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Email subscriber acquisition strategies of 6,000+ U.S. online shops

The Publicare Email Marketing Benchmark: Part 1

19. November 2015


With digital marketing changing at the speed of technology, marketers are always faced with new email marketing trends and predictions. Yes – these trends can create opportunities, but they also create high expectations for companies.Infographic_CTA_151113b

These expectations create the assumption that all of the top e-commerce websites adopt these trends and predictions shortly after their arrival in the digital marketing world.

We tested this assumption by surveying the email marketing practices of more than 6,000 e-commerce websites in the United States. Our data fails many of the latest assumptions.

Are you ahead of the crowd, maintaining status quo, or lagging behind? Our goal is for you to use our discoveries to conduct a self-assessment of your email marketing practices. Where are there opportunities for you to be smokin’ hot?

How we tested:

We attempted to subscribe to receive emails from 6,757 e-commerce websites – collecting a wealth of data along the way. (Find out more about the selection here).

By closely monitoring every email we receive – approximately 9,000 emails per week – we are able to gain insights into the email marketing practices of e-commerce websites in the United States.

As our empirical research reveals an enormous array of data, we decided to deliver this study to you in five parts. Each part focuses on a different facet of email marketing:

  • Email subscriber acquisition
  • Email service providers – market shares and adoption
  • Email vs. social media marketing
  • Deliverability settings
  • Email HTML structure and content

Part #1 email subscriber acquisition: how online shops charm contacts they have never met before – signing up for marketing email messages

By manually visiting all of the online shops we kept track of the visibility of each email sign-up. This allowed us to capture data on opt-in processes and the deliverability of the emails to follow.

The implicit assumption behind each announcement of the latest email marketing trend is: email marketing itself has been a commodity for e-commerce companies for many years. Everybody does it.

Unfortunately, this is not reality.

We found out that signing up for emails is like agreeing to go on a blind date; you never really know what is about to happen. Will they be charming? What if they just lead me on? And the worst feeling of all, am I going to be stood up?

>> View the infographic


10% of the top e-commerce websites we surveyed in the United States do not offer an email subscription sign up.

13.2% of the websites we surveyed that DO offer a subscription for marketing emails don’t actually send any emails out.

What is more important is that only 87.3% offer an email signup on their homepage. We found 29.7% of these shops made it simple to signup by promoting their subscription via a popup layer. Around every fifth shop makes the signup process additional work for their visitors, as they do not place their subscriptions this prominently.

For 5.3% of the websites surveyed, we had to navigate through their web pages or do a Google search to find their subscription form. Even more difficulty transpired when 12.6% required setting up a user account prior to subscribing.

Surprisingly, as email is a channel that continues to drive online and in-store sales, only 18.8% of the websites surveyed offered incentivized email subscriptions; for example offering a coupon or other commercial benefit to join their mailing list.

What type of opt-in do the online shops that we could subscribe to use?

Let’s pretend the online shop is a person for a second:
• Single opt-in = the person you asked out does not confirm the plans
• Confirmed opt-in = the person you asked out confirmed the plans
• Double opt-in = the person you asked out will only confirm the plans pending on background check results

The confirmed opt-in dominates with almost half (46%) of the websites surveyed sending a confirmation email. Although law does not require the confirmed opt-in procedure in the United States, this powerful alternative seems to dominate the email subscription world in US e-commerce, as there are no additional steps required for the consumer.

34.2% of these websites surveyed use a single opt-in while the remaining 19.8% have a double opt-in method.

Here come the marketing emails…or not…

It has been two months since subscription and 13.2% of the websites surveyed have yet to send us any emails – resulting in the relationship as a potential customer beginning and ending at the same exact time.

This is a confounding figure as the top e-commerce businesses are spending big money to attract prospects and nurture them via SEO, SEA, affiliate partners etc. to become first time buyers. According to The Chartered Institute of Marketing, it costs between 4 and 10 times more to acquire a new customer than it does to keep and grow an existing one.

Furthermore, we have not received emails from 19.5% of websites surveyed with an incentivized email subscription and from 18.9% of the websites surveyed with the email subscription promoted via pop-up layer on their homepage. We were getting lead on to only get stood up.

Fewer than 87% of the websites we were able to subscribe to have delivered at least one email newsletter to our inbox since our subscription.

Indeed it is a surprise to see that one in ten online shops do not offer an email subscription sign up. But it is even more surprising to find out that more than one in ten online shops that do offer a subscription for marketing emails don’t actually send any out. Master the basics first so you’re not leaving your new contacts with the feeling that maybe there is a more charming online shop out there.

What’s next in part #2?

As we continued to analyze our data, we found that 81.7% of the websites we surveyed use professional email service providers and sending-as-a-service platforms to run their email campaigns, while 18.3% use a homegrown mail system or send through their shop platform’s email module. In the next phase of our testing we will go into further analysis regarding which delivery systems are used most prominently amongst the top e-commerce websites in the United States. We expect to publish these results in Q1 2016. Stay tuned for our exciting analysis.


This study examined emails sent to Publicare by our selection of 6,757 e-commerce related websites with the highest Alexa and Internet Retailer website ranking in the United States.

Why 6,757 websites?

The top 100,000 Alexa ranked websites in the United States were used as a starting point. We then ran an internal e-commerce keyword query against these 100,000 websites that would determine which had an affinity to e-commerce. The keywords chosen serve as an indicator of the relevance of an online shop for the e-commerce business model of each company.

We narrowed down our list by taking the top ranked 7,100 websites from our query in combination with all of the US centric e-commerce websites from Internet Retailers Top 1000 largest e-retailers guide. After further manual filtering we ended up with 6,757 total e-commerce related websites.

The vast majority of websites we evaluate are online shops plus a small number of blogs and news portals that commercially promote products through affiliate partnerships.

This evaluation is based on a subscription period of three months (April 2015 and June 2015). As a result of our subscriptions, on average we continue to receive 9,000 emails per week.

We will continue to analyze these emails for precise details that we find interesting to the market.

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