Email’s Getting More Personal. Should You?

By Pamela Parker

Whenever new technologies come to the fore, there’s a natural temptation to jump right in because “everybody’s doing it.” At the recent ClickZ E-Mail Strategies conference in San Francisco, the latest craze was for email with dynamically generated content. Given the dramatic proliferation of spam, it stands to reason marketers would be interested in standing out by providing ultra-relevant content. It’s clear that, as a recent Forrester Research study put it, “the time of simple weekly blasts is gone…. There is ample evidence that personalized emails have not suffered declining response.”

How far should you take this?
In an effort to determine whether giving in to temptation is worth the reward, I spoke to some folks in the email biz and got the all-too-common answer: “It depends.”

Let me start by explaining more fully what I’m discussing. In talking to people for this column, it was hard to figure out what to call this technique and technology. There doesn’t seem to be an industry standard term. It’s dubbed dynamically generated content, one-to-one personalization, and profile-based customization. Basically, we’re talking about delivering an email to an individual that’s customized based on information in that person’s profile. Going beyond mere mail merge capabilities (like inserting a person’s name), dynamically generated content can involve almost anything in an email: customized text, modified images, a special subject line, or offers tailored to that individual. A single deployment can involve thousands of different versions of the same email if the list is large and diverse.

Peter Goldman, executive VP of sales and marketing at email service firm Dynamics Direct, says he’s seen a unique example for a campaign for an auto insurance company in which the sender line was customized. In a single deployment (rather than segmenting the list and sending separate messages), the company sent emails “from” a wide variety of people. “Rather than the customer receiving email from the auto insurer,” said Goldman, “they get it from their agent.”

Database Quality
It starts with data. What do you know about your customers? Do you have purchase history data? Data about responses to previous email campaigns? Self-reported data? Appended data? All of this helps and you need to gather it if you intend to get one-on-one personal in your email relationships.

A caveat: Be careful when you append data to your list. “You really need individual level data for every customization,” says John Rublaitus, VP of integrated marketing solutions at Digital Impact. “When you try to extrapolate down to the individual, that starts to break down.” Rublaitus is referring to a common practice in traditional direct marketing in which data appended to individual profiles may originally have been aggregate data, such as census information. Just because 80 percent of people in a Zip Code speak Spanish according to census data doesn’t mean you should send an email to those folks en Espaqol.

Type of Business
With some products, the more detailed your personalization, the more performance you can eke out of your email. In other industries, that’s not the case. Rublaitus cites a Hewlett-Packard email campaign his company deployed. Because HP knew what customers bought and when, its marketers knew what kind of content people might want. A printer buyer would get an article on how to clear paper jams, for example. The company also knew what products (printer cartridges, anyone?) that buyer would likely need, perhaps even when she might need them. HP’s wide product variety adds to the suitability of this solution, in that printer buyers, computer buyers, and digital camera users will likely respond to very different emails.

At the other end of the spectrum, Rublaitus worked at Eddie Bauer and Limited Brands. In his apparel industry experience, data-driven personalization didn’t produce results as substantial as he’d hoped.

“Often times in the clothing industry, getting down to the specific item, which would intuitively make sense… in terms of promotional activity… hasn’t been effective,” he says. Rublaitus and his team tried to customize offers based on customers’ buying behavior – whether they tended toward fashionable clothing or more practical items. It just didn’t work. “It really surprised me,” he recalls, “and it took a lot of work to do that.”

Ultimately, the only way you can tell if personalization works for your business is to give it a shot. “I find that one of the fallacies in marketing is the ‘commonsense’ rule,” said Rublaitus. “The best lift is from things that aren’t intuitive. It’s really hard for people to let go of their common sense and really let the data tell them what’s going on. They limit themselves because they have a preconceived idea of where to start.”

Developmental Stage
When is your business ready for this advanced technique? The easy answer is you should try it when you’ve already exhausted other avenues. Easier things, such as writing better copy, improving design, and doing more comprehensive testing, often deliver big increases in response rate.

“It’s one of the steps that you take when you’re already doing all the right things, and it’s just another of the right things to do,” affirms David Sousa, CEO of EmailLabs, an email delivery company. “It’s not a magic wand.”

Pamela Parker is ClickZ’s managing editor. In the same capacity, she oversees’s other advertising and marketing publications including; Internet Advertising Report; and She joined the company through the 1999 acquisition of @NY, a pioneering Web site and e-mail newsletter covering the burgeoning Silicon Alley scene, at which she was associate editor. Pamela has written for Business 2.0 and worked as a general-assignment and medical reporter at KTRH Radio in Houston. She received a master’s degree in journalism, with a concentration in new media, from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

Reprinted from

Small Business Computing Staff
Small Business Computing Staff
Small Business Computing addresses the technology needs of small businesses, which are defined as businesses with fewer than 500 employees and/or less than $7 million in annual sales.

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