Creating a user-focused inbox experience

A recap of the "Future of Email" panel at Marketing United 2018

During our 2017 "Future of Email" panel, the speakers focused primarily on what was possible with email: interactivity, real-time content, etc. This year, the responsible use of customer data felt especially topical, so our panelists decided to hone in on how marketers can use data to create personalized experiences for every subscriber without crossing the line into creepy territory. 
Here's a look at this year's moderator (our own Logan Baird) and our esteemed panelists: 
In this post, I've captured some of the highlights from their discussion. If you'd like to go ahead and watch the whole thing (which you absolutely should), hop straight to the recording here!

Is email an effective way to mirror a 1:1 relationship?

CHER: Email is one of the most personal channels that's available to us as marketers. With email, users have given you permission to contact them, and you essentially have a front-row seat to their face. So unlike social, which is kind of like shouting at everyone all at once, email is interesting because we can segment it out and personalize it. 
HEIDI: I love email because of the trust involved. It’s been around for 40+ years, so everyone understands the rules of engagement. ISPs know how to filter out the garbage. If you don’t like what’s happening, you can report it as spam. If you don’t want to receive messages anymore, you can unsubscribe. It puts the control in the user’s hands. 
MELANIE: Email is great, but it's important to remember it isn't always the best method to communicate with a member of your audience. At GasBuddy, for instance, our users are often giving us their location information. If we want to reach out based on where they are in a given moment, it’s better to do a push notification than an email, since they're more likely to see it at the right time. 
LOGAN: Right... and it helps you avoid the creepiness factor. Think about it this way: There’s a difference between seeing someone you know from afar at a marketing conference, walking up, and saying hey, versus getting an email from them later at night that says, “I saw you at Marketing United.” The intention is the same, but the experience and the feeling it creates is way different. 


How do you keep your email marketing user-centric and not brand-centric?

HEIDI: I think one of the biggest challenges is figuring out how to use the data at your disposal. For us, our data lives in a lot of sources. It could be in a CRM, it could be in our ESP, or it could be in our app. Connecting all of those data sources is really challenging, but once you get it all together, how do you actually execute using that data? Getting that right is the first step in doing better personalization. 
CHER: When brands try to use their email to service themselves, it’s annoying. It's like a friend who asks you to help them move. The first time they ask, it's no big deal. But when they call every weekend, you stop answering the phone. That’s what your users will do when you only send self-serving emails. 
One thing that we really focus on is the difference between a low-commitment click and a high-commitment click. A high-commitment click is clearly branded for conversion, but you can add a low-commitment click, like a horoscope or a blog post. It’s content that’s still getting that brand impression, and it’ll keep me engaging until I’m ready to buy again. 
MELANIE: When I think about being user-centric, I think about giving you value for engaging with my brand. I may not even be asking you to do anything—think about that big Spotify email that tells you about your listening history each year. It's using your data in a way that's helpful and interesting to you, not to serve their own business needs. 


That yearly Spotify email is a great example of how the customer data you collect can serve the user—how can brands emulate that?

HEIDI: Orangetheory Fitness does something similar: After each workout, they’ll send you an email with a synopsis of how you did during that workout and how many calories you burned. It’s great that it’s an email, not on social or something, because I don’t want to blast that info out to my family or friends. 
CHER: I think people just like to see themselves in the data. We have this natural tendency to find community, so we like to see where we fit within the numbers and across different social groups. 


As much as we want email to mirror 1:1 interactions, you have to do it at scale. What works and what doesn’t in terms of scaling your efforts?

HEIDI: As a developer for eROI, any time I can make a robot do something I hate doing, that’s a win for me. So I feel like any time you can automate your workflow, it’s awesome. It gives me more time to have fun. That’s when automation can be really useful. 
CHER: As a strategist, my tool is my brain, so I don’t want that to go to a robot. I think that automation is great for things like transactional emails—things that people just need to know about, they need to get the message right away. One of the things I think we need to be careful of moving into the future is automating things to the point where we aren’t applying a layer of critical thinking on top of it. When you get the data, you still need to apply meaning to that. 
MELANIE: Right. Setting and forgetting is a really bad thing to do. Recently, someone was tweeting about how she bought a toilet seat from Amazon. She was saying, “I bought this out of necessity. I don’t collect toilet seats.” But because she bought that one toilet seat, all of her Amazon emails were now toilet seat-related. You can understand from the marketing side why that happened, but from the human aspect, it’s a clear miss. 

What are some of the strategies you see people doing to introduce that sort of logic to their email programs?

CHER: When we write programs for Taco Bell, we create campaigns that follow the whole lifecycle. If/then logic is huge. It can never be about just one action. In a journey, people do a lot of things, and all of those things need to be accounted for. 
HEIDI: I think the timing is important, too. You need to look at customer journeys for individual segments. There are people who want to hear from you a lot, and there are people who don’t. You need to serve them differently. 
MELANIE: We use qualifications and limitations. So in addition to the journeys that we have, there are things you might qualify for along the way. Perhaps over the week, you qualify for seven different emails—but we don't want to send you seven emails in a week, so we determine the priorities from there. 

How do we respectfully handle implicit data and explicit data?

HEIDI: I think the most important thing right now for brands is to provide transparency and reciprocity. Especially nowadays with Facebook and everything that’s going on, it’s scary for consumers. I think it’s important that we as brands do a better job communicating what we’re doing. For example, for Taco Bell, we're very clear from the beginning: “We save your orders so we can understand what types of foods you like. That way, when something new comes out, we have a better idea if it would be interesting to you.” 
CHER: This all has been happening for a really long time, but people are just becoming more aware of it. They’re freaking out, and so it’s important that whatever we are collecting, we are being transparent about how we’re using it and make it clear how it will make their experience better. 
MELANIE: It’s a difficult topic, but for us, we’re asking people to share a lot of data. We’re able to tell you things about how you can be more efficient about your driving and save money on gas—all helpful. But we can also tell if people are braking too hard, and that’s an awkward thing to bring up with someone. It’s an interesting challenge to take those negative data points and turn them into something helpful and good. 


How do you know when you’re getting things right?

MELANIE: One of the things we talk about is daily active users. For me, between using an app and sending email, there’s a disconnect. We talk a lot about setting a goal in the beginning, understanding what we’re asking people to do, and measuring the activity in that day. But it's important that you set that goal in the first place. 
HEIDI: I think from an implementation standpoint, if you lose control of your message because you’ve automated so much, it’s really hard to measure success. 
CHER: I think it’s easy to put benchmarks out there, but honestly, if you’ve learned anything at all, you’ve been successful. It may not be that you had the highest conversion rate, but you learned something that helps to optimize the next time around. 
Ready to check out the full recording of our "Future of Email" panel? You can watch it here



About the Author

McKenzie Gregory is a senior content manager on Emma’s marketing team. A Nashville native, she can be found covering all things email on the Emma blog, debating hyphenation rules, and watching obscene amounts of Netflix without a trace of shame.

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