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7 Ways to Make Your Email Smarter

By Daniel Flamberg
Email, the digital communications workhorse, will be eclipsed by social and mobile media, unless e-mailers get more sophisticated, segmented and interactive.
E-mail is the ubiquitous digital marketing tool. Everybody uses it. Pathways to opt-in are well known and for the most part well-disciplined. CAN-SPAM is generally adhered to. And while consumers routinely sign up in anticipation of early information and deals, marketers continue to carpet bomb their e-mail lists with one-size-fits-all offers. This practice will ultimately kill e-mail as a relevant, interactive marketing tool.
In a world of instant, multichannel two-way communication, personalization and relevance are the gating factors. If all you can do is bomb me with a generic offer, you’re not really in the game. The ugly truth is that you have to sort the list and create separate and relevant messages for each sub-set. It’s much more work for a much better return. 
If your message doesn’t know who I am and what I like and doesn’t arrive at the right time with the right offer; you and your brand are toast. The average e-mail message gets less than five seconds of consideration. A passing scan of the FROM line and the SUBJ line determines if you get opened or deleted.
There are a few well-tested best practices. Interesting, punchy offers in the subject line prompt more opens. A recognized and preferred brand in the FROM line drives opens and clicks. Bigger typefaces and big bold buttons identify links that drive clicks and conversions. E-mail templates should put the key messages on top and limit the copy to 400 words; the point at which readers bail out. 
But using these creative best practices isn’t enough.
Creating testable segmentation isn’t as difficult as e-mail providers and software vendors make it sound. Here are seven basic ways to make your e-mail smarter and more relevant.
Develop Simple Segments. Segmentation is job #1 on the path to competitive preservation. Segmented email marketing programs generate between 2X and 5X the performance of non-segmented programs. Anyone can sort their list by baseline variables. Sort by gender, age, geography, date of sign-ups, product use, sizes, coupon redemption or channel preference and then A/B test your way to optimize results. Build hypothesis based on customer behavior. Send different messages or offers to those who opened or clicked and those who bought or signed up. 
Use Triggered Communications. Send e-mail to establish a dialog. Focus on the ask-and-answer paradigm. Answers to polls or surveys prompt sequential messages. Customers love to be asked and are delighted when a brand responds to their input. If somebody responds, wait 24 hours and respond. If a customer expresses a preference for content, frequency or channel; respond in kind. Focus on purchase cycles. 
Not all triggered messages have to be in real time. Do your customers shop every Saturday? If so, parse your messages ahead of their shopping visits. If customers buy your product seasonally, it’s not hard to figure out an effective timing strategy. This is easier with an automated e-mail system driven by embedded business rules. But it’s not that hard to do even if you manage your e-mail list in Excel or Access.
Work Across Channels. Follow an on-going brand or industry conversation in social media and use this content in your e-mail marketing program. If a customer posts on your Facebook wall or positively tweets about your brand, these can be triggers for thank you or follow-up messaging. If you ask customers to rate their store visits or review products purchased (based on loyalty card data) respond with a personal email and a follow-up offer. 
Your customer is interacting with you across channels. They aren’t thinking about it. Brands should anticipate this behavior and use e-mail as a private, direct one-to-one follow up tool that can compliment activity on line, in social networks or on mobile devices. 
Build in Choices. An e-mail with a link to your branded website is advertising not relationship building. Add a question, a poll or a way to solicit interaction in each e-mail in order to create dialogue. Put social sharing buttons in your email. Make it easy to share your message. Consumers are eager critics and reviewers. They appreciate an avenue to express their opinions. 
Embedding these requests in an e-mail that drives them to either a dedicated landing page or a social network transforms e-mail from a one-way ad into a branded interactive experience. A real relationship is about give-and-take over time not repeated blasts of short form ads.
Experiment with Personalization. Social media makes the world immediate, intimate and transparent. Experiment with using a real person’s name in the FROM line and/or signing e-mail messages from local or regional store managers. In a branded context, e-mail offers the possibility of creating personal relationships between customers and the people who routinely meet and serve them. Some brands can insert customers’ first names and tap purchase histories and preferences to populate e-mail templates. Those who can’t can personalize by closing the gap between the faceless corporate brand and customers by introducing its people.
Establish a Contact Strategy. You have to know how much is enough and how much is too much. Savvy e-mail marketers establish limits on the number of contacts per record in a given time frame. Some limit e-mail contacts to once a week or twice a month. Each brand and category has a different business and messaging cadence. Set limits based on yours and stick to them. 
Manage Technology. A large and growing number of consumers read e-mail on mobile devices. The latest estimates are that more than half of all e-mail is read on mobile devices. There’s nothing worse than clicking on an e-mail that’s nothing more than outlines and broken images. Create mobile friendly e-mail formats and/or use sniffers to serve e-mails optimized for mobile devices. 
Similarly many images end up as RED Xs on laptop and desktop machines. Use ALT-text tags so users can at least read the text inside blocked images. Put your offer or your most important idea up at the top of e-mails in text blocks to finesse computer users who block images or who have unusual frame settings for their e-mail clients.
E-mail marketing will not disappear anytime soon. Marketers are addicted to email blasts, many of which result in predictable sales. But unless marketers use it in ways that intersect with changing customer attitudes, behaviors and expectations, its marketing value will be sapped by emerging and more buzz-worthy social and mobile media.
Daniel Flamberg is executive vice president, managing director digital & CRM, Publicis Kaplan Thaler. He is also a long-time email marketing veteran.

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