The Hunt for E-mail Relevance

Dec 18, 2007 1:42 AM  By

The secret to relevant e-mail marketing is no secret at all: It begins with understanding your customer through the data you have gathered.

And the most valuable data of all may be the activity information you gather every time you send an e-mail. But are you doing this? Many marketers don’t, despite the fact that this information is immediately actionable and is readily available with every campaign.

Here are some tips on how to start:

1. Don’t ignore the data you already have—It may seem elementary, but e-mail activity is too often overlooked as a source. Every message you send provides an indicator of your customers’ interests: where they click, what they purchase—even no action at all can provide valuable information.

This is the easiest and most immediate data available, and you can use it to develop content. How? You learn about an individual based on what they clicked on in last week’s campaign, and insert similar content in this week’s campaign. You’ve just become more relevant.

2. Use testing data to improve your relevance—Are you ready for the next step? E-mail campaigns should be accompanied by testing programs designed to measure and analyze the performance of individual elements—i.e., audience, subject line, offer, content, frequency and creative. The goal is to understand what’s working (or not) in the deployment of these elements.

Start by benchmarking existing programs according to average response and conversion rates, both overall and by message type. This data will provide a useful benchmark against subsequent test results.

Next, establish your test and the test group or audience on which you wish to observe the impact of the tactic you are testing. Also, establish a “control group” by withholding from the test audience a customer group that will not receive the element(s) being tested.

But remember: You should test only one element at a time to limit the potential variables. Then measure the post-mailing response results. The comparison in response performance between the test and control audiences will reveal whether the tested relevance tactics are having a significant impact on your results, and will help guide your strategies.

3. Ask your customers for information—E-mail is a means of
engaging people and allowing them to pursue interests and activities or indulge their curiosity. Think about the types of calls to action that could compel customers to provide relevant information about themselves in exchange for education, entertainment or an exclusive offer. Here are a few possibilities:

Polls and surveys—Asking a simple poll question in your e-mail can capture important information about your client: preferred fashions, favorite travel destinations, demographics and more. In much the same way, customer feedback surveys allow you to zero in on a customer’s likes or dislikes and focus messaging on the topics that are most relevant to him or her.

Even unsub surveys are helpful—you can figure out why some people are unsubscribing from your e-mail, and improve your efforts accordingly. This will help you guide efforts to improve the relevance of future e-mails to active customers.

Web applications—There’s nothing wrong with offering a little something in exchange for information. For example, ask your customers to complete a short profile, and in return offer a special discount, or access to an exclusive report or even an online video or game.

Preference centers—Let people be in charge of the content they receive. How? Through an online preference. It allows customers to configure the content they receive—they tell you directly which product groups, discussion topics, or travel destinations they’re most interested in. This is the most targetable data available to e-mail marketers.

4. Use non-e-mail data—You may be collecting some form of Web site data, using site analytics tools like Coremetrics or Omniture or internal tracking systems such as Web or referral logs. This data is invaluable when determining your customers’ preferences and can easily be used to create an e-mail audience.

5. Mind the gaps when managing your data—Now that you understand the value of these common information sources, the next step is to evaluate your current programs and determine what data you need to enhance. At the same time, as your self this? What data will be required to support new programs, and how practical will it be to collect it? The goal is to focus on gathering the data you can actually use. Answer the following questions:

*Which of your data sources are limited? How valuable are they to your campaigns?

*Is the data collected from your sources reliable? Is it in a format that is actionable?

*What are the challenges to optimizing these data collection sources?

Okay. You understand the limitations. Now it’s time to set short-term goals. These should include capturing e-mail activity, elements of personalization, and subscriber preferences – data that can be had quickly with minimal technical or strategic implementation.

And in the long term? You should focus on integrating customer behavior and modeling. This, of course, may require time and additional resources. But the simple things you do today will have an even greater impact. After all, data collection is not some kind of magic bullet. Success depends on how you analyze the data and apply it. Data tells you more than who should get e-mail—it can also tell you what to say and when to say it. Only by using it wisely can you measure and improve the impact of your mailings every day.

John Rohloff is an account director with e-Dialog