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Using Behavior-Based Triggers and Other Tactics to Make Automated Emails More Personal

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by: Loren McDonald (@LorenMcDonald)
13 September 2012

It sounds like a contradiction, but you really can combine the business advantages of email automation with a distinctive personal style that speaks to your customers in a human, customer-focused way.

Automated emails anticipate, reflect or respond to customer interests and actions. But automation does not mean impersonal treatment. Nor do your emails have to sound like HAL, the creepy computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

On the contrary. Great automated messages that incorporate your company's unique "voice" or personality and offer solid value to the customer are as close to one-to-one communications as you can get, and provide numerous benefits to your email program:

  • Anticipation: Whenever your customers see your sender name in their inboxes, they'll want to read your messages because they contain highly relevant information.
  • Engagement: The usual 20 percent off sale merchandise? Yawn. But 20 percent off an item I put on a wish list? A birthday greeting? Information about the wine refrigerator I just bought? Yes, please!
  • Brand preference: You probably aren't the only department store, airline, hotel chain or clothing retailer in your customer's inbox. Personal content will help you stand out.
  • Advocacy: Customers are more likely to share your material, whether by forwarding it to friends or posting it in their social networks, when it relates to their (or their contacts') lives.
  • Reduced churn: Higher engagement means you lose fewer subscribers. More of your acquisition budget goes toward attracting new subscribers, not just replacing old ones.
  • Higher revenue: Customers who act on more of your messages, spread the word and stick around on your list longer will drive more money for your company. That's what email is all about, right?

So, how can you create these incredibly relevant, engaging emails? Hint: It takes more than just mail-merging your customer's name into the subject line or salutation. Here are the nine key elements of a truly personal email:

1. It's helpful.
Your emails should help your customers live their lives a little better. Consider reminding them about important life events (birthdays or anniversaries, for example) or offering tips for using your products to solve problems.

2. It makes your company more human.
People like to hear from other people, not corporations or sales departments. Your email can put a human face on your company by featuring the people who make a difference in the customer experience, such as buyers, customer service reps or in-house experts.

One popular example: Air New Zealand's email flight reminders feature actual crew members on the passenger's flight.

3. It responds to customer behavior.
Have you ever bought something, especially something pricey, and gotten an email promo for the same product shortly thereafter? Makes you feel really great (not).

Instead, use email to thank customers, cross-sell or upsell with similar products, alert them to events that match their purchases or interests, and remind them to purchase the items they left in their carts or repurchase before your stock runs out.

4. It understands context and buyer behavior.
Consider platform and message context when creating emails. If someone scans your QR code, for example, the follow-up email should be designed for the small screen.

In its “win-back” email series, SmartPak nails the right message context by addressing the typical reason its customers cancel (the winter season), providing content on the benefits of keeping horses healthy during cold-weather months, and offering an incentive to reorder.

5. It uses technology to provide "social proof."
Customer reviews and recommendations, staff picks and public comments in social networks can help convert a prospect into a customer. Your review and recommendation engines can harvest the most relevant comments into an automated message that reflects your individual customer actions or interests.

6. It engages the customer beyond the purchase.
Most retailers treat anniversary or birthday greetings as one-off messages, but you can get more traction if you add an engagement enticer beyond the usual freebie/discount promo.

Here's an example from Vie at Home: Ask your honorees to fill out a birthday wish list well ahead of their special day, and then send it to 10 of their friends.

You can also go back to your customer to ask about their buying experience or to review or recommend the product.

7. It reminds customers about important actions.
After the first sale, use email to remind customers to restock, purchase items left in a shopping cart, order just before your stock runs out, renew an account or complete a download or application.

Reminders can also be your springboard for additional sales. One marketer uses an auto-shipping reminder to suggest complementary purchases at no extra shipping charge.

8. It's fun to read.
Making money is serious business, but dude: Lose the corporate speak! Write the way your company might speak, or in appropriate language your customers use.

Moosejaw Mountaineering could be all stiff when prodding customers to come back and finish buying whatever they left in their carts. Instead, this "hang loose" company peppers its effective cart abandonment emails with funny quips (“we apologize if this email has made you dumber”) and an atypical call-to-action: “We're not joking, so hop to."

9. It's designed for touch as well as click.
Mobile email viewing is the most popular activity on smartphones, so it's likely a chunk of your readers are seeing your messages on tiny screens. Ditch the page crowded with text links, multiple offers and tiny type. Increase your font size, add easy-to-tap buttons and focus on a primary message. (Read more on making your email more mobile-friendly.)

Want more examples of emails that have the personal touch? Register for my upcoming Webinar, “Adding the Personal Touch to Automation.”

For more tips and observations from Loren, connect with him on Google+.

Related Resources:
1) Tip Sheet: “5 Tips for Humanizing Content and Engaging Recipients"
2) Video: “Loren McDonald on Customer Engagement and Conversion
3) Blog: “Why Content Humanization Is So Important

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