Achieve Data-Driven Customer Connections in Email Marketing

  |  October 17, 2011   |  Comments

The key to connecting with customers and reaching the inbox is engagement.

Email marketing is under pressure. We've got the highest ROI in the digital toolbox, but we are victims of our own success. That success in earning revenue makes it seem like we don't need investment. In fact, in our quest to increase, or even maintain revenue, we battle overflowing inboxes, subscriber fatigue, and inbox management tools determined to keep marketing messages away from customer eyes.

The key to connecting with customers and reaching the inbox is engagement. Sending the right message at the right time to the right person - and delighting subscribers every time. The only way to do that is to capture and utilize data that enables segmentation and multi-touch conversations.

I believe the most efficient and effective way to do this is to send your email marketing via your marketing automation and campaign management tool(s). Engagement is best encouraged when you keep email messaging close to the data, and take advantage of sophisticated segmentation, behavioral targeting, and multi-touch campaign management.

  • Subscribers have high expectations. You want them to provide an email address and tell you what they like? You gotta use that data to customize experiences and send truly relevant messages.
  • You want great design and creative that performs? You gotta have a strategy to put the right content in front of the right people.
  • You want to increase revenue? Don't send more generic messages. Send more custom and personal messages, timed to the lifecycle moments when subscribers are ready to engage and buy.
  • You want to reach the inbox? You gotta have a file full of active subscribers - who open, click, and engage with your messages. If not, the ISP/receivers like Yahoo, Gmail, and Hotmail - along with their counterparts at smaller ISPs and corporations the world over - will block your messages or slow down delivery.

Almost every serious email marketer uses data to customize some messages. Most send a welcome message, post-purchase promotions, or a renewal reminder. Many send event invites that reflect the recipient's firmographics (job title, industry, geography) and if the recipient attended last year. Many personalize the salutation, target by geography, or include the name of the product owned.

Test and learn from the segmentations you choose. The best ones can be automated. Be aware, however, that this notion of "set it and forget it" has risks. Set, but don't forget. Be sure to circle back with every automated segmentation you run at least monthly. Things change fast in our socially-connected world, and priorities shift internally as well. Be sure those continue to be the right messages sent at the right stage of the lifecycle.

Once you have your segmentations established, start to think in terms of conversations, or multi-touch campaigns. Perhaps you also have technology and support to make your conversations multi-channel. Think of it like a flow chart: send message one. For those who open, send a second message aligned with their stated interests. For those who do not, wait two days, then send a follow-up. Perhaps send an SMS message or a direct mail postcard to those who still don't respond.

Allow response and behavior to dictate the next step of the conversation, as well as subscriber preference. It's a myth to think that every email conversation has to be long term. Focus instead on moments in the lifecycle when customers are in market. This might be after a transaction, during a free trial period, in a discovery or research phase, just before or after renewal, and during events. When the customer is engaged, you can send more messages in more channels to address how they interact with your brand across email, SMS, social, and retail/in person.

We could debate whether self-reported, demographic, or behavioral data was "best." Of course, the answer is that it depends on your marketing objective, the customer profile, and the lifecycle stage. The challenge is to use all three kinds of data in ways that optimize the customization and personalization of the messaging. If a subscriber is male but always buys women's jewelry, that is a powerful combination of demographic and behavior data that helps marketers help the customer.

Remember always that while automation and integrated marketing software does things for you really well, it does not think for you. All the technology in the world cannot replace smart strategy and compelling creative.

It's often hard for marketers to get their arms around how to "be more relevant." Yet, that is exactly the challenge ahead. I recommend starting now. Put on your audience hat and audit your program content, frequency, and value. Be tough on yourself. Are you truly helping your subscribers, or just sending batches of similar offers at a breakneck pace? Are you truly listening to subscriber behavior and demographics, or are you continually blathering on about yourself and your products? Are you segmenting your file in order to respond to the needs of various types of subscribers?

Test some new approaches and focus on subject lines, too. Be sure that your brand impact is high in order to claim whatever loyalty you have built over time. Marketers have always known this level of attention and care to our email and digital programs is important; we just haven't always done anything about it. Now, we must act. The technology is ready.

How are you setting priorities and testing out new engagement techniques this year? Please share with us in the space below.

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Stephanie Miller

Stephanie Miller is a relentless customer advocate and a champion for marketers creating memorable online experiences. A digital marketing expert, she helps responsible data-driven marketers connect with the people, resources, and ideas they need to optimize response and revenue. She speaks and writes regularly and leads many industry initiatives as VP, Member Relations and Chief Listening Officer at the Direct Marketing Association ( Feedback and column ideas most welcome, to smiller AT the-dma DOT org or @stephanieSAM.

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