Email marketing

Pitfalls of Email Personalization

Google personalized emails statistics and you’ll get a gazillion studies proving the effectiveness of personalized emails. Yes, yes, yes; personalized, tailored communications outperform generic communications. We can all agree on that.

But personalization (and the data management around it) isn’t magic. And don’t let anyone tell you it is!

Done poorly, personalization has the opposite intended effect. The sender looks like a buffoon who is trying to pull off a charade.

Take a look at this example. The merge of salutation data didn’t work, leaving me to feel like one of many “leads.” Wow. I feel so special.


I wish I could say I’ve never had a personalization error happen in my campaigns, but I can’t. So I’m sharing some tips from our team on how to avoid everything from minor snafus to major debacles.

  1. Look at the raw data — If you’re importing into an email system, you need to look thoroughly at what’s going in. Seriously, look with a fine-toothed comb. Garbage in, garbage out, as they say. You might have a terrible blunder in row 1,256. Catch it now. Also avoid having anything colloquial or informal in your data. “Guy I met at 2019 conference” cannot be in a name field in your spreadsheet, however accurate it is!.

  2. Use an email rendering service such as Email on Acid or Litmus to view your email in a variety of browsers. These services can seem pricey — but worth every single penny. They will save yo ass.

  3. Don’t forget the preheader (also called the second subject line). It can live in your code and only appear front and center when it arrives in the inbox (cue scary music of doom). Find out where it is and make sure it has nothing outdated or embarrassing in it.

  4. Do a live deployment. Most people just use the “test” function when working on emails. You can actually deploy a campaign to five people to double-check that the data is pulling correctly. Better to find out now. Once you’re satisfied, duplicate that email and deploy to the masses without fear.

  5. Assume nothing. Our team works really hard to leave nothing to chance. If you utter the phrase, “Oh I’m sure it will be fine,” that right there is the kiss of death. You’ve sealed your fate! Check it — and check it again.

And if a mistake happens … and it will, just remember it’s a learning moment and something to be added to your ongoing checklist. Email marketing can be a beast. Those of us doing it are with ya.

May the email Gods be ever in your favor.

Holiday Fatigue & Email Giving

A recent report from Experian Marketing Services noted a couple of trends that bear watching.

Email volume continues to grow, up 12.7% in Q3 2013 over Q3 2012. The Q2 report showed a 17.9% increase and, if my In Box is any indicator, Q4 will be up as well.

While open rates were up, click rates also fell by 15% from the prior year (Q2 also saw an 8% decline).

Revenue per email fell 18%.

Those findings aren't shocking. They're very similar to Blackbaud's findings as reported in its annual Benchmark Study for Nonprofits midyear which noted that open rates were consistent but click through and response rates continue to decline.

So, what does that have to do with holiday fatigue?

One of the reasons cited in the Blackbaud report was "a saturated channel with undifferentiated messaging and campaigns."

Over the past few weeks, retailers and nonprofits alike have bombarded our In Boxes with holiday offers and year end appeals. Very few of these stand out from the clutter. I expect they will only exacerbate those trends.

Anecdotal evidence we're seeing appears to support this. In some of the year end campaigns we're watching, open rates are up and unsubscribe rates are down - both positive trends. However click through and response rates have also fallen. One client is seeing a drop of almost 35% in revenue per email sent.

I'm not an alarmist. December giving is strong and I expect the year to end on a positive note. For that same client, other online giving is up ... and that's where the lion's share of the revenue comes from anyway.

But the point is, direct response to emails is falling. For most organizations the response seems to be to send more emails. And I think that's accelerating the trend.

I think we're seeing a shakeout in giving patterns as online usage habits mature. I believe email will continue to be an essential tool for donor development. But it will show its greatest value when it is used more to cultivate relationships year around rather than simply to collect the reward at year end.

Relationships Via Technology

In October, I attended bbcon, a great conference for users of the Convio and Blackbaud platforms. In one standing-room-only session on year-end campaigns, the speaker issued a directive to the audience.

"If you're not sending to your entire online file on December 31st, you're missing the boat," she said.

A hand flew up.

"Even if the constituent already gave to the campaign, just send them another email asking for a gift, making no mention of the prior gift?"

"Yes, absolutely. The numbers bear it out," the presenter insisted.

Perhaps so. But does that make it the right course of action? Always?

I'm a direct marketer. I believe in data—and data driving decisions. Still, when data is driving you in ways you wouldn't behave in any respectful relationship, it's time to reconsider.

I draw the line at NOT acknowledging a donation.

Right now, the world of data and communications are at an interesting crossroads. Data can do many things, but not all things. The real challenge for us all will be in knowing where its potential (and limitations) lie.