8 Tips for Personalizing Your Email Campaigns

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In a world where a customer’s attention span is under constant assault, a single email might not stand much of a chance. But if that email appeals to a customer’s specific interests or needs, its odds of garnering attention increase significantly.

Simply personalizing the subject line will boost open rates by 26 percent, according to Campaign Monitor. But even more important than just encouraging opens, personalized messages are clicked 14 percent more often and they convert 10 percent better than non-personalized emails.

The rub is that while personalization can be a potent weapon in a marketer’s arsenal, blunders are far too easy, and therefore far too common. We’ve all received emails trying so hard at personalization only to get basic details wrong. Ever received an email from a company that got your name wrong while recommending the exact product you bought from them last month? Yeah, me too. Those are pretty basic details that no business should ever get wrong, yet it happens all the time.

To help you avoid some of these mistakes and improve your personalization efforts, here are a few dos and don’ts:

Do This:

Use sign-up data as more than just a source for first_name. You can make inferences based on what your customer is signing up for or where they sign up from. For example, if a sign-up is referred from a podcast featuring a particular artist or author, you can personalize by following up with new releases or tour dates. If a sign-up results from a piece of content, you can make product recommendations or additional reading suggestions based on the same or similar topics.

Help customers find what they’re looking for. Some big-ticket purchases, like a car or house, can have an extended decision-making process. Even when a customer is taking a break from actively looking, they may appreciate targeted emails that alert them to new opportunities. Real estate firm Moveto, for example, emails personalized listings to customers who have demonstrated an interest in purchasing. Hotpads does the same for rentals.

Wish customers a happy birthday. One very easy personalization message boils down to two words—happy birthday. Getting customers to provide that info is relatively easy (especially if there’s no year attached) and it provides an opportunity to offer a highly personalized message, every year, for as long as that person remains a customer. DonorsChoose gives their users a $10 birthday gift card that they can donate to the teacher of their choice. And if you don’t have a customer’s birth date, you can substitute a “happy anniversary” message based on their sign-up date.

Remind them of their abandoned shopping carts, bags, baskets. Research shows that customers open44 percent of shopping cart abandonment emails. These emails serve as potent reminders to customers who were very close to making a purchase. MeUndies excels at these messages—a recent version included attention-grabbing (and brand-appropriate) pics of people in underwear asking, “Not ready to commit?”

Look for creative ways to personalize. Food delivery service Grubhub will ping customers when it’s raining, encouraging them to order in and avoid the foul weather. Similarly, footwear retailers can tempt customers with a flip-flop sale on the first beach day of the season, and tire companies can remind people to put on their snow tires as those first flakes start to fall.

Don’t Do This:

First off, don't fret too much about the little mistakes. Customers usually appreciate the effort it takes to personalize an email and can be quite forgiving. But there are some major errors that you should make every effort to avoid:

Don’t leave variables visible. Emails that literally open with “Hey {First_Name}” are ridiculously common. It’s an experience that’s alienating to users and reflects poorly on your brand. It’s also easy to prevent. Simply create logic that will populate variables with alternatives for data points that are missing. For example, if no {First_Name} exists for a customer, you might have logic that populates that variable with something like “friend” or that leaves the field blank.

Don’t get things wrong. There are nuances here. If Grubhub sends you an email about the rain outside when the sun is shining, that’s a minor gaffe that’s easily forgiven. But when Pinterest sent emails to unengaged women congratulating them on their upcoming weddings in 2014, that was a major faux pas. Shutterfly made an even bigger mistake that same year, when they congratulated women on the birth of babies they didn’t have.

Don’t get too personal. There’s a fine line between great personalization and being creepy. Retail giant Target discovered this when they correctly inferred that a young woman was pregnant, based on her “pregnancy score”, sending maternity-themed offers that were intercepted by the woman’s very surprised father. It’s best to stick with personalization based either on data your customers expect you to have or on inferences that won’t creep them out, especially in light of Facebook's Cambridge Analytica scandal.

It’s really not difficult to pull off a successful personalized email campaign. Avoiding common pitfalls is just as easy. And customers don’t just appreciate personalized interactions—they expect them. So if you’re looking to stay ahead in the attention economy, it’s time to up your personalization game.


Matt Harris is the cofounder and CEO of Sendwithus and has extensive email and product expertise, acquired working with Fortune 500 clients and contracting for government and private software companies. After graduating with a degree in computer science from the University of Victoria, he cut his start-up chops in the inaugural cohort of FounderFuel, a Montreal start-up accelerator. A self-proclaimed hacker, email nerd, and avid rock climber, Harris cofounded Sendwithus in 2013 in Victoria, Canada, and later moved to San Francisco to participate in the Y Combinator program.

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