Precision personalisation prevents poor performance

8 minute read

As usual last week’s email marketing Discovery Morning raised a number of interesting questions, for example – ‘is it always good to personalise?’


The quick answer is yes.

All other things being equal personalisation is a relatively simple way of increasing the relevance of an email message. Relevance creates differentiation from the vast quantity of emails out there and that is likely to draw useful attention to your message. Even simple personalisation like dropping a personalised salutation into your opening will enhance the feeling that this is a one to one communication rather than a broadcast to the masses. It’s a simple thing to do.

The slightly longer answer is yes, but…

The subtext of the question was that if it is not done well personalisation can appear a little intrusive and unwelcome. It’s true. Just check your inbox and you’ll probably find examples of personalised emails which make you feel slightly uneasy. With email we lose lots of the cues to intention and meaning that we rely on in our other forms of day to day communication. This amplifies the effect of the words we do use and if not careful this can lead to misconception and misunderstanding – there are lots of references to ‘email netiquette’ with simple rules to minimise this effect.

Personalisation is a good example. It tends to work best when it’s there but it feels natural and unforced. You can argue that the less that personalisation is actually noticed the more effective it is as an engagement tool.

So what should you avoid? Here are my three ‘I’s.

Inappropriate – effective email marketing relies on developing a relationship with your audience. Although the privilege of permission has already been granted, developing the trust aspect of that relationship is likely to take a little longer. High degrees of personalisation early on in the relationship can appear a little over familiar. This is especially true if the information being used to personalise your message has not been collected directly from the subscriber. Behavioural profiling techniques allow us to collect a wealth of useful information about our audience – physical location, device preference, purchase history, interests and preferences to name just a few. Much of this intelligence can be gathered with little or no direct contact with the subscriber – just by observing their behaviour, hence it’s often referred to as indirect profiling information.

Indirect profiling

It’s important to view indirect profiling especially in the context of permission. One of the recommendations when establishing permission is to set an expectation as to the type and frequency of communication that the subscriber can anticipate. A second is to make it clear what (profiling) information is being collected and how this will be used. Overstepping either of these boundaries is a sure way to erode rather than build this trust. The inclusion of personalised information in an email campaign which is unexpected can arouse suspicion as to the source and motive. The point is, depending on the nature of relationship that you have with your audience, you might want to introduce personalisation slowly.

Inaccurate – I mentioned earlier that personalisation works best when it comes in a little under the radar. It’s like the football referee. People usually say the referee has a great game when he (she) gets the job done but otherwise goes unnoticed. Email personalisation is the same.

A sure way to draw unwanted attention to your personalisation is to get it wrong – so make sure that your data collection process is accurate and complete and that your personalisation method is robust. A good example is a personalised greeting. It’s easy and extremely common to see personalised salutations like ‘Dear Miss Murdoch’ or, if more familiar, ‘Hi Sylvia’. In fact it’s so common that Miss Murdoch will probably not even notice – that is until she receives the ‘Dear Mr. Murdoch’, ‘Dear unknown’, Hi Murdoch’ or even ‘Dear Robert’! Most email platforms have a degree of auto correction for things like initial capitalisation or unwanted personalisation words. It’s also easy to replace missing data with a more generic greeting like ‘Hi there’.

Adding profile data

Inaccurate personalisation extends beyond simple profile drop-in. It follows that any place where profiling information is used to personalise needs to be both accurate in itself and correct within the context of the message. I received the campaign below. The personalisation is fine, but the context?

Ladies tennis invitation

Irrelevant – like with discussion on appropriateness above, the point with relevance is that just because you have the information you need to personalise your message, it doesn’t mean that you have to use it. Understanding the relevance of your profiling data to your message will allow you to decide when, where and how often to include it. Again, it often comes back to what ‘feels’ right to the subscriber. If the information supplied is sufficient, useful, and in context then even high degrees of personalisation are acceptable, in fact valuable.

One area of personalisation which often raises debate is that of subject line. Subject line is a key element in any email campaign, so using personalisation (for example first name) to grab attention and prompt an open is a tempting proposition. On the other hand, personalisation before a message is opened can feel like an intrusion. Once the email is opened a trust ‘hurdle’ has already been jumped, so personalisation is likely to be more acceptable.

Personalised subject

To conclude, in general personalisation is a valid objective and relevance will help add differentiation. Simple personalisation like profile merging is easy and effective, but if you really want to make the most of what can be done consider a technique like Dynamic Content. This automatically adapts the content (text sections and images) depending on the profile characteristics of individual or groups of subscribers. Avoid the three ‘I’s’ and it’s all positive.