Three Things You Must Do to Master E-mail Personalization

Michelle Markelz
Marketing News
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Key Takeaways

What? E-mail is one of the best tactics in terms of ROI, and marketers have to get it right.

So what? Personalization is expected in e-mail marketing, and automation is necessary for scale.

Now what? Build your e-mail marketing on a solid foundation of data and find an automation partner that complements your content.

As consumers have come to expect regular communication from brands, they’re looking for information, not promotion. Experts weigh in on how to personalize e-mails to make sure your message is heard.​


E-mail is the leading advertising channel for return on investment, according to VentureBeat. This is good news for marketers, as e-mail is a relatively low-cost way to reach large audiences, but the platform won’t perform without personalization.

By definition, personalization can be as simple as directly addressing a recipient by name, but experts say that this tactic creates indifference among recipients of e-mail marketing and can easily become problematic if its source data isn’t clean (e.g. filling out an online form with a fake name or all lowercase letters).

Experts agree that in the current and next e-mail marketing arena, rich data, sophisticated automation and real-time tailoring are table stakes. Often consumers have handed over all the information marketers need to give them what they want. Marketers must leverage it. Here are three ways to do that.

1. Root yourself in data.

“For any kind of personalization, the most essential component is data on your subscribers,” says Keith Sibson, vice president of product and marketing at e-mail service provider PostUp. All the traditional information marketers use to segment an audience can be leveraged to personalize e-mail, and that data and its application fall on a spectrum of complexity. Basic targeting for gender, location and age are important, but used in isolation they can be problematic. April Mullen, senior marketing strategist at Selligent, a marketing automation provider, offers a personal example of when e-mail personalization goes wrong. “Somewhere along the way, a marketing model has shown that because of my current state it must mean I’m about to become a mother,” says the 30-something, Midwestern wife. “I receive so many baby e-mails. ‘Time to buy a stroller or a car seat.’ This is so far off from my current reality.” False assumptions can turn a consumer off from a product or brand, says Mullen.​


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Effective personalization relies not just on demographic segmentation, but on behavioral data, and most companies are moving toward this practice says Loren McDonald, vice president of industry relations at digital marketing provider Silverpop. “It’s not about tailoring content. It’s about triggering a single e-mail to a single person at a moment in time,” he says. “We’re not tailoring a message and crossing our fingers that they’ll find it relevant based on who they are. It’s their behavior they’ve initiated that triggers a message designed specifically in response to that person.”

An abandoned shopping cart could indicate a lack of follow-through, or the fact that that consumer needs to sleep on any purchase decisions. In either scenario, an infrastructure needs to support the gathering and leveraging of that behavioral data so that the response is timely. McDonald acknowledges that bringing together customer data—be it from online forms, CRM data, website interactions or a host of other sources—is the single biggest challenge to marketing teams. “A few years ago, [a 360 degree view of the customer] was a dream … but to compete now, that’s really becoming a must-have,” he says, and “If you can get all the data you need, then the question is whether you can sync that up with e-mail in real or near-real time? … In the old days, a lot of things were done in back process. Every 24 hours all the data would be captured and sent out. … That’s no longer good enough.”

2. Automate for scale.

Whether you’re a marketing team of one or a full-fledged department, effective e-mail marketing relies on automation. The cost of manually responding to customer cues (such as abandoned carts or anniversaries) is missed opportunity. In the time it takes to manually identify the right targets for a birthday promotion or a reminder to register for a conference, those would-be conversions have moved on.

Automation allows marketers to respond with context, which is a critical element for maintaining relevance, says Alison Lindland, senior director at e-mail marketing platform Movable Ink. “Context is a huge determinant to willingness or ability to purchase or take action,” she says. “Time of day, location, the device you’re on—these tend to be things marketers don’t have in their power, but … [automation tools can help marketers] understand about 32 elements of context and employ that as logic.”

Selligent’s Mullen is seeing bigger budgets for CMOs to beef up their data capabilities, and that’s a good trend. “E-mail has reestablished itself as the workhorse of marcom,” she says. “We’re seeing the most traction when investment is made into a data ecosystem that can provide automation to the marketing stack.”

3. Humanize the brand.

E-mail has increasingly become a business communication channel as personal conversations move to texting applications, experts say. But just because the subject is business, the tone doesn’t have to be. Brands can delight their customers by humanizing their e-mail with simple touches. “We’ve focused on the human as this customer prospect,” McDonald says, “but what about you, the brand? How can you bring that alive?”

He points to an e-mail from a global airline that is sent to passengers on its limited flights from the United Kingdom to the U.S. Two days before the flight, customers receive a note from the chief flight attendant on the trip, including restaurant recommendations, weather forecasts and local points of interest. “We’re talking about all this technology, but at the end of the day, e-mail works best when it’s one-to-one,” McDonald says. “Although most people understood the technology behind that message, passengers would still print out the e-mail and talk to employees about it on the flight.”

The potential is high and growing for marketers to capitalize on e-mail marketing as a personalized, direct communication channel. To play at this table, there is a bit of a buy-in, but the returns will show as customers begin viewing your campaigns not as spam but as a special delivery.


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Author Bio:

 
Michelle Markelz
Michelle Markelz is a staff writer for the AMA’s magazines and e-newsletters. She can be reached at mmarkelz@ama.org.
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