5 post-purchase emails to turn one-time buyers into repeat customers

When you’re thinking about how to grow your business and increase your sales, you probably think of all the untapped potential customers out there in the world—and how you’ll need to run ad campaigns that will win them over.

And while it’s true that, yes, you need to recruit new customers to your eCommerce store, the big money comes from turning one-time customers into regulars. It’s been well-established everywhere from The Office to Jilt’s blog (two pieces of media that have made equal pop culture impacts, obviously): acquiring a new customer is five times more expensive than retaining an existing one. Meanwhile, returning customers are at least three times more likely to purchase something, and their purchases tend to become larger over time. A Bain & Company survey of eCommerce clothing brands found that a customer’s fifth purchase was 40 percent larger than their first, and their tenth purchase was almost 80 percent larger than their first.

Repeat customers are also better brand advocates: they’re 50 percent more likely than one-time customers to refer new customers to your store.

So… how do you turn a new customer into a repeat buyer who spends big and recommends your brand to their friends? One of the most powerful tools in your arsenal—and, potentially, your most valuable tool—are automated post-purchase emails. By using strategic automated emails to keep a customer engaged after their purchase, you can effectively turn a single transaction into a long-term customer relationship.

Here are five of the most essential types of post-purchase emails—and tips on when and how to use them. 

1. Welcome series/product onboarding emails

A welcome series serves as a new customer’s overall orientation to your company. If post-purchase emails were DreamWorks movies, welcome emails would be Shrek—they’re the entry point for most people, the foundation of everything that comes afterward, and they’re surprisingly easy to spruce up.

Your welcome series can include many of the things we’ll discuss later in this article (like discounts, cross-sells, and review requests). It can also serve as an introduction to the people behind the brand, your values, your social media, your content, and more. (Check out our post on creating a strong welcome series for an in-depth look on the topic.)

Here’s a welcome email from Shinola Detroit that uses just a few paragraphs and four pictures to accomplish several goals: It greets a new customer, tells a quick version of the brand’s story, and introduces the brand’s values and philosophy. It’s not explicitly designed to sell—the call-to-action at the end is “Discover Shinola” and not something like “Shop now!”—it’s designed to help a new customer feel something for the brand and want to be a part of its mission.

Shinola's welcome email introducing the brand.

In some cases, though, you may want to use some or all of your welcome series for product onboarding—especially if the product a customer purchased requires any type of instructions (or can provide value to them that’s not immediately obvious).

According to a study by Hubspot, there are two main reasons that customers don’t return to a store. (PDF)

  • They don’t understand how to use the product they purchased.
  • They don’t think that the product provides value to them.

Product onboarding emails should address both of these concerns. On the most basic level, you want to ensure that your customer understands the function of your product and knows how to operate it. That lesson often takes the form of an instructional guide, video, or FAQ. 

Then, once customers are familiar with the product, onboarding emails can introduce them to different ways in which it provides value. With some products, this can be as simple as a statement of quality—for instance, details about the materials and craftsmanship that went into the product, or customer testimonies to its usefulness. With products that can perform a variety of functions, onboarding emails might also provide examples of the different ways in which customers use them.

Here’s an example of an onboarding email from rug company Ruggable. It welcomes a new customer, offers a discount (which we’ll get into later in this article), runs through the key features and differentiators for the products, then directs the new customer to the store’s blog to learn even more. It’s an efficient way to reinforce the value of the product and make sure a customer has all the information they need to get the most out of their purchase.

Ruggable's onboarding email.

A company selling a more complex or involved product, like an app or electronics gadget, may go with a longer drip series of onboarding emails.

Here’s email number eight out of 10 from the task managing app Sunsama. The goal of the onboarding emails here is to introduce the customer to the features of the product and then get them in the habit of using it daily. Plus, the emails are also providing content, work tips, and productivity philosophies—content that would resonate with their target customers and help those customers feel like they’re on the same mental wavelength as the brand.

Sunsama's drip onboarding series.

As with most post-purchase emails, welcome emails and onboarding emails are only as good as their timing. Because they serve as an introduction to your company, product, or both, onboarding emails should reach the customer at around the same time that their first order does. (Plus, customers are generally most receptive to marketing emails within a month of making their first purchases.)

Consider sending out a series of staggered welcome or onboarding emails instead of one or two that are packed with information. Consumers will have an easier time digesting shorter, single-topic messages, and they’ll be more likely to retain the information if they aren’t overwhelmed with all of it at once.

There’s another benefit to staggering your first series of emails as well: It gets customers into the habit of reading your messages. According to a study by Return Path, customers who read of your welcome emails are significantly more likely to engage with your emails over a longer time frame.

Customers who read welcome emails go on to read future emails too.
Via: Validity.

2. Post-purchase discounts

Shoppers are creatures of habit. According to the Journal of Marketing, consumers’ behavioral habits, like where they buy a particular type of product, can influence their shopping decisions as much as their loyalty to a given brand does. In fact, a study in the Journal of Consumer Psychology found that consumers’ deeply ingrained habits overruled their conscious intentions to buy or not to buy a product.

You can capitalize on that quirk of human nature by sending a new customer a lucrative discount code for their next transaction. Even if the discount prevents you from turning a big profit—or any profit—on the second transaction, it makes the customer more likely to form a habit of buying from you. Only one-third of consumers who have bought one product from a retailer will buy another, but more than half of consumers who have bought two products from a retailer will buy a third. In other words, the big moment of turning a one-time customer into a repeat customer comes from whether or not you can get them to make a second purchase.

Some retailers send post-purchase discounts immediately—even along with the receipt for the initial purchase—in hopes that customers might buy another product that they saw while browsing. Others wait until after customers have received their purchase, when they might feel compelled to buy another product if they’re satisfied with what they got. The path you choose depends on your customer base, the nature of your product, and any number of factors that are specific to your store—so test what gets you the best results.

But, no matter what timing you choose, you’ll want to ensure that your discount code doesn’t languish in your customer’s inbox. Consider making it a unique coupon code that’s only valid for a limited time. That creates a very real sense of urgency and forces the customer to make the conscious choice whether or not to purchase right now, rather than just holding on to the discount code indefinitely until it’s forgotten.

Here’s an example of a post-purchase discount from Photobox. The email went out after the customer had received their first order with an enticing (50 percent off!) offer that has a clear expiration date. They even give tailored recommendations based on what the customer purchased. (That’s good cross-selling, which we’ll get into next.) 

Photobox's post-purchase discount.
Via: Pinterest.

3. Cross-selling and upselling

An alternative (or, even better, complementary) means of incentivizing a follow-up purchase is a cross-selling email, which introduces customers to products and accessories that are related to their recent purchase.

Personalization is becoming increasingly important in eCommerce; as we discussed in our recent 2020s eCommerce trend forecast, two-thirds of consumers are more likely to make purchases through a shopping experience that’s personalized to their preferences. A cross-sell email will automatically include personalized product recommendations that complement the customer’s purchase.

For example, after every purchase, the online shoe retailer Sambag sends customers a curated list of clothes that match their new shoes. That’s a great cross-sell strategy because it almost feels like it’s not just selling, it’s also providing a helpful service to customers—customers don’t worry about having to figuring out what to wear with their new shoes, the store is taking on that job for them.

Sambag's recommendations based on a purchase.
Via: SaleCycle.

If you have a product that a customer can pay to upgrade—in many cases, a digital or subscription product—you can use post-purchase emails to try to upsell the customer. For instance, after a customer has spent some time as a “basic” subscriber to a digital membership product, you can market the “premium” plan to them, perhaps at a limited-time reduced rate.

For consumable and subscription products like makeup, toiletries, or food, upselling also provides an opportunity to introduce customers to new, related products at a low cost. Before they ship a customer’s monthly subscription box, Dollar Shave Club prompts the customer with an email offer to “toss in” extra grooming products for a small price.

4. Loyalty and VIP programs

Whereas post-purchase discounts, cross-selling, and upselling are used to turn one transaction into two, loyalty programs focus on driving even more purchases and longer-term engagement.

Loyalty and VIP programs are a definite win-win: You drive more sales and build up your base of loyal customers, and your loyal customers love being recognized and incentivized to keep shopping at your store. You just have to give them the opportunity; according to one survey, two-thirds of customers who have a positive experience with a retailer would consider signing up for its loyalty program.

At its most basic, a loyalty program might create repeat business by kicking back some percentage of a customer’s purchase in store credit or points. But the best loyalty programs do more than just bring customers back—they also motivate customers to spend more to obtain certain perks.

The outdoor supply retailer Moosejaw has a rewards program with four different tiers of perks, each unlocked by spending an additional $500 per year. By offering more enticing benefits at every levels, this system tries to persuade frequent customers to spend just a little more to get to the next tier.

Moosejaw's loyalty tiers.

Beyond monetary incentives, loyalty programs can provide repeat customers with better service, making them feel valued and facilitating their shopping process. Backcountry invites repeat customers to its Summit Club, which pairs each member with a personalized customer service representative (or “Gearhead”) whom they can contact for gear advice or recommendations. This degree of one-on-one service, although resource-intensive, can set a retailer apart.

Some retailers even profit directly from their membership programs by charging a one-time or recurring fee. It’s important to note, however, that a paid membership program will struggle to catch on unless it provides a substantial service, like Amazon Prime or AppleCare, or caters to a dedicated and established customer base, like REI’s Co-op Membership.  (Even so, the Co-op Membership only costs a one-time fee of $20.)

REI's Co-op perks.
Via: core dna.

And loyalty programs can also be a good way to turn the biggest fans of a brand into its biggest advocates. By incentivizing members to earn more points through recommendations to friends, social media posts, and creating user-generated content, loyalty programs can help eCommerce stores grow their customer base by mobilizing their fans. (After all, word-of-mouth recommendations are the most influential advertising method and one of the top ways that new customers discover your brand.)

5. Review requests

Reviews are difficult for small businesses to come by, but they can make or break a transaction: a staggering 93 percent of online shoppers take reviews into account when making a purchase.

While reviews are extremely valuable on your site for the social proof and credibility they provide, they also serve another major function, too: they help you better serve your customers. After every delivery, the meal preparation service HelloFresh uses a post-purchase email to seek out feedback for internal use.

HelloFresh's request for feedback.

These reviews help determine which low-performing recipes need to be tweaked or phased out, and which ones should be added to the service’s Hall of Fame, an evergreen collection of users’ favorites.

Here are some best ways to seek out reviews:

  • Send the review request at the appropriate time (when the customer has already received and begun using the product).
  • Personalize the email with a picture of the product.
  • Make the review process simple and quick.
  • Consider incentivizing reviewers with a giveaway or contest. For the price of one gift card or product, you can motivate lots of customers to write reviews.

For more on how to ask for reviews in a post-purchase email, check out our article about review request emails.

Key takeaways

In the competitive eCommerce space, you need a base of repeat customers to thrive. Post-purchase emails give you the tools to convert a one-time shopper into a repeat shopper and, eventually, a devoted fan of your brand.

And since post-purchase emails are automated, they require a one-time setup (and then just occasional maintenance)—so they’re doing all the heavy lifting for you.

Here are the key types of post-purchase emails that should be in your arsenal:

  • Welcome emails and product onboarding, which familiarize the customer with your company and your products.
  • Post-purchase discounts, and emails cross-selling and upselling related products, which turn one transaction into two and help consumers form the habit of buying from you.
  • Loyalty and VIP programs, which incentivize longer-term customer loyalty and turn your best customers into bigger spenders and brand advocates.
  • Requests for reviews, which increase customer confidence and provide you with valuable customer feedback.

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