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Personalisation – many try but few succeed

June 11, 2008

As marketers we all know that personalisation can be a good thing and that it will improve our communication to market. So although some of us fail to personalise our messages at all, why do so many of us who do make the effort get it so wrong?  


Many try but few succeed

We all have good intentions when wanting to craft a good personalised message but it is worth remembering that unless done properly it can be a lot worse than failing to personalise at all. Nothing alienates your reader like a wrong name, incorrect information and assumptions.

Everyone remembers the high profile cases of sales and customer service representatives writing abusive names in databases resulting in letters being addressed to ‘Dear Mr. Idiot’ (and far worse). It is worth making sure that those updating and creating the details in your database are aware that it is likely to be used for marketing purposes. 

Even if your database is updated correctly it may not be up to the task of personalisation for modern media. In the past, when marketing primarily through direct mail, to have your customer recorded in your database as Mr. F Smith will have worked fine when addressed on the front of an envelope.

In email communications however, a friendly opener to an email becomes ‘Dear F’ and will have the reader reaching for the delete button, no matter how good the rest of the message is. Using a simple mail merge program for your communications will no longer be enough to create an effective personalised message. 

Furthermore, it is necessary to apply common sense to any personalisation and to try to view it through the recipients’ eyes. A message I received recently had a subject line: “Al improves efficiency at Extravision”

This may (or may not) be factually correct but why would this statement ever be an appropriate subject line? It is simply an attempt to shoe horn as much information as possible in the subject line, presumably to prove they can.

Personalisation mistakes are prevalent in email marketing and the problem is compounded because the very nature of email makes it likely they will be drawn to our attention, or worse still to that of our bosses. Whilst mistakes in direct marketing result in the offending piece’s swift introduction to the bottom of a bin, these people are unlikely to bother writing their complaint. Conversely, a disgruntled recipient of an email will not think twice before hitting reply to let you know exactly what they think of your message. 

Why personalise at all? 

 So why bother? Let’s just remind ourselves why we should invest such time and energy in personalisation in the first place? 

The point of personalisation is not to show off our knowledge of the customer by including some of their details in an email. Nor is it to show off our ability to incorporate such information in the message. It is an opportunity to validate our marketing endeavors.

Our efforts should demonstrate we know and understand enough about the recipient and their interests to have deduced that our offering is relevant to them. That the offering has not been indiscriminately blasted to the entire database, but that we have selected them as individuals (or part of a small targeted group) to communicate something of relevance. 

Furthermore, by using the information we hold to control which messages are sent to whom we are able to reduce the number of irrelevant communications sent and consequently increase the likelihood of interest and of a positive response.
This technique used over a period of time will gain trust and significantly improve response rates. 

As with all marketing our ultimate goal is to improve response rates and maximise the effectiveness of our marketing communication. A well crafted, personalised email can also eliminate complaints and unsubscribes. Done well, it could just be the thing that makes us stand out from the general background noise of our competitors’ marketing efforts. 

What is Personalisation?

There are three main types of personalisation.

Technique 1

The first is to personalise references to the recipient within the email. The starting point for this is to personalise the greeting – “Dear Fred”. This is fine for e-newsletters and other html communications as it reassures the recipient that the newsletter is intended for them and that as their name appears correctly, it is likely they have at some point subscribed.

However, it needn’t stop there. There is no limit to the amount of information you should include, providing you are confident of its accuracy and relevance. This is true of html communications and even more so for plain text “one-to-one” style email campaigns whereby recipients often feel the message has been manually typed and sent to them alone. 

One-to-one style email campaigns are more effective than others because they are more likely to be read. Whereas recipients of html campaigns are alerted to the mass nature of the mailing and thus feel no obligation to read, recipients of one-to-one email campaigns do not have images downloading across the screen to warn them they are one of thousands. Combine this with effective personalisation and they will believe they are the only recipient.
For example:
“Dear Fred,
I wanted to get in touch as I notice you purchased product x in September of last year and I was wondering whether you are still responsible for purchasing software development tools at Company A? If so, you may be interested in taking a look at product y which is a complementary…" 

The above example contains enough information to make it seem totally personal and the date stamp, formerly “20/09/05” has been converted to “September of last year” to make it read naturally. 

The end result is the recipient will read, digest and respond positively if of interest. 

Technique 2

The second technique of personalisation is to personalise the content of communications, in particular e-newsletters, based on recipients’ profiles or interest history. This increases click rates and reduces unsubscribe rates because it improves the chance of the recipient having an interest in what they are sent.
This is done by monitoring click through activity from previous editions of an e-newsletter, combining this information with existing knowledge and customising the communication so everyone’s version contains articles of personal relevance. 

Furthermore, if you are keen to personalise your content but feel you do not know enough about the profile of your readers then why not ask them directly what they want to read about? The inclusion of a profile page in all your communication could help you to keep in touch with your customers and prospects’ areas of interest. A simple on-line form where there are check boxes for different subject areas would be easy enough for a reader to keep up to date. People will be keen to let you know more about themselves if they feel it will lead to more interesting communications in the future. 

Technique 3

Finally, the third technique is to personalise your entire email strategy. Many marketers believe more is better when it comes to email marketing, chuck enough mud… etc. This simply is not true. Excessive emailing results in complaints, unsubscribes and dwindling click through statistics. Instead we should use information we possess and continue to gather, to ensure recipients only receive communications of relevance.

We have touched on this above, but it can go a step further by use of “hook” articles. A hook article is like any other article and ostensibly offers valuable advice for readers. In addition, however, it tells us anyone reading it has a potential interest in something we, the sender, produce or sell. 

So, for example, a company selling outsourced Human Resource solutions may include an article about spiraling HR costs and increased legal obligations to employees etc. Any senior decision maker of a small to mid-sized company reading this article could be targeted with a one-to-one style campaign introducing their outsourced HR solution and outlining its advantages.
A combination of these three approaches will dramatically increase response rates and, perhaps even more importantly, it will protect the rest of your database from saturation. 

The future. To personalise or not.

So should we personalise and, if so, how do we keep ahead of the game? The simple answer is yes. Personalisation is important but only if it can be done correctly. Bad personalisation is far more damaging than no personalisation. 

If you have a strong database with accurate information and you have good email technology, personalisation will work well for you, providing you also apply a little common sense. 

Marketing has changed. The ones who will stay ahead of the game will be those who no longer blast out large marketing campaigns but show insight into their customers and prospects’ situation. Smaller, more focused and target campaigns will result in much higher response rates and prevent recipients from feeling ‘bombarded’.

If you would like further information, please email [email protected] or call 0161 817 2929

Posted by Paul Latham

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