Retailers have long been at the forefront of trying to understand consumer behaviors, often being the first to test new strategies for engagement and loyalty. Retail marketers play a very active role in dissecting the consumer psyche by sharing their best practices for wider adoption,  paving the way for other industries to apply new consumer behavior insights to their benefit. As consumers become more sophisticated and savvy, all marketers aim to better serve them with efficiency, relevancy, and personalization.

In effort to learn more, SparkPost and SurveyMonkey recently teamed up to launch a consumer survey that captures how retail consumers feel about and use marketing communications (namely email) from their favorite retail brands. The survey was conducted in late February 2020 through SurveyMonkey’s consumer research panel, SurveyMonkey Audience, and captured consumer responses across North America, covering a wide range of demographics including age, gender, regional location and household income. SparkPost and Survey Monkey compared results of two data sets:

  • Through a national survey of 1,124 people where Survey Monkey asked them to explain their preferences and reasoning when it comes to brand emails—including those review requests
  • Through analysis of email activity and performance data from SparkPost’s consumer panel of 1.5 million email recipients

Survey results highlight how consumer preferences compare to their actual behavior, missed retail marketing opportunities, and recommendations for tactics that can be injected into marketing strategies to boost engagement, customer satisfaction, and stronger brand-and-customer relationships.


  • Content is Important but Context Rules: Marketing emails are most successful when there’s a high level of personalization. Consumers may not always know what they want, but they usually know what they don’t want and the importance of brands paying attention to the latter is on the rise. Delivering relevant content that is contextualized to the customer’s interests yields the best results. Failure to optimize email communications with smart segmentation, clear and timely content, and not providing a clear action or feedback loop will be to the retailer’s detriment.
  • Retailers May Be Missing the Boat for Post-Purchase Opportunities: Most of a retailer’s energy is seemingly spent on customer acquisition and encouraging a transaction. However, survey results present a clear opportunity to use the post-purchase period to create meaningful engagement via surveys, product/service reviews, product tips/tricks, and recommendations for the next purchase.
  • Surprisingly, consumers report that email may influence purchases, but don’t drive them. However, that’s far from the truth: The survey data suggests consumers used email communications as a research tool more than a purchasing channel, but retailers report the opposite. Email was comparatively quite low when ranked against social media and corporate websites as being the driving force behind a purchase decision. However, in a January 2020 Transactional Email Benchmark Report the majority of brand marketers actually report that email is ‘very important’ in driving conversion (50% of marketers) and engagement (70% of marketers). It’s clear that while consumers don’t feel email is an effective push factor for conversion, they are certainly engaging and transacting via the channel with significance.

To get more details about how email best practices tie to surveys and feedback, check out SurveyMonkey’s sister report here.


Email engagement improves when anchored in product and action: Effective email communications are almost always anchored in a clear action for the customer, whether it be buying product, learning about that product, or providing feedback; over half (53%) of the respondents report they “always” or “usually” open emails from brands they use when it includes information about a product. Product-oriented emails are highly engaged because they serve the purposes of influencing a transaction or a consumer’s desire to research a product.

  • Top reason that people wanted to receive an email (60%) was to access content that’s needed to “see/use” the product
  • Additional product recommendations are well-received, generally – 25% of respondents note content the sender “picked for customers like me” pushed them to open an email

 Implications: Email content should either include or point to specific information on featured products and services. Supporting and complementary content like product information and external educational links are highly effective in boosting engagement.

Personalization and relevance means paying attention to permissions and privacy: It’s clear that over-mailing and lack of respect for a consumer’s individualized preferences will get a brand the boot. Interestingly, email frequency was a big factor in how much or how little a consumer would stay engaged with a brand. It is also the leading factor driving unsubscribe rates. When it comes to email marketing, less is more.

  • Over 92% of respondents have at some point unsubscribed from a brand’s email. Top reasons? “Emails come too often” (60%). Followed closely by simply having lost interest in the brand” (54%), and “irrelevant content” (50%). Almost half the respondents unsubscribed from emails for which they’d never opted-in.

  • What single factor do respondents consider most annoying about marketing emails? Their answers mirror their reasons for unsubscribing. Top reasons include: Over-mailing (34%), and its corollary, that email content that seems repetitive (22%); irrelevant email (12%), and unsolicited email (11%).

We also asked another open-ended question: What do consumers like most about their favorite email sender? Not surprisingly, the most-liked features are the inverse of features respondents had identified as most annoying. Among the most popular write-in responses:

  • Features items I’ve shopped
  • Contains deals/offers/sales/coupons/discounts
  • Features new products
  • Includes product suggestions
  • Knows me; my wish list or preferences.

Implications: Successful, relevant emails are typically rooted in clear and concise communications and emailers must understand and respect the importance of curating email content to meet user interests and needs. Basing these insights on known location, status and behavior is a winning formula. Retailers need to be hyper-aware of two big factors: frequency of communications, and action-oriented subject lines.

  • Top drivers of email opens included subject lines that contain information about a deal or discount (58%), followed closely by email coming from a trusted source (54%). Also significant: the subject line references products or services being featured in the email (28%).
  • What is not useful – and a tactic retailers are increasingly deploying – is including a customer name or emoji within a subject line: only 12% of consumers report they care to see their name or an emoji (7%). Such ‘personalization’ tactics clearly do not move the needle for retailers.

  • Communication frequency and repetitive messaging work against you, as consumers aren’t shy about opting out at the earliest signs of email fatigue. To be successful, focus on quality over quantity.

Consumers think email doesn’t drive them to transact, but they’re wrong: When we asked consumers what drove them to purchase, many responded social media and review sites (37%) and corporate websites (28%) were effective in pushing them to click ‘buy.’  They also report that email promotions were a weak factor – only 18% of respondents noted they buy through the email channel. However, according to data stemming from a January 2020 Transactional Email Benchmark Report, that is far from reality.

  • Nearly 50% of brands said that email is “very important” in driving conversion.
  • Nearly 70% of them said that email was “very important” in driving brand engagement.

Implications: The data show that consumers may not put email communications high on the list in terms of transaction influence, but the channel is, in actuality, a big revenue driver for brands. This gap presents a challenge for brands to focus on presenting content in a way that has obvious customer value. Content and context are equally important for connecting the customer to information on product choice, price and availability, and reasons for buying.

The post-purchase period is an underdeveloped opportunity: While so much of email marketing is focused on customer acquisition and revenue-driving campaigns, email is proving to be an effective channel for bolstering engagement and loyalty via post-purchase communications. Interestingly, consumers equally embrace email as a feedback channel as well as an education tool for the products they purchase:

  • 32% want to see tips/tricks for product use
  • 32% appreciate product review requests

However, there’s room for improvement when it comes to educating customers. It’s clear consumers want to see tips and tricks, but what they receive from brands isn’t good enough.  Instead, they are seeking external sources to learn about the products they purchase: 60% of respondents use general online research post-purchase, including product-reviews, compared to 27% using specific information, instructions and/or tutorials on the company’s website. What pales in comparison is the 19% of respondents that look to post-purchase email as a direct source for such information.

Email is also a great tool for brands for re-engagement to drive future revenue. As stated, 64% of consumers want information featuring special deals/discounts on future purchases, and they also like product recommendations to be shared via email as well, based on their existing behaviors:

  • 23% need information on upcoming changes to products and services.
  • 20% want follow-up with next-purchase suggestions.

Implications:  Beyond welcome and thank-you messaging, email has so much more potential. When properly utilized, the channel can make the post-purchase period especially fruitful for brands by promoting engagement (via surveys and reviews), loyalty (via personalized content and context-based education for recent purchases), and future revenue opportunities (via highly targeted and tailored product recommendations).

~ John