Dynamic Messaging Survival Guide

  |  December 30, 2004   |  Comments

Personalized messaging requires more preparation and upfront quality control than traditional e-mail.

Last year marked the 10th anniversary of Don Peppers’ and Martha Rogers’ book, "The One to One Future," which revolutionized marketing in the ’90s. Since then, true one-to-one marketing has been the Holy Grail for many marketers. When the book was written, technical limitations put that aim largely out of reach. But in recent years, the growing power of databases, online communications, and advancements in digital printing have made dynamic, one-to-one messaging attainable.

This past year saw substantial growth of, and interest in, dynamic email messaging as a one-to-one marketing mechanism. It seems hardly a day goes by without a request for recommendations on the topic, or an RFP for a dynamic messaging program.

Dynamic messaging involves bringing together content, preferences, and business rules to create a custom message for each recipient. Sounds simple, but the process is complex. It requires much more preparation and upfront quality control than traditional email. All too often, marketers don’t recognize the associated costs and complexities. So herewith, my dynamic messaging survival guide.

Content Management Is a Must

Dynamic messages inevitably utilize far more content than static ones. All this content must be created, cataloged, proofed, and approved. Proofreading content out of context is a much more error-prone task than reading a complete message is. This may be the last time anyone sees a given piece of content before it’s delivered. The proofreading and approval processes must be solid. And content must be correctly cataloged and recorded, or it might be sent to the wrong people.

User Preferences

When determining recipient preferences, marketers commonly first consider expressed preferences and how to collect, as most publishers don’t start out with a full recipient profile and list of preferences. While expressed preferences are important, two other categories shouldn’t be overlooked.

Preferences can be inferred from past behavior. Implied preferences are just as important as expressed ones. Analyze users’ past click-through activity to determine what recipients actually respond to as well as what they say they’re interested in.

Don’t forget your preferences. Ultimately, your message is a marketing vehicle. There are bound to be messages you wish to convey regardless of the recipient’s expressed interests. This doesn’t mean you should ride roughshod over their wishes. But if it’s important to announce a new product to your subscribers, don’t allow them to disable such announcements as a preference choice.

Business Rules

Business rules are perhaps the hardest part to get right. At the simplest level, they bring together preferences and content to produce the final message. They arbitrate which recipients receive which pieces of content. They ensure there are no empty sections or 5,000-line sidebars.

More important, they ensure your business requirements are met. This may mean ensuring only platinum subscribers get the $100 discount offer or that legally required disclaimers are included for recipients in the states that require them. In short, they can be vital.

Programmatic Testing

Due to the large number of content combinations, it’s usually impractical to approve messages by viewing each variant. This means you’ll have to develop and use programmatic techniques for testing, checking counts to verify they match expectations, and sampling representative and edge cases for manual proofreading.

In addition, there may also be legal or brand approval requirements to meet. A workflow process must be developed to handle this. I know of one organization that produces in excess of 3,000 files for its legal department to review for a single newsletter!

Be Pragmatic

When considering dynamic messaging, it’s essential to avoid being overawed by the one-to-one vision. If the program doesn’t pay its way, don’t do it. Determine the success criteria up front. I recommend return on investment (ROI) through click-through or conversion uplift. You may wish to take other factors into account, such as increased customer satisfaction or more cohesive corporate messaging. However you determine success, apply good project discipline. Calculate the costs and benefits. Only go ahead if it makes good business sense.

After 10 years, one-to-one marketing can finally be a reality, given the right approach and careful implementation. But don’t be fooled. Just because it can be done doesn’t necessarily make it right for you.

Want more email marketing information? ClickZ E-Mail Reference is an archive of all our email columns, organized by topic.

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Derek Harding

Derek Harding is the CEO and founder of Innovyx Inc., a member of the Omnicom Group and the first e-mail service provider to be wholly owned by a full-service marketing agency. A British expatriate living in Seattle, WA, Derek is a technologist by background who has been working in online marketing on both sides of the Atlantic for the last 10 years.

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