With inboxes overloaded, smart marketers look beyond email

Daily deals site Buytopia has found a new way to get customers’ attention

Buytopia cofounder and CEO Ryan Marien

Buytopia cofounder and CEO Ryan Marien. (Portrait by Jaime Hogge)

Ryan Marien’s company sends out a lot of emails. It needs to tell you about a deal on a hot stone massage for only $49 (a 50% savings) that expires in two days or white gold Swarovski earrings for $15 (a value of $199!). Hurry before they’re gone!

The co-founder and CEO of Toronto-based deal site Buytopia relies heavily on inbox marketing to tell his subscribers about limited-time deals on food, facials and fun outings. But those emails will most likely remain unread. It’s become harder for e-commerce companies like Buytopia to garner attention amid the stream of emails, including ever-multiplying social media notifications (the average person receives 121 emails each day—and that’s just for work). With only 20% of its messages now being read, the company needs to shift its strategy beyond email.

“There’s no question the email inbox has a lot more competition than it used to,” says Marien. “It’s very easy to communicate if you’re the only one in the room, but it’s much more difficult when there’s 400 people.” Buytopia once saw 50% of its messages opened, but those highs are no more. Competitors like Groupon have also suffered double-digit drops in open rates. One significant factor? The tabbed inbox introduced by Gmail in 2013, which dumps marketing emails into a separate folder.

The profession of hustling “daily deals” has changed drastically since 2008, when Marien founded the company with Michele Romanow and Anatoliy Melnichuk at Queen’s University. Within five years, the three undergrads grew Buytopia’s revenues by a whopping 3,951%, nabbing No. 11 in PROFIT 500’s 2014 ranking of Canada’s fastest-growing companies. It rode a wave to 2.5 million subscribers, acquiring eight smaller daily deal competitors. Back then, Buytopia’s biggest headache was the sketchy auto-detailing shops that refused to honour their vouchers. Nowadays, it’s email fatigue.

“The biggest myth in tech is that consumers are free,” says Romanow, who was recently named one of the newest Dragons’ Den personalities for the upcoming season. “There’s this notion that if you just have an incredible deal, you’ll have a million buys overnight. But that’s not true.”

In May, the company will launch a mobile app with personalized offers on a distraction-free screen. “With email, you’re getting bombarded with mass messages all day, so it’s less exciting to open,” says Marien. “But with an app, we can notify users about deals that are really relevant to them.”

The new app will let people customize push notifications so that every alert is a deal they’d actually want, at a time and frequency that peeves them less. Location-based notifications can also be automatically triggered. (Near a Boston Pizza? Get $60 worth of food for $30!) The same goes for weather. (It’s over 20°C? Ping! Buy one, get one free ice cream!) “There’s no question we’ll see more sales coming from this mobile app,” says Marien.

It’s not just a hunch. The company knows how to make winning apps. In 2013, Buytopia launched SnapSaves, a grocery coupon app that gave users cash back when they purchased featured grocery items. In less than a year, Groupon scooped it up for an undisclosed amount. The app got a new name, Snap, and Romanow and Melnichuk became its heads of marketing and sales respectively at Groupon.

Marien believes notifications now stand to change his game. “If you trigger a deal at the right time, right place, the response is going to be amazing.” Now that’s thinking outside the inbox.