Shopping cart abandonment emails: issues and resources

Latest posts | By Mark Brownlow | 11 Comments | Licence this content

shopping carts“There is no comparison between that which is lost by not succeeding and that which is lost by not trying.”

So spoke the philosopher Francis Bacon.

“Lost” sales through abandoned shopping carts or order forms can be recovered by sending the customer one or more emails reminding them to complete the transaction.

The devil is in the detail of course.

If you’re any experiences or opinions to share on this, I’d love your comment.

Do cart abandonment emails work?

According to a study by Experian CheetahMail, abandoned cart mails produce 20 times the transaction rates and revenue of standard email campaigns.

Others also report success with the tactic. For example…

  • said that abandonment emails generated over 10% of total email marketing revenue, but accounted for less than 3% of their outgoing email volume.
  • S&S Worldwide revealed “…a 25% conversion rate on personalized transactional messages focused on items left in carts.”
  • And SeeWhy’s Charles Nicholls is quoted as saying that Disney produces “…$2 for every remarketing email they send.”

This post highlights the main issues surrounding this special kind of remarketing email. It also links to reports and articles that will help you find further insight and examples of such campaigns.

1. Content strategy

There is no “one size fits all” approach to the shopping cart or order form abandonment email. And the strategy behind the tactic has follow-through implications for other issues, notably timing and privacy.

One common strategy is to see the abandonment of a shopping cart as an opportunity to immediately win-back the customer with a promotional, salesy approach…intercepting the customer as they “exit the store”.

Proponents of this strategy favor emails sent out immediately after the end of the relevant website session (or within 24 hours or less).

The email reiterates the benefits of the abandoned products or services. It may also include an incentive (coupon, discount, free shipping) related to the purchase and/or upsell/cross-sell opportunities.

For example…

“Complete your order and we’ll give you an additional 10% off the already low price”

The other common strategy is to approach abandonment with a more customer service orientation, pitching the message as a helpful reminder of an unfinished transaction.

The email offers customer service contact details and information related to potential problems with the mechanics of the ordering process. For example…

“You recently placed the Liverpool FC 2008-2009 season review DVD in your Acme Retailer shopping cart. This is to let you know we only have one copy of the item left in stock. Complete your order soon to avoid disappointment.”

At a more sophisticated level, content can be tailored to the stage at which a cart or order form was abandoned.

For example, if the session ends after requesting credit card details, an abandonment email might include information on alternative ways to pay for items.

Hybrids of the promotional and service approaches are, of course, possible.

Where experts agree is on the following content points:

  • Use a service pitch as much as possible, even if the email itself is essentially a marketing message.
  • Where possible, include direct references to (and images of) the products left in the cart.
  • Where possible, link back to the individual’s actual shopping cart at the stage they abandoned, rather than to a generic home page link. The more work required to complete the transaction, the less likely it is to happen.

2. Timing

The issue of when to send out the email is another one that divides experts.

The earlier you send an email, the more likely you are to capture the transaction before the customer has bought elsewhere or changed needs.

Equally, the earlier you send an email, the more likely you are to capture a transaction that might have happened anyway…when any incentive you offered is lost money.

And the more likely you are to raise Big Brother issues (“are you watching me?”).

If you take a purely service perspective, then timing can be adjusted to service opportunities. For example, you can send out an email when:

  • a cart is about to expire
  • when a product in the shopping cart is about to go out of stock (or becomes available again)
  • when a product is about to go up/down in price

Another timing issue is whether you want to send out a sequence of emails, rather than just the one.

A MarketingExperiments study, for example, found the greatest conversions for one online service came from the third email in a 3-mail cart recovery campaign.

3. Permission, privacy and legal issues

As so often with email marketing, there is a difference between what you can do and what you should do.

To send this kind of remarketing emails, you need the right permission and legal framework. Which normally means an appropriate opt-in from existing customers, or getting the email address and opt-in as part of the early shopping cart transaction process.

Some marketers will send remarketing email without an explicit opt-in to do so. This is a grey area, whose legitimacy (from a legal and permission perspective) usually depends on how transactional (rather than promotional) the emails are.

Above and beyond this is the privacy issue.

One woman’s targeted helpful email reminder is another’s evidence of a Big Brother society. Again, this is why many choose to approach these emails from a customer service, rather than purely promotional perspective.

The positive implications of remarketing emails are easily seen in terms of opens, clicks and conversions. The negatives are not.

It’s hard to tell whether emails to those who do not convert are having a negative impact on their attitude to the sender, particular if you’ve drifted further and further away from the permission ideal.

One possibility I’ve not yet seen is to monitor how cart abandonment emails impact the future purchase behavior of recipients.

Are they more or less likely to purchase from you in the future? And are they more or less likely to abandon their carts again in the future?

That kind of analysis gives you a proper overview of the long-term benefits of your efforts.

4. Success measurement

Vendors are quick to report increased response rates and revenues from remarketing emails, but those aren’t the only factors you need to account for when evaluating this tactic’s success. Others are:

Costs: while the variable cost per sent email is likely to be tiny, there may be wider costs involved in building the capability to send the messages.

Examples include the costs of integrating web analytics with your email system, or service charges from your ESP. However, once setup, this kind of campaign usually runs on automatic.

Incentives: additional incentives to complete a transaction commonly produce higher response rates. But, of course, you need to test the use of incentives carefully, to ensure any response lift justifies the cost.

You also need to ensure you’re not training buyers to abandon their cart deliberately in the hope of getting a discount by email a few minutes later.

Control group: not all the responses are incremental. At least some of those customers would have returned and completed the transaction anyway.

The only way to truly calculate the incremental benefits is to compare results with a control group of customers who abandon carts, but don’t receive the follow-up emails.

As remarketing technology becomes more sophisticated, you may even be able to adjust the timing of reminders to known abandonment patterns of individual customers.

If someone regularly abandons, but always completes the transaction within a week, you don’t need to send them a reminder after 24 hours. If someone never abandons, maybe you would.

Where to find more detailed insight, answers and examples

Useful reports:

1. The remarketing report
14 page Experian CheetahMail report reviewing the concrete results of abandonment emails and the impact of different elements within those emails.

2. “Shop and Abandon” Cart Study
Statistics from a Listrak analysis of how top retailers actually implement abandonment messages, with more advice in an associated white paper.

3. More Merchants Rely on Email to Minimize Cart Abandonment
Six-page report from the e-tailing group based on a survey of 20 merchant cart recovery email efforts. Includes examples and recommendations.

4. Shopping cart recovery tested
MarketingExperiments report on two tests to see if email follow-ups can rescue sales lost through order form abandonment. The study also includes general advice on templates and best practices.

Useful articles:

1. Marketing to the abandoned cart
Broader article which includes advice on different email approaches and some examples.

2. Mitigate Shopping-Cart Abandonment
Includes seven best practices.

3. Basket abandonment: what is industry best practice?
Suggests timing and content should depend on the stage at which the cart is abandoned and the customer’s past cart abandonment history.

4. Are you being served?
Explores the fine line between helpful customer service and customer stalking, in the context of remarketing.

5. Driving your web conversion with retargeting
Interview with SeeWhy’s Charles Nicholls. Read through the comments too.

6. Bird Watching: Shopping cart abandonment emails
Retailers and commentators weigh in via Twitter with their opinions on (particularly) timing.

7. Recover Abandoned Shopping Carts with Email
Review of relevant stats and key areas to think about.

8. Leverage Shopping Cart Abandonment Emails
Bronto’s strategists take my post and offer a heap of additional insight.

Find related articles:

Permalink | April 2nd, 2010 | 11 Comments »
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11 comments on “Shopping cart abandonment emails: issues and resources”

  1. Brett Houle says:

    Awesome post. It is still (and in my view always will be) part art and part science. I think every brand, while looking to ideas best practices on how to implement, needs a level of experimentation with their brand, product and subscriber base and user experience. Will a re-offer work? Maybe on me, but not you. Maybe for this product versus that product. The variables are endless. Our experience with the brands we've help through re-carting is that it produces a positive return. It's worth it. It works. BUT – after some experimentation for sure.

  2. Mark Brownlow says:

    Very salient points Brett – thanks for sharing.

    I think you speak to a common email marketing need, namely to test and experiment because, like you say, what works for one product/audience/brand might not work for another…

  3. Jeff says:

    Great points — would love to hear more ESPs weigh in on permission requirements for emails of this kind? Do some allow for email to anyone, regardless of permission? Do some require permission?

    Also, if I get a follow-up email like this sooner than 24 hours, I get a bit creeped out, very much like your Big Brother mention. Perhaps it's just me though.

  4. Mark Brownlow says:

    I don't think it's just you, Jeff. Which is why I'd be curious to see longer-term studies looking at the impacts of triggered emails. The numbers do seem to suggest they are a great tactic, but it's always healthy to pay proper attention to the potential downsides.

    The permission issue is always an important one, though helped here by the transactional nature of the email. Some, for example, have suggested asking for an email at the start of the transaction, noting that it will only be used for order-related communications (unless a broader opt-in occurs later in the process)…

  5. Kathy Heslop says:

    It’s an interesting debate. Many online companies are naturally more constrained by fear and legalistic nerves, (both technical and social) than in looking for ways to seize remarketing opportunities that come from failure metrics like online abandonment. It will be interesting to see how this evolves going forward, as young digital natives come thru the ranks who are already more open to sharing information and having open dialogue with brands, so that they can discover anything that could be useful or relevant to them, or that would benefit their lifestyle.

  6. Thanks for the comment Kathy. Interesting is the right word. A lot will depend I think on how things trend in terms of openness, privacy, communication tolerance etc. Always interesting times online.

  7. Hi Mark

    Thanks for posting this – it’s a very good summary of lots of thinking in the space. In general, the more education in this area the better since there are quite a few myths!

    The only data I’ve seen on behaviour of abandoners, is that the number of abandoners is growing, but the causes aren’t changing. Forrester estimates that 136 million people in the US abandoned shopping carts last year, and those that did are more sophisticated in using the internet. They also spend 17% more online annually than those that have never abandoned a shopping cart, and are 84% more likely to comparison shop to get a better deal.

    This mirrors several other research studies which suggest that the affluent and better educated use more online coupons. The conclusion is that we better get better at dealing with abandonment, because the problem is not going away, and today it’s the higher spending customers that abandon.

    You also suggest that real time emails are primarily used for more promotional email based follow-ups. We’ve generally found that the best results come from an immediate follow-up with a service based message.

    In our experience both the timing and the way that you follow up is really important, as has been noted in this thread. We usually recommend a ‘service tone.’ Not only is it courtesy to offer good service, and alternative channels (such as a phone number or email address), but also it reassures the visitor that you are a ‘proper’ company.

    The service tone also simplifies many of the problems which you point out relating to getting out of step, because a desire to help the customer mitigates the risk of shooting yourself in the foot, if the customer has, purchased from a competitor, for example. It reinforces all the right things while also giving the customer a nudge in the right direction.

    Some of other issues raised have historically made shopping cart recovery more difficult than it seems at first. What you have to do to simplify things is to make sure that you stay in step with the customer – getting out of step is the main problem.

    For example, if you are mailing customers 24 hours after they abandon, what have they done in the mean time? Have they purchased from you? From someone else? If you mail a free shipping voucher after 24 hours, a small percentage may have come back and purchased already under their own steam, and you’ve just caused a customer service problem. What happens if a customer has unsubscribed in the last 24 hours? Etc. Technology can take care of all of this, but it catches out some who think it’s just a matter of sending out an email.

    This is one reason why many industry experts (for example the Marketing Experiments team, Forrester, SeeWhy) all recommend an immediate follow up. A real time follow up means that they get an email in their inbox within a minute of the abandonment being detected. This eliminates most of the complexity, and also means that when your email arrives it is very relevant to the recipient.

    In line with your comment, we also recommend making any promotional offer on the last of a sequence of remarketing emails to maximize margin and mitigate the risk of training the customer.

    Using this approach, we consistently see email open rates of a minimum of 50%, possibly even over 70%, and very low unsubscribe rates. These kind of rates tell a powerful story: it shows that your follow-up email is relevant and not intrusive. In fact, there’s lots of evidence to show that well written service based emails that are sent immediately following an abandonment are retained by the customer in their inbox much longer than normal emails. They hang onto them as a reminder, mirroring the trend to use the shopping car as a shopping list, and because they have a simple way to go back to the cart, and a phone number to call.

    Because these emails are often kept, it’s also worth thinking carefully about your sender personality so that it is easy for someone searching their Inbox for your reminder email to find it again.

    There are quite a few free webcasts we’ve recorded looking specifically at these issues and best practices available at

    Thanks again for writing about this area.

  8. Charles thanks so much for sharing your insights and numbers: fascinating! Almost worthy of its own post, so I shall Tweet the comment out to folk.

  9. Mark Patron says:

    Hi Mark,

    Great article on an important topic. We’ve been doing this since 2001 and find basket abandonment is the killer application for analytically targeted email followed by cross selling based on products viewed. More info on our website

    Clifford James achieves 678% ROI with abandoned basket email campaign

  10. nice informative posts u all provided, but how we can improve this?

  11. Remonty says:

    Very good Web site – thanks!