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Exploring email personalization - Q & A with email experts

Kath Pay

I recently had the pleasure of being a panelist on Email & More – a live Q&A panel discussion, with moderator Adeola Sole of Holistic Email Marketing and other expert panelists; Kath Pay of Holistic Email Marketing and Mike Austin of FreshRelevance. The event hosted by Holistic Email Marketing, was focused on email personalization.

Here is a summary of the key points addressed by all the expert panelists at this event:

Why should marketers personalize emails? Why is personalization so important?

Personalization is a powerful strategy for companies wanting to deliver a great customer experience. Today’s customers expect companies to show that they understand them and their specific needs, at each point in their journey with a brand. They also expect consistency in these communications, regardless of the source (which department is sending the message) or the channel.

The main objective of personalization should be to build long term relationships with customers, which leads to customer loyalty and ultimately repeat purchases (which is far more valuable than a once-off sale). The use of personalization in communication can help companies increase sales, as it enables relevant offers and recommendations, based on a user’s profile to be included in emails.

What are examples of personalized email campaigns that can help drive customer loyalty and improve customer experience?

Both triggered and transactional email campaigns are innately personalized, so they can help drive customer loyalty and improve customer experience.

Triggered messages play an integral part in a customer’s experience and engagement with a brand. These messages are innately personalized. They are automated – triggered by customer interaction and thus allow email marketers to send relevant content at the right time when the customer needs it most. It goes a long way in ensuring a great customer experience, which ultimately leads to loyalty and retention. An example is a welcome email or a confirmation of an action they’ve taken.

Cart abandonment and reactivation campaigns are examples of personalized, triggered email campaigns. In this case, your email messages are based on inactivity, rather than activity – but, as Kath pointed out, they still show your customers that you know them (recognition), which contributes positively to customer experience.

Kath highlighted the value of triggered customer lifecycle messages, sent to customers at pertinent points in their lifecycle with a brand. They can be used to nurture prospects into becoming customers; convert first-timers into regular buyers and ultimately turn repeat customers into loyal customers.

Transactional emails traditionally originate from different departments in an organization. They are also automated and contain personalized information that the recipient is expecting. These communications like password reset, payment receipts, order/delivery confirmations, usually achieve great customer engagement, so, if done correctly – are consistent with other communications in terms of branding and tone, they can enhance the customer experience. 

What if we don’t have enough customer data to enable effective email personalization? Where do we start?

My advice: If you don’t start small, you may never start at all.

So…Just start! Mike suggested that marketers focus on the quick wins – these are your customers, they have made some form of contact with your organization, so you do know something about them. 

Understand what data you have on hand, then review the various email types being sent out to customers. For example, if you have customer billing data, you can enhance the bill notification email by inserting more billing info, such as amount due, due date, etc. 

Even if you just start by addressing customers by name, instead of ‘Dear customer…’, this is already a step in the right direction. And as they continue on their journey with your brand, you will be able to collect more information about their usage or buying behavior, as well as interests, which will enable you to personalize your email communications even further. 

Gartner predicts that 80% of marketers will abandon their personalization efforts in the next 5 years.  It attributes this to a lack of real return on investment and the challenge of managing customer data.

Discover 7 reasons why data is the arch-enemy of personalization – Read more

Consider segmentation and progressive profiling

It’s important to note that personalization is not only about having information that profiles an individual at a specific point in time. 

So, in the initial stages of the customer’s lifecycle with your brand, where there is not much customer data on hand, segmentation based on geographic, demographic, or similar interests is an effective way to engage customers in a more personal way. It is still more effective than sending a generic communication to all.  

It is also about considering current circumstances that could affect and change their behavior. The current pandemic is a good example. There has been a steep move to digital communication when we look at the way people interact with one another and service providers. Furthermore, many people have had a change in their finances and based on location, some areas are affected more than others. When you look at all these factors and personalize communication accordingly, you’re definitely on your way to having a more engaged and loyal customer in the long term.

Kath recommended progressive profiling (informed data) as another way to gather information on your customers. With their permission, you can ask them to provide more details about themselves, such as their interests, needs, etc.

However, she stressed that behavioral data is still more accurate, as it is based on actual actions as opposed to what the customer desires (for example, they may desire a product they have never purchased). A combination of informed and behavioral data works well.

What is important to consider when upgrading from a basic personalization solution to a more advanced platform?

Kath suggested that marketers start by mapping out their personalization strategy first and not the technology. Once  their strategy has been finalized, they can then start identifying the tools, features etc. that they need to execute it.

It is important however not to rely on just one tool to help with personalization. You first need to make sure that you understand your customer – you need a single customer view before you can personalize accordingly. 

Start with your strategy, look at the data on hand and then customer interactions across all silos. Thereafter, consider which email type will achieve the desired outcome. For example, will the emails be automated, triggered, personalized or hyper personalized with the goal to drive the next best action or do you want your customers to take action today?

What other technologies/tactics are available to help increase conversions and revenue?

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is a great marketing tool. It is used to drive operational efficiencies in other areas of a business, but it’s true potential has not yet been realized in a marketing environment. 

You can use the insights and patterns gathered from AI technologies to predict a user’s behavior based on past actions. This way you can provide customers with the ‘next best offer,’ which is more likely to get them to take action – ultimately leading to more conversions and revenue.  

Remember that people’s circumstances change, so it’s important to understand their propensity to change their purchases accordingly as well. To ensure a great customer experience, marketers need tools like AI to predict what a customer’s next purchase or required service will be and offer it to them before they ask for it – Relevance is key!

Mike also highlighted the importance of communicating with customers frequently, as this will increase your reach and thus chances of more conversions. Kath added that you shouldn’t think that personalizing your emails means you have to limit the frequency. You can still add elements of personalization within your general email campaigns.

How to deliver hyper-personalized messages that maximize engagement.

“Don’t wait to personalize your customer communications. Don’t think you haven’t got enough customer data to enable personalization. There are different types of data – use what you have. You may not have all their personal details, but you will always have some information you can work with. And also, it’s important that you make an effort to understand your customers, as this will help you personalize accordingly.”


Mia Papanicolaou

COO, Striata

“Customer experience is key – aim to always find ways to improve the customer experience. Be helpful, increase ease of use, save them time and effort. But also focus on ways to improve ROI, which benefits the business. Ideally, these strategies should intersect, allowing you to realize both your commercial and customer experience goals.”


Mike Austin


“When doing a split test, don’t just measure on a campaign by campaign basis – think customer experience. Look at different metrics like lifetime value metrics and subscriber metrics, rather than just campaign metrics.”


Kath Pay

Holistic Email

View the entire panelist discussion

Mia Papanicolaou

Mia Papanicolaou

Vice President, General Manager at Aspire CCS

Mia heads up Aspire CCS in the US, working with companies to provide strategy and advice and is a regular speaker on digital customer communication, digital maturity and improving the customer experience.

Mia has been named as an email marketing influencer multiple times and is passionate about helping organizations improve their digital communication maturity.

Prior to joining Aspire CCS, she worked at Striata for 15 years in South Africa, the UK and then settled in the US as the COO of the company, after which she headed up consulting at Doxim Striata.

Read more of Mia's blog posts here or connect with her on the following social channels: