Consumers Call Personalized Email Marketing 'Superficial'

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In the past, email marketers relied on "batch and blast" methods of sending out content to large numbers of consumers, with little to no personalization. Though personalization has become more prevalent, consumers are still dissatisfied with the state of personalized email marketing, according to a recent AgilOne and Harris Interactive survey.

The study found that 79 percent of Americans feel that checking email is a waste of time.

Findings from a separate study conducted by The Economist Intelligence Unit and Lyris suggest that 70 percent of consumers find basic personalization "superficial," and 63 percent say it has become so commonplace that they've grown numb to it. More than 33 percent of consumers called superficial personalization one of their "top annoyances."

Even more disturbing is that marketers don't seem to realize that they're doing something wrong, Anselme Le Van, vice president of product services at AgilOne, says. "Our recent findings have demonstrated that while seventy-five percent of marketers believe that they've sent anywhere between five and fifteen compelling, delightful email campaigns in the last year, many consumers cannot remember a single one."

The reason, Le Van suggests, is that email marketing doesn't provide enough of a feedback loop to truly gain insight into customer responses. Though marketers have access to information on open and click rates, they typically lack the reporting capabilities to determine not just the effectiveness of an individual email or email campaign but also the content that appeals to individual consumers. As long as this information stays out of the picture, marketers can't hope to personalize email blasts meaningfully—and it's costing them.

"For every dissatisfied customer who unsubscribes from an email list, marketers lose, on average, sixty percent of their future lifetime value and a lot of money in potential revenue," Le Van says.

To tackle these issues, Le Van says the first step is to build a full, accurate profile of customers. "Marketers need to determine what people are doing on the Web site and look at what they're buying," he says. "There needs to be an in-depth customer profile."

Once individual customer data is gathered, Le Van recommends clustering customers together to determine which groups behave similarly. Once the clusters are formed, individualized email campaigns can be assigned to these groups, differentiated by content and frequency.

And then the question becomes how to personalize the marketing material. Gone are the days when including an addressee's name was considered sufficient personalization. Consumers want email tailored not only to their basic data, but also to the interests they display in their Web activity. In a marketplace where consumers are willing to make certain behavioral information available via interactions such as Facebook "likes," they expect to see it put to use.

"Marketers have not responded decisively to consumer dislike of superficial personalization," says Janie Hulse, an editor at The Economist Intelligence Unit. "Consumers say they appreciate email offers that are customized to their particular needs based on previous purchases, yet the transition to more sophisticated customization has been relatively slow, and the majority of marketers continue to stress simple personalization."

In addition to more personalized content, Le Van stresses the importance of frequency, which can play a major role in both drawing customer interest and—perhaps more important—ensuring customer retention. "When we looked at the rates of unsubscribes, we noticed that between five percent and twenty-five percent of customers opt out within thirty to sixty days after signing up. Companies cannot afford to lose these leads so quickly after acquiring them," he says. "Tailoring frequency can make an incredible difference, because if you know that for your particular company, most unsubscribes happen between X and Y days, then you can lower your email frequency specifically during those days to minimize the chance of unsubscribing."

Email frequency and content complement each other in the realm of email marketing, Le Van asserts, and when implemented appropriately, embody the concept of quality over quantity. "It's always better to send fewer emails," he says, "but with a more relevant voice that consumers will notice and remember."

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