Article

Email for marketplace businesses

Scott Burdsall

Your customer’s relationship with your brand is complex. To borrow a phrase from the Beatles, it’s more like a long and winding road than a short path from awareness to conversion.

That’s why the “one size fits all” model of email marketing doesn’t work as well as it used to. Messages that treat every customer the same don’t address each customer’s unique situation, and the result is loss of engagement and contact with that customer.

In today’s complex retail environment, marketers have to listen closely for the signals their customers are sending and find the right timing and frequency to send messages that respond to those signals within a framework built to help the brand achieve its own objectives.

This is hard enough for traditional retail brands that combine both brick-and-mortar and e-commerce. It becomes even more critical with the growth of “marketplace” e-commerce models.

If your brand operates on the marketplace model and you’re seeing diminishing returns from your email messaging, this information is for you!

How marketplace models are different

The marketplace model is like a digital one-stop shopping center in which a single website provides space for any number of vendors and provides multiple opportunities for customers to connect with the site itself and with individual vendors.

Some marketplace models allow direct purchases between vendors and customers, while others refer leads to different vendors based on customer intent and behavior signals––with the burden on the vendor to follow up for a sale or some other conversion.

Some examples of marketplace e-commerce sites:

General-interest marketplaces or sites catering to specific interests (Reverb.com, which combines direct musical equipment sales and Etsy-like merchant mini-sites with a membership community)
Auto marketplaces (Cars.com, Autotrader)
Financial services for evaluating and buying services like insurance, banking, and credit cards (The Zebra, Insurance.com, NerdWallet, Credit Karma)
Dating sites (Match.com, eHarmony)
Job and career sites (Indeed.com, ZipRecruiter, CareerBuilder)

Two major challenges of marketplace messaging

1. Multiple contact points, lead sources, and opt-in opportunities can lead to subscriber confusion and email overload.

Email is often the traditional launching pad for starting a customer journey even if customers arrive at a site via paid or organic search, by clicking a referral link, or simply by typing the site name into a browser.

Easy enough for a regular e-commerce site but a marketplace model offers multiple starting and contact points and opt-in opportunities, not just for the site itself but for any of the vendors that customers come in contact with.

Add in the fact that customer journeys don’t proceed logically from awareness to interest to desire to action, especially with high-priced products or services with long consideration cycles. Customers might start a journey with Vendor A, abandon it, come back a few weeks later, and either pick up where they left off or go on to Vendor B.

Now, let’s assume they’ve signed up for email from the marketplace site and from Vendor A on their first visit. On their next visit, they opt in to Vendor B’s email and to Vendor A’s again. (Maybe they forgot they had already opted in.)

If email senders can’t detect and suppress multiple inquiries from a single email address or if the site sends customer details to multiple potential vendors, each of which sends a follow-up email, you can see frequency spiraling out of control.

Frustration and inactivity can set in quickly. That leads to declining engagement, rising opt-outs or spam complaints, and the loss of future contacts and opportunities––not to mention taking a big hit on brand equity.

Beyond these customer-experience problems, the multiplicity of messaging streams can also raise legal issues about compliance with email and data management laws like CAN-SPAM, GDPR (European Union), CASL (Canada), and CCPA (California).

2. Urgency isn’t as easy to detect in marketplaces.

A single-vendor site can give off clear signals that a customer is close to purchasing. These signals can include pages browsed, specific search terms, and even the kinds of products searched. Cart abandonment is another signal that someone is doing more than just idly clicking through a site.

On marketplace models, customers aren’t just browsing through pages. They also can jump from vendor to vendor; break off a search; or come back a day, a week, or a month later. It’s not as easy to detect whether a customer is new to the market, returning after a break, or close to deciding. If you send email based only on a customer’s last activity, you could be way behind.

Urgency can also be hard to detect if you send multiple message streams that obscure your customers’ intent. These message streams can either treat ready buyers like first-time visitors or bear down on the sales pitch to people who are still browsing.

Couple this lack of insight into urgency with products that have long consideration cycles and include lots of comparison shopping. It’s easy to see why a message that relies on “Buy Now” instead of other content can fall flat and even turn off the customer who is still in evaluation mode.

How to be successful in marketplace messaging

Now that you’ve seen why traditional broadcast messaging doesn’t meet the complex needs of marketplace models, we bet you’re wondering how you can update your messaging strategy  and tactics to serve both your customers’ needs and your business objectives?

A successful messaging program encompasses these seven elements:

1. Rethink message types.

You’ll either have to come up with new definitions for message categories or redefine how you handle message content in these situations:

Transactions: “Buy now” might not be the only transaction that counts in a marketplace model. Requesting a download or a personal contact might be another beneficial type of transaction that should be reflected in an email message.
Frequency: As we noted previously, a flood of undifferentiated messaging can torpedo your results in a marketplace.
Urgency: Use what you know about customer browsing and buying behavior to detect how close your customer is to buying. With car insurance, for example, you might know that customers often start looking around for new providers at renewal time. Customers who comparison-shop in a short span of time will be closer to pulling the trigger than one who goes longer between browsing sessions.
Lapsed/attrited customers: If you rely on traditional definitions, such as 90 or 180 days of inactivity, you might overlook or wrongly identify customers as active, especially if you have not suppressed multiple emails to a single address.

2. Create new success metrics.

Metrics or key performance indicators that are geared toward single-site models, such as activity (opens, clicks, unsubscribes) and campaign-level revenue (total revenue, revenue per email/subscriber), might not mean the same in a marketplace setting.

3. Develop a new understanding of your consideration cycles.

How long it takes someone to decide to buy and the lifecycles of different products will vary, not just from marketplace to marketplace but also within each marketplace model. Email strategy, tactics, content, design, goals, and frequency should match up with different buyer personas.

The need for this understanding isn’t confined to marketplace sites. It should be factored in for other e-commerce models like traditional single-brand models, as well. But it becomes more complex on marketplace sites where buyers and browsers are less homogenous than they are on single-brand sites.

On a site like Cars.com, the consideration cycle can be months long for customers who are idly browsing, looking for a specific make and model, or monitoring prices on a specific car. If the rear axle breaks in traffic, though, the consideration cycle telescopes down to just days. Your email program should accommodate both extremes, as well as shopper personas that fall in between.

The cycles are shorter on sites with higher transaction volume, such as Reverb.com, thanks to person-to-person sales and merchant mini-sites.

4. Create rules-based automated messaging.

There’s no other way to say it: You can’t run a successful marketplace messaging program without automation. It’s what allows you to segment and target your messages, to respond to customer behavior, and to send content that is most valuable to each subscriber at different points on their brand journeys. (There’s more on this topic in the next two points.)

The automation will need rules to govern which messages to send to which recipients, at which times, based on different behaviors. Establishing those rules takes time upfront, but the benefit is that your automations will run in the background, needing only an occasional checkup to be sure they’re operating properly.

5. Match messages to points on each individual’s journey with your brand.

This is the heart of customer journey messaging. Recognize where each customer starts the journey (going back to search, site referral, opting in to email from a third-party site, and more); whether a customer is returning after a hiatus, close to a purchase, or a repeat customer; and whether they need a little push or are showing signs of lapsing or attrition.

Although each customer’s journey will be a little different, your knowledge of customer buying patterns and detailed analysis of behavior on and off your website will help you form a general messaging framework you can use to create emails tailored to key points on the journey.

6. Incorporate dynamic content into baseline messaging.

Successful email marketing uses a tiered messaging strategy that combines baseline campaigns with behavior-based trigger and transactional messages and strategically placed one-off messages.

Effective baseline messages reflect user behavior and interests but can also incorporate modules for dynamic content that changes for each customer based on activity on the website, email, or apps––or the lack of it. This content is chosen automatically for each recipient based on the rules you create. (See No. 4.)

That messaging strategy can map out something like this:

7. Factor in cross-channel activity.

You need to see how your customers are behaving in your different channels and understand what impact one channel can have on others. Can you map customer activity across your website or referral sites, in your email, in your social media, and on your apps? Do they engage mainly in your email but not on your site?

Knowing how customers behave across channels can help you fine-tune your frequency and content tactics. Customers who are active across the board might benefit from a reduced frequency or different cadence compared to those who engage with only one channel.

Also, look at other ways to connect with customers beyond the inbox and website. Consider reaching inactive but deliverable customers through a programmatic ad service like AdStudio.

A post-unsubscribe strategy can help you connect with customers who have opted out, reported your emails as spam, or have undeliverable email addresses. Consider programmatic and retargeting ads (used judiciously) and social media messaging.

Your first step–get help to map out a plan

There’s a lot of information to digest here. That’s because marketplace messaging is far more complex than most e-commerce programs. But they all have one thing in common: Email is still the backbone of your messaging program. If you aren’t seeing the results you want from your email program, don’t blame email. Instead, update the way you use it.

Trendline’s consultants are experts in creating email strategies to help you achieve your business objectives and serve customers at the same time. Contact us to see how we can work together on a plan to get the most from your marketplace model.

About the Author(s)

Scott Burdsall

Scott Burdsall is the Vice President of Marketing Strategy at Trendline Interactive, where he focuses on creating messaging and segmentation strategies to drive maximum conversions while maintaining a strong focus on the optimal omni channel user experience. He has 13 years of email marketing and product management experience, creating and maintaining programs for both B2C and B2B audiences and overseeing everything from day-to-day campaign management to platform migrations. Scott graduated from The University of Iowa and lives outside of Chicago, Illinois with his wife and two children. Scott enjoys music, running, and fixing up old bikes in his spare time. Follow Scott on LinkedIn

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