The Future Is Not One to One

That may sound like an odd thing to say from a company that has been in the business of one-to-one email marketing for over a decade. Back when many email service providers still called insertion of a recipient’s first name dynamic content, we were creating marketing campaigns that dynamically inserted content from a content management system (CMS) and were deploying thousands of unique variations in multiple languages.

For me, “one to one” was about building a relationship with each individual customer and communicating with her on a personal basis. I spent a long time naïvely thinking that the future of email, and marketing in general, would be one in which every message was carefully tailored to each individual, almost individually crafted. I saw this as being made possible by digital messaging platforms such as email.

That Holy Grail of one-to-one marketing has been claimed to be within our grasp for at least a decade. And from a technical perspective, it has been. Today we have the ability to fully personalize every communication including email, print, and web. Reality, unfortunately, is always complicated and generally not very supportive of our idealizations. It turns out that in many cases such detailed personalization adds far more cost and complexity than it does results and reward.

The amount of data available today makes it possible to build extraordinarily detailed profiles of each customer. These profiles enable extremely accurate modeling, prediction, and targeting of information. The problem, however, is in the uplift in response versus the cost of content. Content creation is a costly business and the cost grows exponentially with the amount created. Unfortunately, the results (response and conversion rates) do not match that growth.

So if that isn’t the future, what is? The answer, as is so often the case, is “it depends.” There is no one-size-fits-all solution. What we’re seeing is a broad spectrum of personalization in email marketing depending on the situation. Organizations are using an array of techniques, none of which may individually be one to one but that in combination add up to a very personal, individual feel.

I must of course mention that there are situations where companies are sending messaging that is effectively one to one. Many large retailers with a wide assortment of goods on offer and deep user profiles are using that content and data to make impressively individualized recommendations. In the grand scheme of things though, we see relatively few organizations achieving this standard of personalization.

Much more common is the use of segmentation. This is commonly related to the use of personas for market segmentation and is proving highly effective for a wide range of organizations. The identification of a relatively small number of audience segments enables organizations to create much more targeted communications without the explosion of content and complexity required by one-to-one messaging.

Despite the death of batch and blast being much ballyhooed in recent years, there is still a lot of unsegmented, batch email going on. I think it will continue for the foreseeable future and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There are many scenarios under which it does not make financial sense to segment audiences. For many organizations, the marketing resources are so limited and the audience so homogeneous that segmentation just isn’t practical or necessary.

Triggered communications are being widely adopted. This is messaging that, while not necessarily personalized in content, is triggered in response to specific behaviors or events, giving each recipient the feeling that the message was personal due to contextual relevance. Whether it’s time, location, or behaviorally triggered, such messaging can feel extremely personal and engaging even though it may be being sent to thousands of recipients each day.

The end result is that where we are today does not look much like I expected. But I’m OK with that. I no longer focus on “one to one” as a goal or even an ideal. Rather, I’ve finally learned to do what the most successful organizations do. To concentrate on the customer experience and not worry about whether it fits some prescribed ideal.

The key question therefore becomes: “When all the channels and campaigns, offers, promotions, and programs are taken together, how good is my customer experience?” Focusing on that question leads to the creation of truly effective, integrated campaigns regardless of whether they’re “batch and blast” or “one to one.”

So the future is not one to one, but it will probably feel like it. How does your customer experience feel?

Until next time,

This column was originally published Oct. 27, 2011.

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