August 20, 2009

Customize Email to Engage Subscribers and Improve Results: 5 Tactics

SUMMARY: Marketers have a wealth of data in their email and CRM systems that can take the guesswork out of creating email campaigns and newsletters that resonate with subscribers. The key is identifying segments of your database and customizing email messages according to their preferences.

We interviewed a marketer to learn how his teams have mined data to produce customized email messages that improve subscriber engagement. Includes tips on:
o Personalization tactics
o Writing for prospects vs. customers
o Using dynamic content
o Testing segmentation by industry vs. job description
Dave Wieneke, Director, Digital Marketing, Sokolove Law, began his email marketing career at the Christian Science Monitor. The experience taught him an important skill as he moved into B2B marketing: The ability to think like a publisher.

"I come at email marketing from a publishing background, because that’s how email has always served me -- as a publishing interface that brings people back to our website," he says.

In recent years, he refined his approach by tapping the wealth of data available to marketers from their email and CRM systems. That data allowed him and his teams at Thomson CompuMark and Sokolove Law to take their publishers’ focus to the next level -- by customizing email messages to provide the most relevant content, or the most effective design templates, for specific segments or campaign goals.

Wieneke will be a speaker at MarketingSherpa’s B2B Marketing Summit 2009, where next month he will share a case study demonstrating how customized email messages helped his team re-engage cold, seemingly dead leads and triple his conversion rates. But while preparing his presentation, he shared with us several other examples of email customization tactics that have delivered big gains.

Below, we've highlighted five email customization tactics that B2B or B2C marketers can adopt to help improve the relevance of their messages -- and their campaign results.

Tactic #1. Personalize messages from account representatives

Marketers who support a sales team can customize outbound email messages according to customers’ existing account representatives, or prospects’ potential account representatives.

The simple act of putting an account representative’s name and photograph on a company newsletter achieved several benefits for Wieneke’s team at Thomson CompuMark, including:
o Providing authenticity
o Personalizing the brand
o Demonstrating customer service
o Keeping account reps in touch with smaller clients

The team tested the company’s basic email newsletter against a version with an account rep's name, contact information, and photograph. The result:
o A 63% increase in total clicks.

"The tactic not only got us more use from our email list, it also engaged our sales team into feeling like this was their newsletter -- they owned it, and were talking with clients about it."

Tactic #2. Use different messaging for customers vs. prospects

Wieneke also recommends customizing promotional messages based on the subscriber’s buying behavior. For example:

- Prospects who have never used your products or services

Messages to these "non-buyers" should emphasize basic benefits, such as simplicity, efficiency, customer service, or financial advantages. These prospects don’t yet need a detailed accounting of all features and specifications.

- Existing customers

Messages to existing customers should emphasize higher-level capabilities, or detailed examples of how to improve their experience with your company. Your goal with these messages is to increase customer engagement and retention.

Tactic #3. Use "one-to-one" notes for special requests

Wieneke recommends a stripped-down, personal approach for emails that make a special request, such as asking subscribers to answer a survey.

Rather than using the same template and HTML coding that you use in promotional emails, consider creating a text-only invitation from a key member of your team, such as a company VP or CEO. The text should:
o Explain why the subscriber’s participation is important (e.g., improving your products or customer service capabilities)
o How long the survey will take

Using that type of survey invitation helped Wieneke’s team achieve a 30% response rate on a survey request email that they expected to only achieve a 5%-10% response rate.

Tactic #4. Use dynamic content based on user preferences or location

Marketers can create more engaging email newsletters if they move beyond a static version of each issue. Instead, providing customized versions of your newsletter that appeal to each subscriber’s interest area makes them more willing to receive your messages and spend time with your content.

Dynamically-generated newsletters highlight the information that’s most relevant to each subscriber, based on categories or segments you’ve identified in your CRM system. At Thomson CompuMark, Wieneke and his team used dynamic content to send hundreds of different versions of their weekly newsletter, based on subscriber preferences.

- First, design an email preference center that allows subscribers to identify their interest areas, such as:
o Product or service areas
o Industry
o Demographic or lifestyle segments
o Geography

A message sent during an email welcome series is a prime opportunity to introduce a preference center with optional segmentation choices. Subscriber engagement typically is highest in the very earliest stages the relationship.

- By integrating your CRM system with your email messaging platform, you can match content types to subscriber segments in the database. Then, when you have content that’s tagged according to a database segment, the system can automatically generate an email that ensures subscribers see content that best matches their preferences.

The tactic doesn’t require you to have content in every newsletter to cover all possible interest areas. Instead, it ensures that information likely to appeal to specific database segments is displayed prominently to those subscribers.

"The person has the experience of opening one newsletter and finding a couple important things in it," says Wieneke. "It allows you to not be perfect with your email messages."

- For example, Wieneke and his team wanted to deliver Canadian subscribers to Thomson CompuMark’s newsletter articles that were related to Canadian trademark issues. Rather than creating a separate newsletter for Canadian subscribers, they linked their email database to the CRM system to flag recipients with Canadian addresses.

Then, whenever the editorial team created an article related to a Canadian trademark issue, the system dynamically generated a version of that week’s newsletter for Canadian subscribers that placed the country-specific article at the top of the table of contents.

"Any time we could have some piece of Canadian information highlighted, it gave great coverage to our sales team and showed how they were able to work with [Canadian subscribers’] countrymen."

Tactic #5. Test the impact of segmenting by vertical vs. product line vs. job description

For B2B marketers, segmentation options typically revolve around creating content geared toward a specific job description, product line, or industry vertical. Wieneke approached the challenge by testing those variables.

His team has created custom content for each of those three database segments. They found:
o Segmenting by title was "somewhat helpful"
o Segmenting by product line was slightly more effective than segmenting by title
o Segmenting by industry vertical was most productive

"In some cases, we have 13 different verticals," he says. "When we had a new product to pitch in the words and images used by that industry, we found the copy was much more consumed than copy focused on a subscriber’s title."

TIP: Don’t just use clicks as your key performance indicator

Wieneke recommends analyzing segmentation tests beyond the initial click, by looking at the total time spent by readers on the articles.

His team used hotlinks in email newsletters that took readers to webpages to read the complete article. Then, they were able to measure where readers spent the most time. Based on that data, they learned which types of articles created the highest levels of user engagement.

Useful links related to this article:

Hear Dave Wieneke speak live on his lead re-engagement campaign at MarketingSherpa’s 6th Annual B2B Marketing Summit 2009:

Dave Wieneke's blog:

The Christian Science Monitor

Thomson CompuMark

Sokolove Law

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