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Send Your Emails at the Right Time: 3 Ways Data Can Increase Your Marketing ROI

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This post is from Martin Kihn, SVP Strategy, Salesforce Marketing Cloud. It’s part of our Moment Makers series, which takes a deep dive into how marketers use technology to build data-driven customer experiences that feel natural, relevant, and right on time.

If you want to see the dramatic impact of COVID-19 on a world-class marketing department, look at Unilever. The consumer products powerhouse met a challenging global environment in Q2 and is making rapid changes in tactics, reviewing all marketing spend “to ensure it’s effective and appropriate,” according to CFO Graeme Pitkethly.

Meeting chaos with agility, Pitkethly points out that the company is “dynamically reallocating” budgets as consumer behavior shifts, moving resources out of outdoor ads (no traffic), and TV production (not safe) into areas with higher immediate return-on-investment (ROI) – such as skin care, home, and hygiene.

Unilever’s quick shifts and shimmies are mirrored by our other customers, many of whom are charged with increasing marketing ROI with fewer resources. The World Bank predicts a baseline 5.2% contraction in global GDP in 2020. Gartner’s CMO spending survey released in July showed that 44% of CMOs expect midyear budget cuts.

What’s the best way to improve marketing ROI in today’s challenging landscape? By increasing one of these three things: 

  1. Effectiveness – get more revenue from the same investment
  2. Efficiency – get the same (or more) revenue from a lower investment
  3. Optimization a combination of these through better resource allocation

And how do you know where to start? Data.

Keeping this framework in mind, and highlighting examples from our customers, here are three ways you can use data to increase your marketing ROI.

1. Dial up your digital (Effectiveness)

At a time when most of us spend more time than we’d like staring at screens, digital channels are the best way to reach us. Many indicators from time spent on mobile to time wasted – um, spent – playing networked video games prove that a lot of our lives are now  online. And from a commerce perspective, McKinsey said consumers “vaulted five years in the adoption of digital in just eight weeks.” 

Digitizing just as fast, marketers are ramping up their technology investments to manage customer data and use it effectively. And if you’re not, you should be. In addition to providing greater control over channels, data-driven investments include analytics to improve customer segmentation, message personalization, and targeting methods such as lookalike modeling. Despite an overall decline in enterprise tech spend, Forrester forecasts a rise in marketing technology investment. “In some cases,” says VP Principal Analyst Shar VanBoskirk, “technology may offer greater efficiency than relying on manual effort.”

Case in point: Orvis, an outdoor clothing retailer, saw pandemic-related store closures lead to tighter budgets and a mandate to improve engagement. They used Einstein Content Selection to automatically choose when to send standard messages and when to deliver content from its values-focused “Giving Back” campaign. They also took advantage of Einstein Send Time Optimization, which uses artificial intelligence to predict delivery times that align with when each recipient is more likely to open an email. Both approaches together led to a 22% higher email click-through rate.

2. Send fewer messages (Efficiency and Effectiveness)

Yes, that’s right: less can be more in digital marketing. All of us know the experience of being hounded by a brand to the point that we stop engaging, progressing from tuning out to turning off (hello, “unsubscribe”). During a time of message saturation, keeping your communications clear, on point, and not too frequent can cut costs (efficiency) and raise responses (effectiveness).

Last year, more than 40% of U.S. consumers said they were “overwhelmed” or “annoyed” by the volume of marketing content they experienced daily, according to Gartner. That reaction has only sharpened this year. In fact, Gartner calls this message-stress syndrome “COVID Fatigue.”

Treating the syndrome takes a good source of customer data and links among call centers, ecommerce, marketing, and other systems. With the right pipes in place, you can execute ROI-boosting tactics like: 

  • Suppress social ads to people who have an open case
  • Merge customer records
  • Send fewer messages to people who are overwhelmed

Cable network Showtime did just that, starting before the pandemic. It used Salesforce Audience Studio to suppress spending on existing subscribers, then shifted budget toward those who had recently cancelled, for the win back. This more efficient approach to their marketing helped them reach 25 million people.

3. Speed up planning cycles (Optimization)

During normal years – that is, not now – it’s common for marketers to do quarterly or even annual media budgeting. But in today’s environment, that pace won’t work. 

Measurement, reallocation, testing, and optimization – these should be ongoing disciplines, not intermittent ones. Continuous monitoring allows you to move spend to higher-performing channels, cut short losses, and make the most of the resources you have. It also allows you to respond to market shifts, such as changing your tactics in areas affected by natural disasters or virus outbreaks.

Part of reimagining marketing in the “next normal,” according to McKinsey, is always-on customer data analytics: “Analytics will need to play a core role not only in tracking consumer preferences and behaviors at increasingly granular levels, but also in enabling rapid response to opportunities or threats.”

Part of this acceleration requires better data management, moving from manual reports to an automated real-time system. At Salesforce, we managed to combine marketing data from 83 sources and 182 streams using Datorama. This reduced wait time on data from two to three weeks to near real time. Most important, marketing ROI grew 28%.

Even as businesses face tighter budgets and a lower tolerance for risk, there’s still a world of opportunity for marketers to increase their ROI. You just need the right data to help you chart your course.

Marketing Cloud offers solutions for digital marketing, email marketing, social media marketing, customer journey mapping, marketing analytics, marketing automation, and B2B marketing to help you personalize customer communications across every digital touchpoint — from anywhere.


Martin Kihn is the Senior Vice President of Product Strategy for Marketing Cloud. In a former life, he was a research vice president at Gartner, where he wrote and spoke widely about marketing technology, and advised numerous Fortune 500 clients on marketing strategy. He’s also authored four books, including “House of Lies,” which was adapted for TV by Showtime, and “Customer Data Platforms: Use People Data to Transform Marketing Engagement,” co-written with Chris O'Hara. Fun fact: Kihn was head writer for the MTV series Pop-Up Video from 1997-1999.

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