How to Build a "Unicorn" Email Program

For years I’ve been searching for a digital marketing “unicorn”—that perfect user experience that goes beyond best-in-class to capture my attention, motivate my loyalty, and liberate my credit card. My search has intensified over the last months, driven by a need to refresh my retail test inbox as well as my closet.

Exploring far and wide in the apparel retail space as both a consultant and consumer, I saw the marketing equivalents of some great looking horses, a few rhinos, and even a donkey in a party hat. Even though I haven’t found my unicorn, I figured it would be worthwhile to write up a little marketing consultant “fan fiction” that describes what could be.

I should start by saying that there is some impressive technology in the email space and the functionality can support far more advanced programs than what we’re seeing. While bandwidth is always a challenge, the advances in digital marketing leave much to be desired. Having a website and email program that creates an experience that’s truly engaging and even enjoyable isn’t impossible, it’s just rare. By crafting a digital brand voyage (yeah, I said it) that goes above and beyond consumers’ expectations (and they do expect more from us), you can create more loyal, satisfied customers that send more of their share of wallet your direction. Below, I’m going to detail a “unicorn” email experience that would make all of my online marketing and shopping dreams come true.

1) Point me in the right direction
Most apparel and accessory retailers have a lot of SKUs and it can be quite the chore to wade through every item looking for styles that resonate. When I show up at your site, guide me to content that I’m most likely to buy. Give me the opportunity to take a quick style quiz or give some quick “thumbs up/thumbs down” feedback on items that fit different trend categories.


You don’t necessarily have to limit what I see, but providing some suggestions or affinity matches lets me know that there are items in your catalog that  work with my style. The technology is out there to make this happen, it’s just not being used as much or as well as it could be.

As I dig deeper into what’s available, provide filtering options that allow me to specify what I’m looking for (i.e., tops, skirts) and even what I’m NOT looking for (i.e., crop tops, mini skirts). Allow me to quickly access styles that will work with my wardrobe without forcing me to wade through items that I’m never going to purchase. Improving my experience enhances my perception of your brand and helps you win a sale.

2) Don’t be too pushy

pic_2When it comes to building an email list, implementing pop-up subscribe forms is a great way to go when well designed. These can also be appealing for consumers when they offer discounts and incentives. When I visit your site for the first time, go ahead and leverage a pop-up but be sure to make it worth my time and give me an offer that I can’t refuse. When you do so, make it easy for me to get back to shopping by allowing me to click outside of the pop up to get rid of it or give me a nice big X to shut it down. If I don’t want the goodies that you’re offering, don’t try to force me to take them.

Speaking of goodies… Let’s take a minute to talk about cookies. If I’m coming to your site from an email or have been to your site recently (and have signed up for your program), use your data and don’t interrupt my browsing with an irrelevant pop-up. This seems obvious but it’s amazing how many sites don’t have these rules implemented.

3) Start our email relationship off on the right foot

pic_3Whether I buy from you or not, I’m expecting a warm welcome. Don’t let me down, but on the other hand don’t give me any weird subscriber-stalking vibes by bombarding me with emails within the first 24 hours.

If I do buy something, include a sincere “Thank You” and add interest to the transactional email by including a “ways to wear,” “complete the look,” or even a “you might like” feature in the lower half or sidebar of the email (unless you are emailing my Canadian doppelganger, in which case abide by CASL regulations). Read more about optimizing transactional emails here.

If I don’t buy, welcome me to the program by sending me an email that includes a look or two that I may like based on the style quiz that I took. Also, let me know what to expect from your email program and give me a clear means to inform you of what I’m interested in and how often I’d like to be contacted.

4) Show me that you get me
Now that I’m engaged with your brand and subscribed to your email program, put in some effort to keep me interested and active. Use details from my style quiz to send me emails that feature new styles and looks that fit my profile. Leverage dynamic content to ensure that even your email blasts resonate. When I click through to your site, be sure continue that personalized experience.

Even though I’ve told you what I like, pick up on my browsing habits and click behavior and adjust content as necessary. Include a clear means for me to help you course correct, such as a preference center or “rate these items” quiz to help refine selections.

On a similar note, pay attention to my engagement patterns. Scale up or back depending on how often I’m engaging with your brand. Adjust your approach as my engagement wans and wanes. If you really want my attention, use available data and send me messages when I’m most likely to open or browse your website.

5) Have some fun
This is one of the most important aspects of a unicorn email program and one that is often overlooked. I can forgive high volume or a lack of personalization if your emails are interesting and entertaining. Mix it up and have some fun with your email program and I probably will too.

Below are a few ways a brand can inform, entertain, and engage subscribers:

  • Location-based targeting: Work to understand what I’m dealing with and message to me accordingly. Is there a heat wave or cold snap headed my way? Is rain in the forecast? Take this into account when emailing me and send me styles and SKUs that align. Several platforms out there make this type of messaging strategy easy for marketers. Also, if you are going to used my location to send me offers when I’m near a brick and mortar store, that’s great, as long as I’m aware of these practices and have given my consent. If you come out of the blue with an “I know you are close” email, you may creep me out.
  • pic_5pic_6Use GIFs: Show me alternate colors, ways to wear an item, or different fits. GIFs are quick and easy ways to expose subscribers to more content while adding an element of entertainment.
  • Vary your content: Add diversity to the program and keep it interesting by providing a range of content. Provide style tips, seasonal previews, ways to wear, popular pairings, unanticipated rewards, user reviews, and more to add variety to your program. Periodically send me news and updates about your company along with the occasional collaboration or partner offer. This can help spice things up but just be sure to do it tastefully. Make sure that I know that you’re respecting my data privacy, and don’t go overboard with too many co-branded messages.
  • Get me involved: Spark my interest and gain more useful information for your brand by including interactive one-click quizzes and polls. Including simple polls offers three primary benefits: 1) It’s fun for me. This is a big win in its own. 2) You learn something about me that can be used to make future experiences more relevant. 3) You get a click and have the opportunity to send me to a page that’s meaningful for me and potentially financially rewarding for you.
  • Leverage dynamic email features: Live social feeds, countdown timers, dynamic content/product population, and self-scrolling content can transform static emails and make them less of a yawn. Be strategic about your usage and avoid leaning on any particular feature too heavily.
  • Get your subject line game on point: Give me a reason to click through to your email. Keep things fresh and use a range of approaches to capture my interest. The gang over at Return Path Labs has made this process easier, interesting, and even fun for marketers with Subject Line Optimizer. Consider using dynamic keywords to make your subject lines resonate and stand above the competition.
  • Try video: It’s a highly engaging medium best used to highlight interesting content and entertain. When creating videos, be mindful of my time and avoid producing long clips videos with poor payoffs.
  • pic_7Show real people wearing your styles:. While I appreciate the production quality of images with your apparel on models, let me see how pieces fit and are worn by folks representing an array of shapes and styles. Leverage social media to portray your brand on the street and give me ideas on how your gear can fit into my world.
  • Aim high and be bold: This is one of my favorite pieces of advice—and it’s also one of Return Path’s value statements. The digital marketing space is a fantastic test lab for new ideas and approaches. Leverage the impressive technology that exists and your ability to track and measure nearly every facet of the subscribers’ digital journey to create your own unicorn. When doing so, think beyond immediate ROI and work towards crafting an experience that drives lifetime engagement and loyalty. In the long run, your customers and your bottom line with thank you.

Have you found any unicorns?
Is there a well-rounded, best-in-class online retail experience that I’m missing out on? I’d love to hear from marketing folks that have found their unicorns!

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