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Podcast transcript: Email marketing in the mobile age with John Thies

Note: This is a full transcript of our podcast. For a summary of the main points in the interview, please check out the article “Email marketing in the mobile age with John Thies.”¬†

Nancy: Hello everyone. Welcome to another Travel Tripper Hotel Marketing Podcast. In this edition we’ll be diving into email marketing in the mobile age. I’m Nancy Huang, Marketing Manager at Travel Tripper, and here with me is John Thies, CEO and Founder of Email On Acid, which is a testing and analytics platform for email marketers. John, welcome.

John: Thank you. I’m glad to be here.

Nancy: Good to have you with us. So John, it’s funny that even in the mobile age we’re still talking about email. It’s one of the oldest forms of digital communication. It predates search engines, social media, and chat by decades. Given all the new ways that we can communicate with each other, why do you think email marketing is still important?

John: Well, I think the first one is the massive number of people using it. There are some statistics out there that there are 4.3 billion email addresses out there and there are 2.5 billion people using email. So that’s a massive market that we’re talking to. So it’s the sheer volume of people using email. There are 200 million emails sent every minute, and then 72% of people prefer that communication, email communication from companies and brands. So it’s a massive population.

Nancy: Do you think email marketing still has the best ROI of digital marketing?

John: Absolutely. If done correctly, I’m going to preface that first. There are statistics out there that say there’s a $4 return for every dollar spent, and there are several reasons for that. One, it’s personalized and permission-based. So people want to be engaged with the brand. They give you permission by giving you their email address.

Nancy: So given the effectiveness of email marketing, what do you think some of the biggest mistakes are that brands make when it comes to email?

John: Great question. I think there are a lot of scenarios here. One, it’s understanding your customers, understanding your subscribers. Where are they opening it? Where are they engaging with it? So you mentioned mobile. There is a lot of usage in mobile these days. So a lot of people aren’t adapting to mobile. They’re not designing their emails to fit with mobile and they’re not having that journey with mobile in mind. Another thing is what’s the point of the email? Is there a conversion goal? What’s the goal of these email campaigns? And I think one of the biggest misnomers out there is buying lists. I think there a lot of people out there that say, “Email marketing is so popular and all this, and so I just need to get a lot of people on my list,” and so they’ll go buy the CD’s on EBay for $20 with thousands of email addresses, but the problem is that actually will not help you at all because a lot of those are spam traps and deliverability and all that stuff. So if done right, don’t buy lists and organically grow your list for people who, one, want to be engaged, and two, who care about the topics that you’re talking about.

Nancy: I’d actually like to jump to your point about brands not adapting email to mobile. That’s a very important point to make, and we have a lot of that when it comes to websites as well. Mobile is getting more and more important in that respect. You’ve actually told me before that the number one email client in the world is iPhone. Is that right?

John: That’s correct. Then number two is Gmail. So with that, with iPhone being so popular, 50% of all opens that happen with email that are tracked are done on mobile. So that’s a huge, huge customer base. Again, of the top five email clients, three of them are mobile. So again, this is a massive amount of people using mobile, and it’s not going anywhere. There are some stats out there floating around, too, that if your email doesn’t render correctly on a mobile device, 70% of those people will delete it and not engage with it later.

Nancy: Right. At Travel Tripper we actually come across this a lot when it comes to hotel websites. We’ve seen personally that mobile bookings for hotels have jumped over 50% in the last two years, and that number is only going to continue to grow. So if a website’s not designed to display properly on mobile, people will simply just leave, which is definitely not good for business. And for that we always recommend a responsive design, a responsive design being a design that allows the website to display optimally across all different screen sizes. Would you say this is sort of the same strategy that hotels should take for email as well?

John: Absolutely. I cannot stress that more. They almost need to look at that as one of the first things that they look at. But unfortunately with email it’s not as easy as making it responsive for a website, because within email certain things aren’t supported. So every client will display emails differently and every email client, whether we’re talking Outlook on a desktop, Outlook.com, or Gmail or iPhone or Android, they all display emails differently. So the problem is JavaScript and media queries are what make that responsiveness through a website. Some of that translates over to email, but not all of it. So it’s a little bit more difficult, but there are ways to make it so it’s completely user-friendly on every mobile device.

Nancy: What are some of the ways you can do that and guarantee that your email is showing up properly?

John: You’d want to use a service like ours, Email On Acid. Our core product feature is showing you how your email will look across every platform, all the most popular phones, desktop clients, web-based clients, so that before you send it you know what it looks like, you know what people are going to see. A lot of it is to do with branding as well. So once you send that email, as we all know, you can’t get it back. So a platform like ours lets you quickly see what it looks like and we give you tools to help you fix the display of it so that once you send you have the confidence to hit that Send button.

Nancy: With so many people opening email on their mobile phone first, do you think that brands should be designing their emails more for the mobile client than for the desktop client?

John: Well, I think with 50% opening on mobile, I think you have to. You have to take that into account because I don’t see the mobile marketplace going away any time soon. With all these smart watches and all that stuff I think it’s just going to get even more popular. So I think if brands and companies start looking at that now, they will be a step ahead later when it really starts to shift to a lot more dominance on the mobile side. And there are some ways you can do that. So there are some really cool things that you can do with email, and not to go too far into it, but there’s a misconception out there that the email has to look the same every single place, whether it’s on Outlook or a mobile device or whatever, and certain devices and things will support different things, but you can have fallback stuff. So it kind of gets into that kinetic, highly interactive emails where you’ll have interactivity on iPhone, but then on a desktop client like Outlook, you might have a static image as a placeholder, and that’s okay because those percentage of people that are opening on a mobile device that supports that feature set or that little interactivity will have a much better experience.

Nancy: That’s interesting. So you can actually have two different designs, one that displays one way on the mobile phone and one that displays another way on desktop.

John: Yeah. It’s not dramatic displays, but you might have on a mobile phone an animated background, but then on a desktop client that doesn’t support that animation you just won’t see it. So it’s not a major display stuff. The display stuff can change from three columns to two columns to one column on a mobile device based on the viewport of whatever you’re viewing that email in, but you can have certain things, like certain interactivity on one place versus another. What we’ve seen is, it’s knowing where your subscribers open and knowing that analytics, that data. We’ve seen a lot bigger engagement and a lot more brand awareness and engagement with that because of the fact that they’re doing something different in a different environment.

Nancy: So it’s very important to look at your analytics and see, within your campaigns, where people are actually opening emails.

John: Absolutely. That’s a big thing about email marketing, understanding your subscribers. How are they engaging, what are they doing with it, and stuff like that.

Nancy: And this brings up a good point and going back to this idea of the customer journey of email and 50% of people opening it on mobile, 50% on desktop, but that’s just the first open, right? There are multiple opens, usually, when people are interacting with email. So they could open it on their phone in the morning and look at it again later at work on their computer. What is the significance of this customer journey, so to speak?

John: That’s a great point. I think with mobile we’re seeing a lot of different trends. So for me, when I wake up in the morning I’ll check my email on my phone when I wake up, run through it, scan through it really quickly, delete the stuff that’s not relevant, and then when I get into the office or to my desktop or laptop, I’ll then engage with those emails. So in talking about customer journey and what I mentioned before is if it doesn’t display right in mobile there’s going to be no engagement the second time for 70% of the people, because if it doesn’t look right, they’re like, “I’m not going to engage with this one later,” when they might. But then it’s also, because I’m looking at it on a mobile we want to make sure that that whole customer journey, if I did engage, that it’s consistent.

Nancy: Right. How can a company track this? I think with analytics it can be a little confusing. You only really see the opens. Can you actually see how many times a person is opening and where they’re opening their email?

John: Absolutely. We also provide those email analytics. So we’ll show you opens, clicks, what platform, what environment, the time of day, and all that stuff, and we’ll even show you engagement. So there are ways you can track that and to get that granular data about understanding your subscribers. But then there are also ways you can track that through landing pages and through where your call to action is going to, and a lot of people use Google Analytics for that with UTM codes. On a link you’ll put a UTM code at the end of the link, and then when you go to the web page, which you have Google Analytics set up, GA will actually track those UTM codes that were sent in. So then you can go to Google Analytics, do a search, and try to filter down and say, “Okay, where is this funnel going? Where are people going once they get to the landing page? Are we converting them or not?” Then obviously from that you can look at email automation platforms, for example Hub Spot. We use Hub Spot. So we can track the open to the landing page all the way to conversion. So there is a way that you can track that.

Nancy: For people who are unfamiliar with UTM codes, can you explain that a little bit?

John: Yeah. I don’t remember what the acronym stands for right off the top of my head, but basically they’re codes, variables, that you can put at the end of your URL. You have the question mark, then UTM_campaign=MariottLegacy or something like that. Then you can have different codes on that so you can differentiate the campaigns or even the segmentation of that campaign that you sent out. So then Google Analytics looks for those codes and says, “Are there any UTM codes here?” and if it does, then it will place it in their analytics, so then you can go and filter down and say, “What traffic did we get with this UTM campaign code?” So then you can kind of segment down and get more granular into the Google Analytics about the funnel and where did people come into your website from.

Nancy: So it’s getting really super specific in terms of analytics. You can really nail down exactly what’s working, what’s not, what people are clicking on, what they’re not engaging with, etc.

John: Yeah, absolutely.

Nancy: So if we sort of talk about this from a hotel’s perspective and we talk about the customer journey and how people are interacting with email in multiple ways on multiple devices, when it comes to the whole picture of digital marketing, where do you think email fits in?

John: On a hotel perspective it’s a little bit difficult because you don’t have a subscriber when they sign up unless they do it online or they’re part of a rewards program. So I think it’s a little bit more difficult to do that with them. That’s what’s interesting with the hotel industry, the fact that, one, it’s tough to acquire the email acquisition, but then again, two, how often are they coming back to our site? So it gets a little tricky with that. Hilton and Marriott have rewards programs or loyalty programs where if I go stay at one of those hotels they say, “We’ll give you free internet, but you have to sign up for our loyalty programs.” So that’s a way they use to acquire an email address. So then you get put on their list. So it’s trying to come up with creative ways, if you don’t have it, when a new customer comes in, enticing them and trying to acquire that email address and using creative ways to do that, whether that’s giving them cookies or, I don’t know, whatever thing they have to kind of say, “We’ll give you this, but we want your email address.”

Nancy: Usually for many hotels, from our experience, if a guest is not making the booking directly, a lot of times the hotels don’t receive the customer email or don’t have the opportunity to receive the customer email until the customer checks in, but right at that point is a really good time to say, “Please fill out your information, and by the way, can we get your email?”

John: Absolutely, yeah. Any way that you can get it, because again, email marketing is so important and it’s such a valuable tool. Like I mentioned before, $40 for every $1 spent if it’s done correctly. That’s a big return on that. So any way you can get that email address, I would definitely figure out a way to do that, a creative way to do that.

Nancy: Right. So once you’ve gotten that email, we have that email, the next step is what do you do with that email. There are many different ways to promote to the guests later, and once you have that, sending out special offers could be one example, updating a guest with some news from the hotel, trying to get them to come back, which kind of leads me to sort of this next idea that you had mentioned earlier, which is about having a clear conversion goal and kind of making a point of every single email campaign. What are some of the mistakes that you think, when it comes to email campaigns, that brands make? We can kind of talk about some of the mistakes that maybe hotels make, but I kind of want to get an overview of this idea of having a clear conversion goal in mind.

John: Yeah. I think a big thing is a lot of people will judge a campaign the same. They’ll look at one campaign and go, “Why didn’t it do as well as this one?” Well, that’s great and you want to do that, but you want to make sure they’re apples to apples. So one might be, getting back to your thing about what the hotel industry is doing, it might be a confirmation email when you’re confirming a booking. There’s not going to be a lot of engagement with that unless you have some upselling, “Hey, you just booked, but do you want to rent a car while you’re here?” Something like that, or just before you stay…The coolest things I’ve seen through the hotel industry that I’ve gotten is this dynamic content, this notion of dynamic content. So what I mean by that is I’ll get an email…so for example this weekend we’re going to Florida. So I got an email from the hotel we’re staying at and it’s saying, “Here’s some information about your stay.”

So it gave me weather, it gave me this kind of dynamic stuff to get me prepared, but then I went back and looked at it this morning and it was different information. So when I first booked it was, “Here’s what the weather is forecast to be,” but then when I opened it today it was completely different, which is really cool to do, and there are some companies out there that will do this, but those are the types of things that really attract people, because I will engage with that email. I’ll come back to it more and more to say, “Here’s what’s coming.” So those types of emails, like the confirmation email before you stay and then also the post-emails they send out that say, “Thank you. Do you want to take this survey?” those really are all different types of campaigns that can’t be looked at one to one. They need to be looked at in relevancy of, okay, well this campaign is more informational.

So let’s put these in a bucket and let’s compare these. How can we get better at these? Then let’s look at the bucket of conversions, like the emails that are really targeting people to create a booking. Then compare all those together and keep out the informational ones, because your engagement and conversion are going to be completely different because you’re not going to probably convert many people with the informational type emails, but on the conversion ones you would hope to. So you don’t want to dilute your data and push your conversion rates down if you’re putting them all together.

Nancy: Right. So that’s actually a good point. What you’re suggesting is that when hotels are thinking about the types of email campaigns that they’re sending out, think of it as, there are conversional type campaigns, meaning you want people to book with your hotel. You have a 20% off the rate offer or some sort of special booking package, and then you have these sort of informational campaigns where you just want to build a relationship with the customer. So in the example of this Florida hotel just telling you the weather and what to do around the hotel. That’s a whole separate type of email campaign.

John: Absolutely, and you’re going to see probably more engagement, and when I’m talking about engagement I’m talking about, yeah it’s also clicks, but it’s also how long are people reading that email? So one is probably going to get more than the others, and you’re going to get more opens on one than you might on the other. So again, it’s just kind of making sure that you’re looking at the data, segmenting the data and not looking at it as a whole, because there are different targets and objectives for every campaign.

Nancy: And I want to ask you quickly about that dynamic email that you received. What do you mean by that? So the email itself had dynamic content? Or did it link to a site that had the dynamic content?

John: No, it actually had dynamic content in it. So there are companies out there like Live Clicker and Moveable Inc. that will actually give you the ability to do that. Generally they’re more image type stuff, but they’re dynamic images. So they’ll change based on the time of day and stuff like that, and when you’re opening. So you might have a countdown ticker or the weather or something like that. So every time you open it that information could change because you’re pulling that image, that dynamic image down from a separate system. So it’s not actually embedded into the email, but it’s a way to pull data in through images. So it’s really interesting stuff and that’s where it kind of, what I mentioned earlier, like why is email so popular? Because it’s a one-to-one channel. It’s like, we’re getting so much more information on the subscriber. We know a lot more, so we know open rates, we know trends and stuff like that, and so we can have it highly personalized, and you can’t really do that through the other social channels like Twitter. You can’t really get a conversion with 144 characters, and you really don’t know the person, but with email it’s highly personalized.

Nancy: Right, and with so many different types of campaigns, you have the conversion campaign, you have the informational campaign. I think you mentioned that there’s a guest survey response that you can send at the end of the stay. That’s probably a different type of campaign as well. How often should hotels be contacting their guests via email?

John: That’s a great question because I think there’s a lot of…I mean there are two sides of it. One is like, we’re just going to send a few because we don’t want to be spammers, and there are other people who say, “We’re going to send all the time.” So it kind of depends, again, ongoing back to what’s the point of the campaign? Is it just to send a campaign? Or is there context and relevance to sending it? I think there have been some studies out there that say sending more is not bad. You’re not going to get more people unsubscribing from your list if you send more, but there has to be context around it. You can’t just be sending email to send email. It’s got to be engaging. It has to be something that the users are interested in. So there’s this big thing like, hey, I don’t want to send too much. I don’t want to be a spammer, but it actually doesn’t hurt anything if there’s context to it.

And it kind of gets back to the whole marketing. What’s the point of marketing? The point of marketing is saying, “If I’m in a store and I’m looking for something that I don’t know much about, what am I going to think of first? I’m going to think of top of mind. What do I know about this industry or product or whatever?” Then if there’s a brand that’s constantly emailing me, and it’s relevant information, I might not engage with every email, but I’m not necessarily going to unsubscribe, guess what, that’s the first brand or company I’m going to look at when I’m down that aisle or in that store looking for something to buy, whether it’s groceries or clothing or whatever. So the more you can send them the more you can create that branding, as long as it’s done correctly and it’s relevant. You’re going to have big returns on that. So the more you send, but the hotel industry, that’s a little bit difficult because how many times do I go to Florida like we are this weekend? It’s not that much. So that’s where it gets kind of grey, but you want to be top of mind. “If you’re ever back here we have these events going on.”

So kind of getting back to your point about what can the hotel industry do, what kind of creative things can they do to be relevant? Well, it’s like saying, “Do you know that this event is going on here? Did you know that this is going on here?” to try to get them back to the area, and then once they do, guess what, you’re top of mind. They’re going to be thinking about your hospitality place.

Nancy: Right, so it’s thinking a little bit big picture. So you’re not always pushing your hotel per se, but there are ways to contact guests and remind them there’s a food and wine festival happening in our area in a few months, or ski season is coming up. I know you guys are based in Colorado. So that’s a big one for you guys. So that’s sort of the way hotels should be thinking.

John: Yeah, absolutely. We actually talked, Nancy, when we spoke, there are some really interesting things hotels are doing to diversify themselves. So when we talked, there are some hotels here in the Denver area that actually have beehives on the top of their hotel. So to be that relevant and to be with context, they could basically be sending out emails about what’s happening with that bee hive, giving them information about that. To me I think that’s really kind of interesting because of the fact that you’re not promoting your hotel, but guess what, you’re sending them information that they might be interested in, and when they come back they’re going to be like, “I’m staying here.” That whole top-of-mind. So it’s figuring out ways to-

Nancy: Certain unique selling points, so to speak.

John: Absolutely. Again, it doesn’t necessarily have to be about the hotel. It could be about something around the hotel, or, “Guess what, we have these trees or these animals, and we have a dog here,” and giving…I don’t know. Those are top of my head examples, but there are things you can do to create that interaction and context in creating that connection with your hotel or whatever it may be.

Nancy: Yeah, so you’re catching people as they’re researching where they’re going to go next, or maybe they’re going on a business trip and it just happens to work out that they’re staying in the area. So they know something new about the area.

John: Yeah. Absolutely.

Nancy: So if you were to summarize different ways that hotels could make email campaigns more effective, what would you recommend?

John: Again, I would do segmentation if you can, if you have that data. Figure out a way to connect it into a CRM platform, whether that’s Marketo¬†or Hubspot or something like that, and being able to understand who your subscribers are and being able to track those subscribers. Again, what is the goal of those campaigns? I think those are some good things, and creating a good connection and having brand consistency. Having it so that when someone gets that email, they’ll say, “I know what this is from,” and that consistency creates that professionalism and it just gives people an idea what the email is going to be about so that they know, “When I open this, this is what I’m expecting to see.” Then I think, for optimizing for landing pages, I think going with the mobile day in age, back to that customer journey, is making sure it’s a consistent journey. So if I open up an email on mobile and I click the call to action, I want to make sure the landing page I go to is responsive for mobile as well, because for me personally, if I go to a page like that, I’m not going to convert, because it’s going to be tough. I have to pinch in, I have to figure out what to do, but if it’s mobile friendly, that’s a consistent journey.

Nancy: Exactly. We actually just had a recent podcast about the importance of landing pages. So that connects perfectly with that. If you’re coming in from mobile, from an email on mobile, then the landing page absolutely has to be mobile optimized.

John: Yeah, absolutely.

Nancy: So if you were to give one big takeaway for hotels when it comes to email marketing, what would you say that would be?

John: I would say a clear goal and consistent messaging. Again, it’s kind of getting that engagement and getting them to be aware of your brand. It’s not necessarily always about booking, but it’s about information so I’ll be top-of-mind. So if I go somewhere I’ve been in the past, what am I going to think about first? If I don’t know the area or region, but if I know there’s a hotel there that’s been emailing me that I’m engaged with, that’s what I’m going to pick. That’s what I’m going to go to because I don’t know anything else.

Nancy: Right. Well, this has been so extremely helpful, learning about a whole new side of email marketing that hotels should definitely be aware of. John, I want to thank you so much for being here with us today and for sharing your insights.

John: My pleasure. Thank you very much for having me. I love talking email.

Nancy: All right, guys. That was John Thies, CEO and Founder of Email On Acid, a testing and analytics platform for email marketing. So visit them on the web at EmailOnAcid.com to learn more, or you can follow them on Twitter or Facebook to get more email marketing tips, and they have a really great and helpful blog on their website. So I recommend that you check it out. As always, thanks for listening. If you have questions, leave them for us here in the comments section, and please subscribe to our blog at pegs.com for more on hotel marketing and distribution.

Nancy Huang

Nancy Huang

Nancy is the Senior Marketing Director at Pegasus and expert in strategic communication, brand development, and content marketing. She is an admitted travel junkie and loves finding amazing hotel deals when booking direct. Contact her at nancy.huang@pegs.com.

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