Should Retail Email Sell or Inform? An A/B Split Test Case Study

Marketing Sherpa recently published an email marketing case from Drs Foster and Smith which tested the impact of mixing educational content with product promotions, whereas in the past their emails were either informative or sales-oriented.

The results of mixing content were 7% boost in click through rate, 6% lift in conversion and 15% increase in sales (meaning average order size was higher).

The campaign involved segmenting the “dog owner” customer, and performing an A/B test using email creative that offered products and discounts comparable in value proposition. As you can see, both emails below include an offer for a free pack of BioSpot and an article about protecting your home and pet from fleas. The difference is which call to action appears first (and more than double the size) in the content area.

Week 1:

Week 2:

The winning design in both tests was information more prominent, offer less prominent. Remember, the informational call to action translated to a 15% increase in sales over the promotional offer.

The all-important landing page used shorter copy with a top image hot-linked to a product page where readers could purchase products relevant to the information. In a sense, readers were being pre-sold on an item with expert advice which further motivated the purchase.

Marketing Sherpa summed up the key takeaway as “Their audience responds better to relevant content than to a heavy-duty sales pitch.”

This is a perfect example of what Marketing Experiments’ Flint McLaughlin recommended in the recent web clinic Ecommerce Holiday Playbook: 13 Ways to Maximize Revenue and Beat the Downturn. If

If you skip to slide 31, Flint explains that the goal of the landing page is to sell (or in this case, pre-sell) the product. The goal of your email (or PPC ad) is not to sell, but to generate interest. A mistake is to try to sell in the email then sell again on the landing page.

Offering educational content within emails is a great way to generate interest — it’s non-committal and it builds trust and long-term loyalty. Even if the customer doesn’t buy from you today, he or she is more likely to open your email expecting to receive valuable knowledge in exchange for their time.

Two additional takeaways noted by Marketing Sherpa:

  • Wisely placed educational articles may heat up sales in a blue economy. With consumers tightening purse strings, Web shoppers are not likely to be in as much of a hurry as they used to be. Therefore, holding people’s hands with educational content can be worthwhile for your brand.
  • Educational content can create a comfort level for Internet shoppers who don’t have the luxury of physically assessing products the way brick-and-mortar shoppers do. Hence, relevant content can help bridge that gap between the product and the shopper.

Here’s an action item: McLaughlin suggests you look at your last 5 emails you sent, or the next 5 you plan on using for the Christmas season, print them out and lay them on the table. Look at the messaging and ask yourself if the email was written to get a click, or to sell something.

Also, take a couple hours to watch the replay of Ecommerce Holiday Playbook: 13 Ways to Maximize Revenue and Beat the Downturn. There’s a lot of valuable information here.

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16 Responses to “Should Retail Email Sell or Inform? An A/B Split Test Case Study”

  1. This is an excellent study, and post, thanks for summarizing. This highlights very clearly what I think is quite evident in any brick and mortar shop, and that is, a knowledgeable sales person who can explain why I need a product, what the product is used for, and why it is better than what I already have, is much more helpful and I am much more likely to buy the product. Common sense applied to the internet, we need more of that.

  2. Makes good sense to me. If I receive an informative, well-written email, I’m more likely to read it. And perhaps I’ll become interested enough to click through.

    If I get a “hard sell” email, it’s more likely I’ll simply unsubscribe! Unless of course the offer is REALLY good.

  3. fitness says:

    It is a very good information for anyone in online business. Especially when the economy is so bad, people will be very reluctant to go for shopping. Giving a very good educational info with embedded product sale message will definitely do the trick.

    Thanks for the great information.

  4. David F says:

    Most people won’t be buying something every time you send out an email. So it make since to give them something that they will find of value (relevant content) to keep them subscribed. Then when they are ready to buy they are still on your list.

  5. mike says:

    There’s another important piece here.

    The stronger of the 2 emails is pre-selling the problem, instead of simply leap-frogging to a product push.

    Why would I buy a a flea solution if I don’t even know I could have a problem? Sometimes we need to remind our customers what pain points it is they have.

    On a different note, your subscribers’ inboxes are sacred. Look at the emails you send them, then look at the last 10 emails you got from your favorite stores.

    How different do they look, read, and feel?

    Are you talking to YOUR subscribers the way your friends talk to you? Do you sign your email with a human name, or a company name?

    Email is the best and easiest way for us retailers to grow our following… if we remember it’s a human on the other end.

  6. I read this case study and sent the link to all my retail clients I design emails for.

    My biggest challenge right now is talking them out of sending promotion after promotion. Particularly as some of my brick-and-mortar clients sales are down 30-50% from this time last year.

  7. Excellent ROI data, Linda. As soon as I can get to it, I’m planning on publishing 2 interviews with Gordon MaGee of who reveals more of a strategic view on their investment in this publishing model — centered on video and their site (AND their investment in Animal Planet!). Gordon and I discussed how they MEASURE this “social media” / video stuff.

    This (email, Web video) is an e-commerce extension of Drs. Foster Smiths’ *continuing* investment in a bold publishing-focused model that dates back to their founding. Catalogers call them “magalogs” and most are afraid to invest in them — focusing instead on a “per square inch yield” on each page. This extends to email and I recently presented a similar case from a company selling mattresses online. They ditched pitch-focused emails masquerading as “newsletters” for a more honest and, in the end, successful approach. By focusing on delivering content that customers WANTED (ie. for men: how to improve your love life; for women: weight loss and beauty tips) they mixed it up with an occasional offer. There was a method to their madness which I revealed recently at’s annual event.

    Indeed, info-tainment or pure, tips oriented education. It’s all about marketers becoming publishers themselves these days. Those that understand the formula and are willing to take small steps toward making calculated investments are winning. has been doing this for YEARS! True pioneers extending now to the Web.

  8. Great data, really fascinating information.

    Many fashion retailers can improve sales by shifting focus, on the web, from the products to the styles and trends. The promotion may say that this collection of sweaters is $29.99, but the customer may not respond if they don’t realize that this sweater style is the must have style for the Winter.

    While e-mail is still king, the same goal can be applied to social media in general. Build communities, foster conversation, and engage the customer. A person won’t buy a product unless they know why they need the product.

    Going to pass this post on to some of my retail clients. Thanks!

  9. [...] post about the benefits of pushing educational content, rather than sales promotions, in e-mail. In Should Retail Email Sell or Inform? An A/B Split Test Case Study, she provides a look into an study into different types of e-mails that were sent out from a [...]

  10. [...] a great email case study from Marketing Sherpa.  Drs. Foster and Smith ran an A/B test to see whether a straight product promotion, or education [...]

  11. [...] And how about my stereo, blow dryer, website, and Spring Break road trip? Every week could see a new tip followed by a relevant offer. The upside is [...]

  12. [...] Makaque monkey over on Twitter told me about a great article at Get Elastic on how a retailer tested two versions of their email to see what worked [...]

  13. [...] Jason mentioned a blog post we did about Drs Foster and Smith’s informational email that performed better than transactional: Should Retail Email Sell or Inform? An A/B Split Test Case Study [...]

  14. This also works for PPC ads. Instead of going all out with ‘Amazing products, free trial…’ think about what mind set the searcher is in. For example selling baby clothes, Mums and Dads aren’t as bothered about the free shipping as they are the soft cotton feel.

  15. to the customer, inform is more important.

  16. [...] complete a sale in an email – that happens on your web site. So your email, they say, should sell a click to your site (slide 31). Then on your site, you can talk details like price to sell the [...]

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