Email Personalization Basics (+American Express Travelink’s Email Success Story)

Email Marketing

Personalized email

Dear {{First Name}}:

“Personalization” is a broad term. There’s room under this umbrella for everything from Attention Profiling Mark-up Language (APML, an XML-based markup language for documenting a person’s interests and dislikes) to that coffee cup with your name on it. For marketers, it’s an increasingly important tool for creating a customer experience that feels like it’s one-on-one. And for email, which still offers incredible flexibility and has the best ROI, it’s the most powerful tactic to raise your conversion rate and rate of return.

What is personalization?

(Personalized Emails Deliver 6X Higher Transaction Rates, MarketingLand)

Wikipedia defines it as “tailoring a service or a product to accommodate specific individuals, as opposed to general groups.” I like to think of it from the customer’s point of view; what feels personal to them? And how can your marketing team foster that feeling of connectedness?

Mass media – think television commercials or newspaper advertising – usually speaks in generalities, and relies on repetition to gain mindshare. Sometimes it becomes personal when the timing is just right: You might read a newspaper every day and never see the refrigerator ads, until the day your refrigerator melts down. Suddenly the words “same-day delivery” become very personal and emotionally satisfying.

But email marketers can’t rely on serendipity. The path to creating a connection between your company and your potential customer is through deliberate, thoughtful personalization.

How to personalize email: Begin with good data

“Batch and blast” is the pejorative term for sending the same email to everyone on your list at the same time. It’s an outdated method, and it’s not effective for helping you realize everything email can do for your customers. These days, technology affords you multiple ways to gather information about your prospects and leads. That information can be turned into data points that help you build profiles of who someone is, and what they care about.

Start with explicit data. This is information your prospect provides or is obvious. You can gather this through forms, beginning with someone’s first and last name and email address. Through progressive profiling, you can serve a succession of forms that ask for more information, such as title, company name, company size and industry, location, whether a specific product is being used, and so on.

Expand with implicit data. This is often drawn from the behavior you can observe, such as web pages visited, content downloaded, or webinars attended. This data may tell you whether a person is just beginning to research a product or service (did they download “General Topic 101”?) or whether they are moving into late-stage consideration (did they use your online ROI calculator?).

Build personas

buyer personas

A persona is a detailed representation of an actual good customer profile of yours. You create personas through research, including interviewing your best customers to discover their common needs, characteristics, and behaviors. You then market to these personas based on those factors. There’s an interesting principle at work here: Sometimes, the more specific you can be, the more universal you become, at least to a target population.

For proof, look no further than popular movie and television heroes. The ones that succeed are very specific people (Dr. Spock, Forrest Gump, Tony Stark, Katniss) but broad audiences form a positive emotional bond with them. Your personalized email can do the same thing.

CD Baby, an online music store specializing in music from indie bands, gained thousands of customers by going from a generic “thank you” email –

Your order has shipped today. Please let us know if it doesn’t arrive. Thank you for your business.

– to this more personal one:

Your CD has been gently taken from our CD Baby shelves with sterilized contamination-free gloves and placed onto a satin pillow.

A team of 50 employees inspected your CD and polished it to make sure it was in the best possible condition before mailing.

Our packing specialist from Japan lit a candle and a hush fell over the crowd as he put your CD into the best gold-lined box that money can buy.

We all had a wonderful celebration afterwards and the whole party marched down the street to the post office where the entire town of Portland waved “Bon Voyage!” to your package, on its way to you, in our private CD Baby jet on this day, Friday, June 6th.

I hope you had a wonderful time shopping at CD Baby. We sure did. Your picture is on our wall as “Customer of the Year.” We’re all exhausted but can’t wait for you to come back to CDBABY.COM!!

(From “The most successful email I ever sent” by Derek Sivers.)

Now, I’m not privy to CD Baby’s marketing personas, but I don’t need to be, to see that CD Baby understood that its customers really, really care about music and the physical quality of the CDs they order.

What do your customers really, really care about?

Segment your list

Once you know who you’re talking to and that they care about what you can deliver, segment them. That means grouping them by characteristics that matter, and then marketing to those characteristics.

If you have a longer sales cycle, then where someone is in the sales cycle becomes a characteristic, too. You’ll want to make different offers to the person who’s just investigating her problem than to someone who’s trying to decide between you and your toughest competitor.

Now build personalized programs

From all this sifted data and earned wisdom, start creating emails and campaigns that address the personal preferences and factors of your segmented lists. Use the same language they do to describe your products and services. Use people’s names in your greeting, and test using them in your subject lines. Test which images people respond to.

As a fanciful example, suppose you sell ergonomic tools to woodworkers and mechanics. You have two segments right there; you can also segment by right- and left-handed customers. And for your left-handed customers, you will make sure to use images showing left-handed tool use.

Your customers will notice. And no matter how many emails you send out – 5 or 50,000 – it will feel personal to that recipient. Especially if you tailor it with mentions of things the buyer has looked at on your website recently. The more specific you can make it, the better. (Tech note: using dynamic content will let you tailor the same email to different interests, on the fly, making email sending easier.)

Travelink, American Express Travel, finds success with email personalization

As a real-life example, take Travelink, American Express Travel. This firm operates nationally, with a client base of individuals and businesses that includes Fortune 100 corporations, small and mid-sized companies, entrepreneurial business, sports teams, and religious and non-profit organizations.

What sets Travelink apart from its competitors is the human touch. Travelink advisors build rapport and trust with clients, offering personal service and attention. To extend the company’s personal touch in its emails to clients and prospects, the Travelink marketing team needed a way to personalize email campaigns. The goal was to make the email communication feel like part of a one-to-one conversation with a Travelink travel advisor.

The firm’s objectives were beyond what its email marketing vendor could provide. Moving to a marketing automation platform solved the problem, first with enhanced email capabilities, and then with the additional data (such as website pages looked at) that marketing automation provides, which allowed the campaign to be more custom-tailored to a client’s interests.

Today, Travelink uses Act-On to manage monthly and quarterly email campaigns as well as other email marketing efforts such as follow-ups to leads from trade shows or events. Travelink email is personalized with names – and well-chosen images – that foster the relationship between the Travelink advisor and the client, and connect with the client’s known characteristics and travel interests. Aside from peak booking seasons, the marketing team also uses Act-On to execute campaigns that help keep Travelink top-of-mind for travelers. Read the full story: Travelink, American Express Travel / Act-On case study.

Want to learn more about how to build and use buyer personas to enhance email personalization? Act-On’s free Buyer Persona Toolkit includes a 15-minute video and downloadable resources to make creating buyer personas easy.

Buyer persona toolkit