A lot of marketers would categorize email as the cozy sweater to social media’s black dress. While not as sexy as some newer channels, for years, email has taken the top spot in marketing ROI, and in a 2019 Econsultancy survey, respondents still picked email as the most effective marketing channel, with social media ranking only fifth.

But, why compare email and social media when they actually work better combined? Social media content, in particular, is a great resource for spicing up email, especially now, when marketers are looking for fresh content to use in their online communications. With a treasure trove of fan photos, reviews, and video clips, social media can help subscribers get inspired, connect to other fans, and engage in new channels.

Authentic Social Content When Marketers Need it Most

In the early days of the pandemic, many advertisers quickly put together serious (often too serious) campaigns pledging their solidarity with their customers. Memes were shared widely that mashed up these stock-photo-heavy commercials featuring empty beaches, empty streets, nurses, doctors and family embracing. These relatively generic messages didn’t resonate nearly as well as ads that were pulled together from real user content on social media. Oreo in particular was smart about encouraging people to post their videos, which they quickly turned into a commercial.

It doesn’t need to be a prime time commercial to highlight social media content, brands can use social content in good email campaigns to resonate with customers just as effectively. Social content breaks through the stagnant feelings people have of the generic imagery they’ve been seeing lately. And with so many companies limited from shooting new content by social distancing, it can be the catalyst to variety and creativity.

‘Wichcraft, the high-end sandwich chain, features social posts of customers eating their food outside in their “simplest of pleasures” email campaign that encourages some fresh air time at lunch. BistroMD pulls in their real-time Instagram social feed featuring healthy meals customers receive as part of their plan, as well as success stories and a variety of nutrition topics.

New Ideas For Old Fans

It might feel safe to simply reuse old images or pull from a stock photo library, but it’s actually a bigger risk than incorporating UGC. The IAB notes that numerous studies indicate that authenticity is key for people to trust brands and that UGC is among the top-rated content online. Right now, many consumers are changing their shopping habits, and loyalty is at risk. Jumping ahead of the pack and embracing a chance to connect authentically with UGC is a good way to keep old customers engaged and to inspire new customers to keep coming back.

Don’t leave all the best images on Pinterest – pull them into an email template for immediate engagement. Create an evergreen element to your newsletter that highlights recent five-star reviews, or images from Instagram with more than 100 likes.

Furniture retailers Made.com created a campaign in April called “Stay Grounded,” which included an Instagram-based hub of photos from customers’ own homes. The imagery is the perfect mix of inspiration and authenticity and fits nicely into a newsletter campaign that encourages subscribers to vote on their favorite images. TrustedHousesitters features real-time Instagram photos in their conversion emails to engage with potential members, particularly Housesitters. Potential customers are typically drawn to the inspirational pictures of pets and homes within email campaigns, alongside educational messaging about house sitting and TrustedHousesitters as a whole.

More Feel-Good Engagement

Part of the value of authentic content is that it can lift people’s spirits during a stressful time. From weight loss clinics featuring real-life success stories to a roundup of funny pet videos, authentic content can make people feel good when marketers are unsure what exactly they can say directly without sounding out of touch.

Some brands are creating their own events to get their customers engaged. Taubman Centers brings fun to the inbox with Spotify playlists. GrubHub is offering discounts to people that sign up for virtual concerts on their own YouTube channel, promoting the event in email newsletters. The best clips can be used in email as playback to get people to check out what they might have missed.

With a record number of people online, doing a record number of things online, UGC and social media in general, has become an even bigger source of information, communication and entertainment for people. Brands should make sure to spread the love. There’s no reason for social media to be separated from the traditional creative-driven channels like brand advertising and email. The two, when put together well, can enhance authenticity and drive customer loyalty.

This article originally appeared on Advertising Week 360.

Email is the workhorse for many marketing teams. According to a 2019 Econsultancy survey, email is the most effective marketing channel, while social media came in fifth. With sticky subscribers and reliable revenue, email does have a more established value than social media, but social can’t be topped for its engagement factor. Rather than determining a winner between these two channels, these differences offer the perfect case for combining them.

At a time when marketers have limited resources to create new content, social posts and user-generated content can be a welcome addition to email marketing campaigns and newsletters. Email and social media can also be used to cross-promote, creating two sticky channels that drive home important messages. What’s more, while everyone is at home and online more than usual, marketers can get creative with new forms of social engagement over email, too.

Combining email and social media creates real connections

Newsletter publishers should take a page from the digital publisher’s playbook, embedding real social media posts into their content to create more engagement. More than one-third of all article pages online now contain social embeds. From popular memes to heartwarming posts, social content adds immediate interest in an article without a lot of heavy lifting. The same is true for email newsletters, where social content can spice up a tired template.

Marketers can start by simply searching Pinterest and Instagram for well-shot images to highlight from customers and fans. ‘Wichcraft, the NYC sandwich chain, shares social posts of customers enjoying their food in their “simplest of pleasures” email campaign, which encourages some fresh air time at lunch. BistroMD uses a real-time Instagram social feed that features healthy meals customers receive as part of their plan. These examples serve as stand-ins for professionally shot content and also add a level of authenticity that’s hard to copy with slick marketing imagery.

The Interactive Advertising Bureau notes that numerous studies indicate authenticity is key for people to trust brands, and UGC is among the top-rated content online. The UGC posted on a marketer’s social channels offers a particularly important element as customers are finding their way through the COVID-19 pandemic. Millions of people are transacting online more than before, and they’re shifting their habits and brand loyalty. It’s better to be a brand that online customers can relate to than to be generic and forgettable.

The furniture retailer Made.com created a campaign in April called “Stay Grounded,” which included a collection of photos from customers’ own homes on Instagram. The photos offer the perfect mix of inspiration and authenticity. Made.com promoted it in a newsletter campaign that encourages subscribers to vote on their favorite images. The online pet- and house-sitting site TrustedHousesitters features Instagram pictures in its conversion emails to engage with potential members, particularly Housesitters. Potential customers love the inspirational pictures of pets and homes in their email campaigns, which they pair with educational messaging about house sitting and info about how TrustedHousesitters works.

Cross promotion drives engagement on both channels

Now is the time to sign people up for, well, everything. Customers are open to new online experiences in 2020, and it’s important that marketers give that to them. Many email templates fail to offer the very basics in cross promotion. 

The email footer is the easiest place to start. For example, West Elm has a nicely designed email footer with links and icons for each social channel where fans can follow, like, and share. Even better is when brands build social calls to action within the email itself or when special social instructions add more engagement. For example, L.L.Bean doesn’t ask people just to sign up for its social channels but also to add the simple but effective suggestion to “Share Your Adventures” with #BeanOutsider.

It’s also important to add email newsletter sign-up links to relevant social media posts. Marketers can repost elements of their newsletter to promote it on Instagram, for example, with a link or call-out to get more content by signing up for email. 

Social and email can also be used together to promote online events or to drive engagement in brand-new ways. Since the start of the pandemic, many marketers have had to get creative to add ways to engage with customers virtually, and email and social media can help. For example, Taubman Centers adds some extra fun to subscribers’ inboxes with Spotify playlists. GrubHub offers discounts to people that sign up for virtual concerts on their own YouTube channel with promotions in their newsletters. 

This unusual time will not last forever, but people’s habits will be changed forever. Now is the time to make an extra effort to capture new subscribers and create new ways to engage. Marketers also have a unique opportunity to forge new relationships online, when people are craving authenticity and something new. The unique value of email and social media marketing combine to help marketers make these important connections.

This article originally appeared in Street Fight.

Great email marketing isn’t a one-way street. It’s a two-way conversation between your brand and your customers, held in the privacy of the inbox. You’re probably great at holding up your end of the conversation, but where’s your customer’s voice in your messages? You can make it heard when you add customer content, like reviews, ratings, winning entries, customer images, social media comments and images.

Top 10 reasons to add customer content to your emails

There are myriad reasons why user-generated content can help you create more engaging, more effective email. Consider these as just a good starting point:

  1. Win-win: Show your customers that you value their commentary and contributions. That builds brand engagement and equity. 
  2. Community: Customer content can build community among customers with similar interests and promote your social media channels.
  3. Social proof: Reviews and ratings from peers give them the guidance and support they need to buy more confidently.
  4. Inspiration: Images and how-tos pulled from your social media, user groups or content entries show customers what other people do with your products.
  5. Partner up: Customers share the content-creation workload with you.
  6. Instant influence: Build up a market quickly for new products by sharing them with loyalty program VIPs or high-profile followers and then spotlight their comments or ratings in email. 
  7. Variety: Customer content helps you vary your message. People aren’t in the market every time you email them. Customer content can keep them interested until they’re ready to buy.
  8. Face time: Customer content humanizes your emails. If your brand is one of many in their consideration sets, having emails with a human connection can help you move to the front of the pack.
  9. Trust: Ratings, reviews, endorsements and proof of use helps build trust in your brand.
  10. Rewards: Customer content can be an easy and inexpensive way to spotlight your most engaged and influential customers.

How to find and include customer content 

Start with your user groups and social media channels like Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook and Twitter. Look at review platforms like Bazaarvoice, Qualtrics and Medallia for a steady source of customer content. But the best source is the same as it ever was – your pool of customers. Just ask them!

Automating your customer content curation

The best part is that including more UGC doesn’t have to mean a lot of extra work for your creatives and coders. In fact, it can even save you time and effort; crowdsourcing content can mean your team spends less time brainstorming and producing it themselves.

One simple way to streamline customer content curation is the implementation of an automated feed that sweeps up customer content from your website, social media channels and independent sources and then serves it in dynamic content modules in each email.  

It takes some advance work to set up rules to filter out irrelevant or unwanted content, as we explained in a recent blog about adding user reviews to emails. Once you get those in place, you just need to keep an eye on the feed and adjust it as needed.

3 Rs of customer content use

1. Keep it real. Today’s hyper-aware consumers can spot fake sentiment in a flash – and they’ll hold your brand’s feet to the virtual fire if your message strays too far from your brand identity.

2. Keep it reliable. Reviews are popular because people love to express their opinions. Many customers refuse to buy unrated products. But consumers also are getting more worried about fake reviews. A BrightLocal study found 92% of consumers ages 18-34 said they spotted fake reviews, compared with 59% of older consumers (54+). 

3. Keep it relevant. Automating a social media feed cuts your email prep time, but you must keep an eye on it to make sure the selections you include are relevant to the brand and support your email’s objectives.

3 brands doing it right

It’s not hard to find good examples of brands that have figured out how to feature customer content in their emails. That’s good because it means brands are finally seeing the value of letting their customers do their marketing for them.

But it also means that including customer content is becoming a differentiator among brands. In other words, if your customers don’t see themselves now in your messaging, they might go find a brand that does.

Below are three uses of customer content:

1. The Body Shop

This promotional email shows how to use customer content to sell a product. It draws a direct line from the product to a related customer review to the buy button. The review softens the hard sell but can still nudge customers into acting. 

A close up of a device

Description automatically generated

2. PetSmart

This email makes us feel warm and happy all over; and not just because PetSmart achieves an entire cat-carrier full of goals with this email:

Besides, it’s packed top to bottom with kitty and doggy pictures. What’s not to love?

A screenshot of a cat

Description automatically generated

3. TripAdvisor

Reviews and ratings are standard fare for travel companies, but they’re also an area where customers are becoming skeptical about fake reviews. TripAdvisor addresses that by adding a human touch, incorporating a real headshot of each featured reviewer to add authenticity to each commentary.

A screenshot of a cell phone

Description automatically generated

Want to see more? MailCharts curated a group of consumer emails featuring 15 premier brands at the top of their game. Each incorporates customer content differently to achieve different goals. Check it out for even more inspiration!

Video is everywhere these days, and not just on your phone or TV. (Nothing like watching the news while you pump gas!)

One place video isn’t as prominent as it could or should be is in email. In some ways, the inbox represents the final digital frontier of widespread video ubiquity. But evolving technology and delivery tactics can help more email marketers harness the engaging, eye-catching power of video, too.

Why using video in email is so compelling

Even marketers who are devoted to the written word can’t deny that video grabs attention and can drive engagement (opens and clicks) and conversions:

What’s keeping video out of email?

Tech and user issues are the main obstacles preventing video content from taking over the inbox.  

Some email clients that don’t support embedded video will display a big black rectangle instead. Even the next best alternative – showing an animated GIF or a static image with a clickable “play” button instead of the video – may eject the reader out of the email to watch the clip on the website. That means lower view rates and less time spent in the email.

Video can make the message file so large that the email client will clip it, forcing the reader to click to see the whole message. Some ISPs block messages if their file sizes exceed their limits, and mobile users may also have trouble with large files on their network (not to mention complaints about data usage).

Today’s dynamic email content platforms are capable of resolving or mitigating these tech and rendering issues by detecting and displaying the method – embedded videos, animated GIF or static image – the user’s client will support. For instance; only 3% of Liveclicker embedded video recipients see just a static image, while 40% can view the embedded video.

Experiment-worthy: live streaming and sharable social video

Online video continues to evolve, generating a flurry of developments and use cases. Not all are suitable or practical for email right now, but two show definite promise without requiring massive infusions of budget or an entire creative staff. In some cases, all you need is your phone and some fans!

1. Live video streaming

Need some numbers to show how livestreaming has gone mainstream? Here you go:

All this means is that many of your email readers know about and are open to viewing livestreamed content in your email. You won’t have to explain what it is or why it’s worth their time to watch your live event. Big, recognizable brands like Facebook, Instagram and the Super Bowl have done it for you already.

Use it in email to showcase an event: Livestream a product launch, unboxing or contest reveal. Create a library of tutorials or demos. Stream a press conference, as LG did at the 2020 Consumer Electronics Show. Any event with FOMO potential can become an engagement magnet.

Harley-Davidson used video to launch its 2019 fall FXRG Collection clothing line:

A picture containing person

Description automatically generated
2. TikTok social video

Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat are so-o-o-o 2018! Well, no, they’re still relevant. But now you can add TikTok to the lineup of social media channels whose content could cross-pollinate to email.

With 500 million users worldwide, (188 million TikTok app downloads in 2019 alone), chances are good some of them are in your email database if you appeal to a Generation Z demographic

This is prime UGC marketing material. Use it in email to expand your reach, reward your fans and put your customers’ faces and voices (and bizarre antics) in your emails. 

TikTok is the newest short-form social video platform, and one that’s stealing Gen Z users away from other video channels. Marketers are beginning to investigate for its potential to sell to that key audience, but, as with so many other social channels, most are still trying to figure out how to use the platform.

Mainstream brands like Macy’s, Chipotle Mexican Grill and even the Washington Post are on TikTok. But some of the most interesting uses of TikTok come from non-marquee brands, like NYX, which embeds a fan’s TikTok video in a business-as-usual email:

A screenshot of a cell phone

Description automatically generated
Before you dive into video … 

Have a sound business reason to use it and the technology to provide a good experience for your readers. Video for video’s sake does you no favors. How does it fit into your broader strategy, and can it help you achieve your email or business goals?

Be sure you have the technology that can give your readers a good experience. Usability studies say you have only a short window – from less than 60 seconds to 90 seconds at most – before viewers will abandon a spotty stream.

A dynamic email content platform capable of seamlessly embedding video into emails will help you get over those rough spots and give your readers yet another avenue to love your emails.

Scientists have been conducting research for years to understand and unlock the secrets of the human mind. Now, many of their findings can be studies and applied to email marketing. A recent guide on the psychology of email marketing has brought to light new and interesting applications of science in connecting with your customers.

Here are six fascinating brain science facts every email marketer should know, complete with real examples of how today’s leading brands are using science to achieve better results in the inbox.

Science fact #1: The Zeigarnik Effect (Don’t give them all the goods right away)

The Zeigarnik Effect states that people tend to remember and focus on uncompleted tasks more than completed ones. Dr. Zeigarnik learned this after noticing that waiters could remember many details about customers’ open tabs, but hardly anything about tabs that had been paid and closed.

Email marketers’ tip: How to capitalize on the Zeigarnik Effect

Intentionally design your email creative so it looks unfinished or requires one more step for readers. Consider using subject line copy that teases the content or other approaches that lead to higher engagement and purchases.

For example, Fairlease created an in-email poll that asked recipients to cast a vote to show how they feel about vehicle mileage, the most important attributes in choosing a car, and more. Yet it also encouraged them to click to a landing page to see how their results stacked up against all other feedback. Recipients couldn’t resist!

Science fact #2: The amygdala (Light up the lizard brain)

We all have an amygdala, that “lizard brain” that is responsible for our gut reactions and our most basic fight-or-flight instincts. The amygdala works much faster than our conscious mind by making snap decisions in three seconds or less.

Email marketers’ tip: How to capitalize on the amygdala

When it comes to email design (or any design), the amygdala is drawn to images of food, danger, or anything visually stunning that simply can’t be overlooked. To appeal to your reader’s amygdala, develop email creative that may immediately catch the attention of their inner lizard.

When it comes to email design, the amygdala is drawn to visceral images of food, danger, and so on. To appeal to your audience’s amygdala, develop email creative that may immediately catch their attention and quickly speak to their inner lizard.

For example, Chuck E. Cheese recently created an email that displayed mouth-watering varieties of chicken wings–hard for any lizard to resist. This email actually gets extra credit for also using the Zeigarnik Effect by including a poll to get recipients to click to learn more and increase engagement.

Science fact #3: the Noble Edge Effect (Do good things and your audience will return the favor)

Research shows that consumers believe that products of “caring” companies are superior. In fact, 53% of consumers report that they would pay 10% more for products from socially responsible companies.

Email marketers’ tip: How to capitalize on the Noble Edge Effect

The catch? The Noble Edge Effect only works when those efforts feel sincere. Today’s consumers are savvier than ever, so it’s important that you give back in a way that is meaningful and aligns with the values of your brand.

For example, consider the example of TOMS and their “buy one and we’ll donate one” mantra. This does wonders for their brand perception—and their bottom line.

Science fact #4: nostalgia (Connect the past with the present)

Nostalgia is a powerful, powerful emotion. We all love to look back at old photos and videos and relive the glory days.

But did you know that nostalgia actually impacts how our brains make purchasing decisions? Recent studies have shown that positive feelings created by nostalgia can actually make a person more likely to buy a product or service.

Email marketers’ tip: How to capitalize on nostalgia

The Harlem Globetrotters use nostalgia as a powerful edge by sending emails that include video to attract new generations of fans to its timeless events. A live embedded streaming video shows openers how their experience seamlessly joins the old with the new to provide something for people of all ages.

Science fact #5: The Von Restorff Effect (The stranger, the better)

The Von Restorff Effective boils down to one thought: “If it looks strange, we’ll probably remember it.”

The Von Restorff Effect is probably the most obvious cognitive behavior in this article, but it’s also one of the most effective. It explains why something that stands out immediately becomes memorable—and more likely to be taken advantage of.

Email marketers’ tip: How to capitalize on the Von Restorff Effect

To use the Von Restorff Effect, consider using images your audience may not expect (yet still in a way that supports your creative). You can also include big, bright call-to-action buttons, not just standard blue hyperlinks.

Busch Gardens used the Von Restorff Effect to an extreme degree. It created a scary skull image to promote a Halloween event, but also animated with a scratch-to-reveal feature daring recipients to click for more information (and a possible scare). Who could resist!

Science fact #6: The social default bias (We’re all copycats)

Social default bias says that when we’re having trouble picking between competing products, we’re more likely to pick the tone that others have chosen. The only catch: we don’t want others to see us do it for fear of being seen as a follower.

This is why we’ll order something we’ve seen someone across a restaurant order, but hesitate if someone at our own table has ordered it first.

Email marketers’ tip: The Social Default Bias

When creating emails, user-generated content and social proof are extremely powerful marketing tools, especially when paired with email. Think of it this way: your inbox is usually a private place, so when you see it flooded with pictures or quotes from real customers using a particular product, you feel that it’s already been researched. If it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for you, and the path to purchase becomes that much easier.

For example, Yotel created an email that used a grid view to display user content from its customers’ Instagrams posts. All of which gave provided even more good ideas that any copycat could steal from their own getaway or event.

Blind ‘em with science!

Interested in learning more? Download the complete guide on email marketing psychology, “Your Brain on Email: The Science to Winning the Inbox,” today!

Email consistently provides among the best returns of all marketing channels. But even if your email program is delivering ROI, how can you tell if it’s contributing as much as it could or should to your bottom line?

One of the best ways to check the pulse of a marketing strategy, team or channel is to compare it to the performance of others. If you can match or beat the average, odds are good you’re heading in the right direction. If you’re lagging behind par…well, you might need to hit a hole in one to catch up.

So where does your brand stand compared to overall email marketing performance? What about when compared to companies similar to yours: businesses of similar size and structure, other brands in your industry, and your closest competitors?

These are important questions, but they’re difficult to answer without a reliable baseline to gauge yourself against. Fortunately that measuring stick is now available to marketers in the form of this comprehensive email marketing benchmarks guide recently published by Campaign Monitor.

The Benchmark for Email Benchmarks

When it comes to publicly-available data, this email marketing benchmarks report is the gold standard. Campaign Monitor has visibility into the performance of millions of email campaigns across industries, and has made its findings available to marketers with no strings attached.

You probably won’t anything more up-to-date and broadly reaching than what Campaign Monitor has assembled. Best of all, the data is freely available and accompanied by a helpful explanation of what it all means!

Email Open Rate Benchmarks

Take a moment and go check your marketing team’s email open rate.

Got it? Now compare that to the email open rate benchmark for all industries: 17.92%.

How does your marketing program compare?

The complete benchmarks report lists email open rate benchmarks down to the individual industry. Interestingly, the verticals winning the open rate battle include:

Make sure to see where your emails stand against the competitors in your own industry!

Campaign Monitor reports that Sunday is the lowest performing day for overall open rate metrics. Find the best day for open rates in your industry in the complete email marketing benchmarks guide!

How to Improve It:

There are lots of levers you can pull to lift your open rate to meet or exceed the benchmark.

The most obvious is subject line optimization. Make your subject lines personalized, relevant, intriguing and exciting to attract interest and earn more opens. Just approach with caution; if the contents of your email don’t meet the expectations your subject lines set, you’ll receive high spam and unsubscribe rates in return.

The other way to improve open rates is to make each of your emails so phenomenally irresistible that once a subscriber opens one they’ll feel compelled to open future messages. That can come in the form of high-value exclusive deals, awesome content, or engaging, interactive and highly personalized in-email experiences.

With the right tools you can even design emails that will draw users to open an email over and over again. We show examples of this tactic in our latest ebook, Automating Personalization: 5 Ways to Scale Relevance in Your Email Marketing.

Email Click-Through Rate Benchmarks

How many of your email openers go on to click on the content and links within your messages? For marketing emails overall, it’s about 14.1%

CTR is not the definitive measure of an email campaign’s success or failure. But it can be a good indicator of overall engagement.

Some industries seem to be better than others at soliciting clicks. Verticals leading the way include:

Monday seems to be the worst day for click-through rate benchmarks, coming in at just 13.48%. Make sure you understand what days are best for your specific industry!

How to Improve It:

Need a way to increase your engagement rates? We explained some accessible, scalable ways to make emails more relevant and interactive in our latest webinar. Watch it now!

Email Unsubscribe Rate Benchmarks

Campaign Monitor found an overall email unsubscribe rate benchmark of .17%.

A certain amount of email list churn is normal and even beneficial for email marketers. There’s no point in sending emails to people who genuinely are not interested in your messages or did not intend to subscribe to your lists.

But if your unsubscribe rate is much higher than average, it’s a good indicator that something’s not right: you’re sending too many emails, your content isn’t bringing value to your audience, your email formats aren’t providing a good experience, and so on.

Emails sent on Sunday or Monday tend to have lower unsubscribe rates, according to the report. Can you guess what day has the highest?

How to Improve It:

Improving unsub rates begins with building a healthy, fully-opted in list from the start. If everyone you’re mailing know exactly what they’re getting into when signing up, they’ll be less likely to ditch your brand later.

And of course, amazing emails that consistently bring value and relevance to openers are much less likely to prompt an unsubscribe. For more helpful tips on managing unsubscribe rates, check out this great guide.