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Live Content in Emails: The Best Use Cases

By Nick Cantu

The second you send an email, the content in it starts to age. While some content is evergreen and maintains its relevance until whenever your subscribers open your email, other content has a limited lifespan, after which it’s considerably less useful—or completely useless. However, live content can make sure that your content is fresh no matter when your email is opened.

That’s because live content is populated at the time that an individual subscriber opens your email, not at the time that you send it. This not only ensures that your email content is timely, but it also allows digital marketers to include content in their emails that would be difficult to include otherwise.

While image caching by Gmail and Yahoo Mail can sometimes short circuit live content, it’s still powerful. In fact, because of live content’s unique benefits, Oracle Marketing Consultants consider it to be a low adoption–high impact email marketing trend, which means that using live content offers not only significant benefits but also a competitive advantage.

Live content is most effective when used to display content that changes rapidly. Here is our list of the use cases where we think it delivers the biggest impact:

  • Live countdown timers

  • Account dashboards

  • Real-time inventory

  • Live poll results

  • Device targeting

  • Calendar invites

  • Live Sports Scores, Medal Counts, Etc.

  • Local weather

  • Local maps

  • Social media feeds

Let’s talk about each of those in turn.

Live countdown timers

Urgency is a tried and true marketing tactic, and it’s one of our primary go-to tactics in retail messages. Whether it’s a flash sale that’s only good for a few hours or a three-day sale, just about any time-limited offer is enhanced by having a live countdown timer in your email that displays an accurate time remaining regardless of when the email is opened. We’ve seen pairing a countdown clock with a subject line and preview text that convey some urgency really help create fear of missing out (FOMO) and produce strong results.

We’ve implemented countdown timers in emails for many of our clients over the years. For example, we used them as part of Harley-Davidson’s 2019 holiday season campaign, which won a Platinum MarCom Award and won a Gold Horizon Award. Harley-Davidson’s 2019 Black Friday campaign delivered the most sales the brand has seen on any other Black Friday and was up 316% over 2018!

We also used a live countdown timer in an award-winning Xfinity email that counted down to the end of their Watchathon event.

The biggest concern with countdown timers and urgency is to not overuse it. It tends to work so well that it’s a balancing act to know when to pull back so you don’t risk losing the tactic’s impact.

Account dashboards

Providing your customers an up-to-date count of their loyalty and rewards points in an email drives action. We use live content to do this in many of the emails we create for our travel and hospitality clients, in particular, but we also find it to be effective with loyalty program modules for our clients in retail and other verticals.

Account dashboards work best when positioned as a banner right below your navigation bar—or right below your header, if you don’t use a header-anchored nav bar.

Real-time inventory

Just like limited-time offers create urgency, limited-inventory offers do, too. Retailers regularly use this tactic on their websites, saying that there’s only X left of the product you’re looking at. You can do the same thing in an email.

Again, FOMO can be a strong motivator, so highlighting low-stock items can motivate shoppers to buy, regardless of whether the item is on sale or not. This is particularly true of seasonal items, closeouts, and other products that consumers suspect won’t be restocked for a while, if ever.

Once an item does actually go out of stock, consider using live content to substitute in a promotion of an alternate item. Changing a recommendation like this can be an easy pull if you already have a recommendation tool on your website.

Relatedly, we’ve also seen live content used to promote one-of-a-kind items, such as job listings and rental properties. Once that item is taken, there’s zero point in promoting it, so there are great efficiencies to be had in updating email content to promote other items instead.

Live poll results

Polls are great for getting subscriber engagement. Live content makes them even better because you can display real-time results in the same email that contains the poll. That boosts engagement further because subscribers can immediately get some value from the poll.

Live polls are a particularly great option for brands or messages that don’t have a compelling click-through option because they’re driving an offline activity. For example, many of our Xfinity emails are designed to encourage people to go onto their TVs or other devices and watch shows. Live polls give us the ability to build excitement over content, while giving the audience something fun to engage and click on in the email.

In one of Xfinity’s Watchathon campaign emails, the live poll asked subscribers which of six genres they were planning on watching, displaying the results of all previous votes at the time that the subscriber opens the email.

We also used live polling in an Xfinity campaign promoting the 2018 FIFA World Cup. That poll asked subscribers which team they were rooting for while displaying the results in real time. That email campaign won a 2018 Gold Horizon Interactive Award.

Device targeting

Paired with device detection via media queries, live content can be used to display calls-to-actions that are appropriate for the device and avoid cluttering up your emails with CTAs that aren’t appropriate.

For example, we’ve used device targeting to dynamically swap app links. That way, if a subscriber opens an email on an iPhone, the message would promote and link to Apple’s App Store—and if they open on an Android device, it would promote and link to the Google Play app instead.

Considering how difficult it is to optimize for dark mode for email in Outlook, we have discussed using device detection to populate a banner message for Outlook users that says something like “Using Dark Mode? See the email in all its glory >” with that link taking them to view an online version of the email that’s optimized for dark mode.

Calendar invites

Device targeting also allows you to serve up the most appropriate calendar invite. While this is particularly attractive to B2B brands, which generally host lots of virtual and live events, we’ve used live content for calendar invites for several of our B2C clients, too. For example, consider calendar invites for:

  • Televised events that you’re sponsoring or that you’re sponsoring an entrant in

  • Store events, whether it’s semi-annual sale, educational session, or expert speaker

  • Political and cultural rallies or marches

  • Product launches

We tend to see pretty good engagement when we use live content to populate calendar invites. They’ve been especially useful when the email didn’t really have an available clickthrough for more info about an event. This added the ability to have a button and create some sort of engagement when there otherwise wouldn’t be.

Live sports scores, medal counts, etc.

Sporting events also provide great opportunities to use live content. However, it’s best to think in terms of multi-day and multi-week tournaments like the NCAA’s March Madness, the NFL’s Playoffs, and the Olympics more than individual games.

For example, we included a live medal tracker in this Xfinity email promoting the finale of the 2018 winter Olympics in South Korea. The email also includes a live countdown clock and a real-time poll, so it’s a live content tour de force.

Local weather

Because it changes often, the weather is another great use of live content. Travel and hospitality brands use live weather forecasts in their emails the most often. It’s particularly useful in pre-trip automated email campaigns so that customers know how to pack for their vacation or work trip.

In addition to adding weather information to an email, you can use weather data to personalize your email content. For example, you could promote different apparel or accessories based on your subscriber’s local weather, highlighting cold weather gear during an early fall cold snap to urge customers to start buying for winter. For one of our digital media clients, we used the opener’s weather to change movie recommendations. We A/B tested that against static recommendations and the weather-based suggestions won.

Local maps

Live content can also be used to include a map in your email showing a local venue. Traditionally, email marketers have used this ability to add a map showing the local store that’s closest to each of their subscribers based on their current location.

However, as design standards have moved toward more of a minimalistic look, a map often feels busy and clunky. For that reason, we’ve moved away from this approach with a lot of our clients.

That’s not to say that local maps don’t have their uses, but the industry is moving away from a map in every email to using them selectively. For instance, today, you’d be more likely to see a live local map in an email that was about a special event that was only held at select store locations or at a non-store location, such as a hotel or convention center.

Social media feeds

Live content can also be used to pull social feeds into your emails. Our friends over at Litmus famously did this back in 2015, pulling in tweets that used their conference hashtag to promote the event. With social media being unpredictable and trolls being quick to exploit popular hashtags, this is a live content tactic that can be risky, especially if you don’t set up safeguards, such as filtering out posts with images or profanity.

The much safer and popular approach that we’ve used with our clients is to pull tweets into your email from your own social media account. That way you know the content is safe and appropriate to feature. You can even go a step further and work with your brand’s social team to develop an appropriate cadence or topics for the few days surrounding the email launch. That way you can be 100% confident that you’ll have great content in the email and cast your social media presence in the best possible light.

Those are just a few of the more common and effective ways that marketers can use live content in their emails. But, of course, they aren’t the only ways. Live content provides lots of opportunities for companies to do highly creative one-off emails.

Just ask yourself: Can our planned email benefit from displaying different content based on when it’s opened? If the answer is yes, then live content is worth exploring for that email.

Need help with email design and coding? Oracle Marketing Consulting has more than 500 of the leading marketing minds ready to help you to achieve more with the leading marketing cloud, including an award-winning Creative Services team that can help you with live content, interactivity, and other advanced email content.

To learn more, reach out to us at CXMconsulting_ww@oracle.com.

For more information about email marketing and content creation, please check out:

  • Oracle Eloqua Marketing Automation
  • Oracle Responsys Campaign Management
  • Oracle Content Management
  • Oracle Marketing

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