of the emails sent during the survey period.

Data on the main purpose of emails unveils the booming presence of discounts and exploding offers—37.7% of all emails sent during the survey period. Recall that 63.8% of total emails included discounts, promotions or exploding offers, whether or not this was the main purpose of the campaign. These numbers evidence that brands are overwhelming building an email marketing strategy around coupons and other deals, underutilizing the ample space companies have in emails to engage in dialogue or storytelling.

These emails are purely transactional, and even if they do lead to sales, customers will come to associate the brand with discounts and spending money rather than brand-building company content—related to production, product design, research and development, values, mission, etc.—which was the main purpose of only 4.5% of emails. Michael Kors outlines the multiple brands under its umbrella—Michael Michael Kors, Men’s, and the luxury Michael Kors Collection—Outdoor Voices answers common product-related questions about style and fit, and Ritual explains what goes into each of its supplement capsules, including the makeup of the capsules themselves.

These emails make an effort to communicate with customers, giving shape to their brands—they also provide meaningful information about products, which shoppers increasingly expect before buying in. This is an opportunity for a brand like Ritual to underscore its commitment to transparency, giving skeptics reason to trust the company’s supplement formula. Michael Kors customers (both new and old) are likely to be perplexed by the brand’s almost identically named lines, which the company’s email attempt to elucidate. And Outdoor Voices’ email helps customers determine which products are a match for their favorite fitness activities and how to ensure that their purchases fit correctly.

While only 0.5% of emails focused on personalization such as styling quizzes, greater attention to individualization will help brands and retailers bolster their company content. This will give shoppers a better sense of what is best for them, leading to greater satisfaction that in turn, will drive up the likelihood that they will return for a second purchase.

Playbook

  • How can you utilize the limitless space of an email to elucidate something about your brand and/or products that consumers might not yet know—whether in terms of manufacturing, style and fit, research and development, mission, private labels, etc.—that will enhance their brand affinity?
  • How can you personalize your emails to recipients? Conversely, how can you use emails to gather data that helps you further personalize your marketing campaigns or even products in the future, creating a dialogue rather than a monologue?
  • How can you turn an email campaign into an interactive experience, quiz or game that builds customer affinity while also helping you collect info about shopper preferences and interests?

No emails focused on offline retail—a missed opportunity for brands and retailers.

While Q4 is a busy time for brands and retailers—and the holiday season is not the quarter to open retail—companies essentially disregarded brick-and-mortar during the survey period. Only 0.3% of emails focused on events, which may or may not be linked to offline retail, and 2.2% of emails highlighted a service, which can be tied to stores as well. This was the case for The RealReal, for instance, which sent out a marketing email about in-store authentication services and for Nordstrom, which reminded shoppers they could buy online and pick up in store or book a stylist. Doing more to ensure that foot traffic matches ecommerce sales will help build a durable multi-channel strategy—but brands and retailers can do much more to highlight this in their email marketing, which overwhelmingly keeps shoppers on the (digital) page, instead of convincing them to meet the company in the flesh. Especially during the holiday, when customers don’t have much time to shop, highlighting localized and faster ways to get gifts—which can be cheaper for brands than fulfilling orders online—is an opportunity more companies can invest in.

Playbook

  • How can you use online marketing to build a reputation as a experiential brand, driving greater foot traffic to brick-and-mortar stores in cost-effective ways?
  • What if you shifted part of your analog retail marketing budget to digital marketing that supports retail—how would the results differ?
  • How much is retail marketing controlled at a corporate versus a local level, and how is this impacting sales on a store level?
  • How can you market in-store services as exclusive, driving more consumers to visit you IRL?

Only 4.2% of emails included a gift guide and only 2.8% included a holiday message.

Despite the onset of the holiday season, few emails concentrated on gift guides or holiday messages. Not only are these marketing campaigns relevant during a time when consumers must sort through a mound of consumer products to find the best presents for their friends and family, but it’s also an opportunity to diversify messaging. However, most brands chose to focus instead on providing holiday discounts. When it comes time for the holidays, markdowns and sales won’t be able to differentiate from a year-round fixation on discounts—ultimately a deleterious marketing tactic.

Of the brands that did turn to gift guides, the vast majority organized gifts by men’s and women’s—Nordstrom categorized gifts by product category and Best Made grouped gifts into sets. 5.8% of emails recommended buying a gift card as a last-minute gift. But the winner in this category would have to be Glossier, which sent out a branch logic quiz on what to gift different people in your life. Holiday notes commonly doubled as messages from founders and CEOs, as seen with Dia & Co. and Best Made. Brandless used its holiday message to thank its customers, and remark on the company’s developments in 2018.

Playbook

  • How can you use the fourth quarter as a time to reflect about the past year with your customers? How can you use marketing campaigns to thank them or connect with them over the holidays?
  • What unexpected gift guides would your customers respond best to? How can you use curation to help them make decisions in a world of endless choice?