Improve your e-mail communications program with personas.
Lately, I've met with many leading brands in a variety of vertical markets to talk email. Inevitably, these conversations gravitate toward email strategies and plans. Despite talk about the importance of relevant messaging and meeting customer needs, few have managed to evolve their campaign-by-campaign mass-marketing mentality beyond the challenge of the moment. "Need to sell more products? Schedule a campaign!" appears to be the mantra.
Some of the most respected brands in the country are falling victim to this knee-jerk approach. Still, it took six years before organizations understood the Internet's true power and how to leverage its unique applications to service customer segments and prospects. Then, experts emerged, skilled at creating scenario-based Web site designs. This fundamental shift in approach helped unlock the full potential of technology-based marketing and started a revolution in the way consumers interact and identify with brands.
The 60,000-Foot View
In the late '90s, online marketers began to formalize scenario-based Web design practices. Software designer Alan Cooper, founder and chairman of Cooper Interactive Design, introduced the idea of personas in 1999. Cooper's personas focused marketers and designers on creating sites that play to customer needs and behaviors, not just facilitate internal company objectives.
By creating day-in-the-life vignettes around real people and their typical actions, Web designers began to understand the needs and challenges of their key customers. They could better define the user experience. Web sites were transformed into powerful online marketing tools thanks to persona-based design.
Defining personas takes careful observation and research of the primary user base. With structured, methodical research, personas can bridge the gap between the IT team that builds sites and the marketing team that services customers. They can help guide both teams in tandem while determining a site's needs and improving its functionality.
A publishing brand's persona, for example, may be broadly described as an active investor. By looking at real people within a broad persona and how they find and use your site, you can start to fully understand their unique needs, while further developing the corresponding user experience, content, and communication opportunities.
Applying Personas to E-Mail Communications
Understanding the customer's needs isn't new to marketers, but its application and translation to the email communications medium is. Despite many leading brands spending millions of dollars on persona creation, few have leveraged persona approaches to their email communications strategies and programs. The few who have call it integrated marketing's foundation in the new millennium.
Before creating an email persona program or tying email into existing site personas, consider your customers' specific needs throughout their lifecycle (e.g., investors). In addition, view this in the context of the brand's overall marketing effort against specific personas (e.g., a business publisher's efforts to attract more investors). These can often be distinct messaging streams and corresponding online user experiences (e.g., investors vs. small business owners).
Using established personas as the cornerstone of an integrated marketing strategy can be hugely successful and efficient. Adding email to the mix can extend off- and online efforts to email and back again. You'll achieve stronger, more profitable customer relationships, satisfaction, and revenue generation (ad-supported page views). It's the perfect blend of push/pull marketing that leverages existing corporate and customer segmentation strategy personas to create one voice. Done correctly, persona email helps forge and reinforce the brand's connection with its customer across media.
The Devil Is in the Details
Once developed, your email persona strategy must be integrated, executed, and refined based on acquired knowledge. First, acquire the email subscription and leverage the work you've already done around your personas online. Contextual placements throughout the site encourage signups by offering people more of a good thing, such as company stock alerts, personalized news headlines, and investment strategy newsletters.
E-mail also offers the opportunity to extend and accelerate the customer's next visit or purchase, and, perhaps more important, drive long-term customer relationships in a cost-efficient way by capturing and leveraging the knowledge gained over time.
Next, develop a strategy map or plan that accounts for all messaging, including marketing/newsletters, service messaging, and triggered e-communications required throughout the life or purchase cycle of an individual persona. Develop a creative template, or wireframe, e-communication that supports relevant dynamic content or modules specific to a persona's interests or needs.
Wireframes also enable the email program to be scaleable across multiple messaging streams and personas, such as "investors" and "small businesses." Content within the wireframe is then added by using customized copy modules. The modules are developed broadly for each persona. They then evolve specifically for the individual's needs as more data, behavior, and preference information is collected.
By starting slowly and leveraging customer information, you can evolve communications to become more relevant and timely. This builds relationship and performance over time against key personas. E-mail then becomes what it was designed to be: an efficient extension of an organization's marketing and brand-building efforts that ultimately develops and reinforces the relationship, satisfaction, and connection with the individual customer.
Overcoming Internal Barriers
Perhaps the hardest part of moving to a persona-based email program is overcoming internal barriers to getting the information you need to leverage and craft your email communications strategy and persona development. For too long, email teams have been isolated. These silos worked their magic, but often, due to a small database and limited budget, have had a relatively small, though measurable, impact on the overall business. Only with CAN-SPAM and the growth of corporate email databases have email teams emerged from the shadows to become an integral part of an organization.
When you work as part of the direct or corporate marketing team, you'll have access to the intelligence you need. You can also educate others within the organization on how email fits into the integrated marketing and existing persona efforts. Working together, marketing teams have the opportunity, budget, and staff they need to turn one-off campaigns into ongoing customer conversations that support the corporate effort, grow customer relationships, and extend marketing return on investment (ROI). The promise of integrated marketing and one-to-one communications becomes an impending reality that will enable the most nimble organizations to gain competitive advantage in a crowded marketplace.
How do you build or improve an email communications program? Start with what you know. Often, that means leveraging existing personas, customer needs, and marketing strategies within your organization.
Till next time,
Want more email marketing information? ClickZ E-Mail Reference is an archive of all our email columns, organized by topic.
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