The fastest-growing source of e-commerce orders doesn’t come from the buzzy social media world, but the digital old school — e-mail.

While fashion brands are giddily joining in the push to try to sell through online communities, particularly Facebook and Instagram, it’s the e-mail inbox that’s really picking up commercial steam.

According to Custora’s E-commerce Pulse, 19.8 percent of web orders were driven by e-mail in the third quarter, up from 14.2 percent a year earlier. (Organic search, direct-by-brand and paid search each had slightly larger share than e-mail, but were comparatively flat).

Social media, on the other hand, drove 2.1 percent of all e-commerce orders, up from 1.5 percent a year earlier.

“E-mail — it’s not sexy, but it’s a workhorse,” said Kevin Young, Custora’s chief marketing officer. “It’s really cost-effective and it works, it delivers results.”

It’s a market with untapped potential, as customers are more likely to interact with an e-mail from a brand they have a relationship with and shopped before. Brands have had proven success driving sales by utilizing their mailing list of existing customers with offers and deals.

It’s also a path to the consumer that retailers can control, in a world where, according to a survey by Bloomreach, 55 percent of consumers turn first to Amazon when they’re searching for products online.

“The number of people who are in the wild and able to be acquired by retail brands is declining, so there’s increasing competition for those who are available,” Young said.

Accordingly, customer acquisition costs are going up, the return on investment is going down and competition is fierce.

“It’s just really tough,” Young said. “Brands really have to get the most out of their own e-mail list.”

That is opening up opportunities to move the standard e-mail marketing pitch into the future.

Enter Joe Teplow, cofounder of Rebelmail, who is working to make e-mail more interactive and opening the door to tighter connections between brands and their customers.

“It’s really just bringing weblike experiences into e-mail and allowing recipients to start blurring the line between the web and the inbox,” Teplow said. “A lot of e-mail marketers think about growing their list size. The smarter marketers are thinking about, ‘How do I grow it horizontally? How do I learn more about my existing subscribers?’”

Rebelmail raised $2 million in 2014 and has worked through the quirks of the major e-mail services, enabling marketers to send e-mails that look like web sites and let recipients choose a size and color, toggle between different pictures and buy directly from the brand from the e-mail. The service, which is used by Everlane, Glossier and others, also accommodates quizzes and reviews and other functions.

everlane rebelmail email marketing

Everylane’s interactive e-mail pitch from Rebelmail. 

Developing better e-mail pitches could also help make selling in the inbox more appealing to overloaded customers.

A survey this year by First Insight Inc. found that one in four people open marketing campaign e-mails while just one of 20 e-mails received are deemed to be relevant.

But letting recipients do more in the inbox eliminates the need to send them to the web and so turns much of traditional e-mail marketing on its head.

Teplow said his service could reduce click-throughs, but boost conversion — and converting browsers into buyers is the name of the game in fashion.

And Rebelmail, at least right now, is playing on one of the winning teams.

For the third quarter in general, e-mail, paid search and social media took market share in the world of e-commerce orders from affiliate links — like those used by the ubiquitous influencers — and to a lesser extent organic search and directly through brands’ own sites, according to Custora.

Keeping customers happy online, though, increasingly means going beyond the click on the buy button and following through as the shipment is prepared and sent and beyond.

Amit Sharma founder and chief executive officer at Narvar, which helps 300 brands and retailers engage with shoppers after their purchase, said companies need to be proactively reaching out.

“They are expecting retailers to provide proactive updates and alerts,” said Sharma, noting Amazon is nurturing its customers throughout the purchase process. “That’s how Amazon has continued to drive and excel in this world, because they’ve built these relationships.”

Sharma said customer satisfaction improves and costs go down when retailers get closer to their customers and give them updates on their orders, heading off questions and boosting engagement.

E-mail, though, has to watch its back. While Narvar uses e-mail today, Sharma said chat-based platforms are gaining steam and that the next turn of the wheel will bring voice-based service, such as Amazon’s Alexa or Apple’s Siri.

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