Best Practices for Abandoned Cart E-mails

Apr 21, 2009 3:06 AM  By

What’s the low-hanging fruit in ecommerce right now? To me, it’s the opportunity found in abandoned cart e-mails. You know: The visitor puts something in the cart, but leaves before completing checkout. Hours pass, and your site sends an e-mail message (or a series of them) to recover the order.

Half of all shopping carts are abandoned, and that’s a wasted opportunity. As a merchant, when you set your sights on abandoned carts, the stakes are huge and the prospects are the best qualified and most motivated you’ll ever target.

Some of those shoppers really meant to buy, but were distracted, multitasking, comparing different sites, they ran out of time, the kids were fighting, or they just needed a little time or a little nudge.

I’ve heard the merchant objections to sending these messages: It’s too Big Brother. It’ll irritate customers. It reflects poorly on the brand. It’s just not us.

But an attractive, friendly and customer-service oriented e-mail message will be well received by many consumers today. Transactional subject lines like “May we help you with your order?” seem to work well.

The best such e-mail messages include the name and a digitized signature of a real person—especially the owner or founder.

A conspicuous phone number is important, since the reason for abandoning may have been discomfort with the online experience, or even technical glitches on your site.

Add a big “return to cart” or “complete my order” button as your call to action. It should be present both as an image and as a text link so it reads even when images are suppressed.

When Forrester surveyed online shoppers on why they abandoned shopping carts, the top reasons were financial: 57% blamed shipping, and 48% blamed total cost. You might conclude that an online retailer should overcome those objections through free shipping or discounts.

Offering a discount as the last step in an abandoned cart e-mail program can indeed be effective. We’ve witnessed conversion rates above 40% for some offers.

But one big problem is “training” your customers to abandon carts and wait for the discount offer to come. Our advice: Launch your program without an offer. Quantify the sales transacted through these e-mails, and feel comfortable that you created the lift simply by reminding a customer about an order they had intended to place.

If you do adopt an offer, don’t mention it until the end of a multi-message series. Set your system to recognize repeat shopping-cart abandoners (by e-mail address) and omit them from receiving the offer

And test different offers. Maybe you don’t need to give away free shipping; perhaps free gift wrapping is just as powerful, but costs you less.

Many Website platforms (including CommerceV3, DMinSite and others) offer an abandoned cart e-mail system as a built-in feature. If yours doesn’t, there are third-party abandoned cart systems you may be able to employ.

Most clients we work with take a restrained approach, with just one or two messages. The first is a thanks-for-visiting and an offer of customer service; in some cases the second makes a modest discount offer.

Depending on the site, visitors responding to the first message produced a 4% to 20% conversion rate. The smaller group of visitors responding to the second message, with the discount offer, converted at an impressive 40% to 50%

Overall, abandoned cart e-mails lifted merchants’ total sales by 1.5% to 3%. A little less than three percent may not sound like much, but when you consider it’s an across-the-board improvement of total sales, from a single new initiative, it’s mind-blowing. Who wouldn’t like a 3% lift without paying a nickel more for advertising?

Amy Africa of Eight by Eight recommends a more aggressive approach, a series of up to eight messages starting within a few hours of the initial abandonment — a routine her case studies have shown can recover 15% of abandoned carts. I reckon that would amount to a 7.5% across-the-board revenue lift, which is huge.

Trying to forecast the upside of adopting an abandoned-cart program? You’ll only mail to a fraction of the visitors who actually abandon carts: that is, those who got far enough to give you their e-mail address.

Divide that by typical e-mail open rates, then click-through rates and then conversion rates. If you mail a series of messages, add the results of each. Your number will likely funnel down to a single-digit figure.

But in this economy, it sure beats a sharp stick in the eye.

Tom Funk (tfunk@timberlineinteractive.com) is vice president of marketing at Website design/development firm Timberline Interactive.