What Is Email Personalization? Everything That Marketers Should Know

Melanie Balke
October 31, 2022

As marketers, we collect data.

We understand our customers’ ins and outs and apply that information to our messaging.

But have you ever given any thought to how we use those data points?

Thanks to email marketing software, there are more ways than ever to perform advanced email personalization. Marketers can easily create relevant content for every audience; all it takes is a single click.

One of the most reliable ways to boost an email campaign’s effectiveness is through a strategy known as email personalization. This microscopic tactic takes subscriber data and applies it to messages, making them more appealing to consumers.

For today’s blog post, I’ll be examining this amazing tactic and breaking down its uses.

What Are Personalized Emails?

Text overlays a photo of fabric samples. “The Basics: What Is Email Personalization?”

On the surface, a personalized email is a message that features individual targeting and unique details.

The amount of information included in personalized email marketing varies. Some of the most basic versions will include personalized emails using the customer’s name. Advanced examples will include unique recommendations based on a customer’s browsing history.

Crucially, both of these uses are perfectly valid. In many ways, basic personalized subject lines are as valuable as ultra-targeted emails. The ultimate goal is to make content relevant to the reader, and anything that advances that goal is worthwhile!

The Connection Between Personalized Email Marketing and Segmentation

Here’s where things can get a bit messy.

Modern email marketing relies on segmentation.

A good marketing team knows how to segment your audience into manageable groups. And, by extension, personalized emails are often micro-segments. However, segmentation is not (necessarily) personalization; it’s just part of the process.

Really, the differences are technicalities, and both marketing strategies are personalization techniques hoping to boost engagement and loyalty. All the data used to create targeted segments can be recycled for personalized emails and vice versa.

For the sake of brevity, the two key differences between personalization strategies and segmentation are:

  1. Functionality: Segmentation tends to be a more specialized field. Most email marketing experts focus their segmentation efforts on the early stage of a sales funnel. However, personalization strategies can be used at every stage of the customer journey.
  2. Level of Focus: Think of the difference between a microscope and a magnifying glass. Both allow you to examine objects closely but perform on entirely different levels. Here, personalization is a microscope; it lets you see the tiniest details in full clarity. Segmentation is the magnifying glass, which provides some details without going too in-depth.

Why You Should Be Personalizing Emails

A photo of a person using a spinning wheel. Overlaid text reads, “The Benefits: 15.7% of consumers want brands to recognize their name.” Information sourced from a MarTech artice.

I’ll cut right to the point: If you aren’t personalizing your email marketing, you’re missing out!

15.7% of consumers expect some form of personalization in their emails, and most want brands to recognize their names. So, we immediately know that email personalization is something that people want, and it’s not just a fancy marketing automation trick.

However, personalization strategies can be used outside of email marketing.

  • Many web services (i.e., Google Maps) use personalization strategies to refine search results.
  • Messaging on multiple platforms can be personalized.
  • Phone apps commonly feature individualized settings to make the experience more enjoyable for each user.
  • User interfaces can be customized to fit a user’s needs.
  • Websites can use customer data to create personal product recommendations.

Of course, being part of The Email Marketers, my focus will be on email personalization.

How Does Email Personalization Work?

A header image reading, “How It Works: The Technology Behind Personalization.” The background is a colorized photo of 3D printers.

There are many ways to personalize emails, but they all fall into three major categories. While the method used to personalize your emails may seem trivial, I promise this information will make sense in a moment!

Basic Personalization

I’ll start with the most basic way to personalize emails.

You can use marketing automation to add personalization tags to an email. They usually look a bit [like this] and are used to tell your email marketing software to replace a block of text with information from your customer database.

This is the modern, streamlined way to find and replace names in an email.

For example, if you send something like, “Hey there, [FirstName],” the result will look a little bit like this:

A sample of a personalized email as seen in an iPhone inbox. The sender is The Email Marketers. The subject line is, “Hey there, Delilah!” Pre-header preview text reads, “What’s it like in New York City?”

I should also point out that basic personalization can be used for any data. While the most common application is adding a name in the subject line, personalization tags can also be used to fill any demographic or psychographic blank.

Dynamic Content in Personalized Emails

A photo of an engine features overlaid text: “Dynamic Content: A Handy Way to Display Personalized Email Content.”

Like personalization tags, dynamic content blocks work by assessing customer data. This is a more advanced way to implement personalization and usually requires more detail than basic replacement strategies.

There’s a lot of coding and technical magic behind the scenes, but what marketers need to know is that this method can display different content for each segment.

For example, an email with dynamic content might show new subscribers a discount coupon tied to their welcome email series. However, it wouldn’t make sense to send that code to existing customers; so, instead, the dynamic block will display a more appropriate code.

Once you’ve gotten the hang of it, dynamic personalization is an easy way to create automated emails for everyone on your mailing list!

Behavioral Artificial Intelligence

Text overlays a photo of overlapping striped caution panels: “Behavioral AI: A Useful but Dangerous Tool for Personalization and Segmentation.”

Finally, marketers can utilize the latest and greatest technology: artificial intelligence. These advanced programs can segment users based on a wide variety of features in real-time. Today, many are used to make customized recommendations, which may be displayed in emails or as a person browses a site.

They’re amazingly powerful, but you must be extremely careful with them.

These toolkits can, indeed, create a deep bond between a customer and a business, but the software may become too intelligent for its good. Customers may want to be understood on a personal level, but there’s a fine line between understanding and being a creep!

Customer Data, Personalization, and You (AKA: How to Not Be a Creep)

“What to Know: The Dangers of Personalization.” The text overlays a photo of wood shavings.

Yes, I just said that personalized emails can be dangerous!

It may seem counterintuitive in today’s customer-centric world, but customer behavior studies support this odd claim.

Many layers exist within the complex customer ecosystem, and privacy is one of the thickest and most enigmatic. Customers say they want privacy while providing personal information like it’s Halloween candy! This is known as the privacy paradox, and it’s a lot to unpack.

(Now, I don’t have enough time to review everything about customer privacy, so I’ll focus on its immediate impact on personalized emails.)

Always Start by Getting Permission

Getting permission to send emails and collect data is a legal requirement, a common courtesy, and a marketing strategy.

Consumers are more aware of their data’s value than ever, and they’re taking steps to protect it. The early 2000s are over; marketers are no longer free to scrape and hoard data as they please.

It’s the age of permission-based advertising, and email marketing tools must adapt to fit these new societal norms.

Depend on First-Party Data

Permission-based marketing doesn’t stop at the “sign up to receive alerts” checkbox. The best email marketing strategy puts consent at its core.

For ease and convenience, many email marketing experts rely on consent management platforms (CMPs) to handle legal technicalities. However, they also stick to first-party data when polishing their customer relationship management software.

What this means is that marketers should strive to collect as much data as possible from the source — the consumer — and scale back their reliance on extrapolated and purchased data.

Mind Your Information Flow

In marketing, an information flow is like a provenance record or chain of custody. Customer data inevitably gets passed around, and that exchange of information is great! However, it also presents opportunities for marketers to inadvertently create uncanny advertising.

Third-party data and extrapolated information often birth personalized content that’s too intuitive. Subscribers expect you to know the information that’s been given, and stepping outside those boundaries is a surefire way to lose customer loyalty.

Ultimately, you’ll want to limit the amount of data collected by your marketing department. The more information you store, the greater the risks are for your brand. Moreover, these complex webs of customer information will often become cumbersome as they grow. Instead, focus on the right data for your personalized emails.

How to Start Personalizing Your Emails the Right Way

“Best Practices: Tips & Tricks for Personalization.” The text overlays a photo of fern leaves.

With these precautionary notes out of the way, I can finally start talking about the most exciting part of the blog!

What are the best practices for creating personalized emails?

Like any other marketing strategy, personalized emails come with unspoken rules. You want to send subscribers relevant content with the power to re-engage and connect. But you also want your email content to work for you.

A good email personalization strategy will cover more than a personalized subject line.

It will include guidelines for using your email marketing tools and boosting key performance indicators (i.e., opens and click-through rates). To make things really pop, you’ll also want to implement some marketing automation.

Add That Data Early

I’ll start with the most basic tip: Make sure you add data as early as possible. Ideally, you should be able to gather a subscriber’s name when they sign up for your emails. Depending on your business, you may also want to gather a few other tidbits of information (i.e., company position and the customer’s birthday).

A good sign-up and opt-in form will encourage customers to provide this information without forcing them to do so. Your opt-in forms should mention that the data provided to your brand is private and used to deliver relevant messages and personalize your emails.

If your website offers lead magnets, make use of that traffic, and segment those users into a unique group based on their signup.

Now, don’t worry too much if you can’t extract this data at the beginning of your customer relationship. You’ll have plenty of opportunities to do so later.

Get to Know Your Technology

There are two major ways to automate and enhance your personalized emails:

  • Segments are included in every worthwhile email marketing kit. These basic must-have tools let you automatically sort your customers based on multiple data points.
  • Tags are a more advanced and specific version of segmentation. Some ecommerce platforms offer the ability to directly integrate with Google tags; others use their own proprietary tagging system.

Regardless of which of these options you pick, — and you should honestly be using a mix of both! — you’ll want to use these tools to create a complete view of your customers.

When making segments, remember to start large and refine your results with micro-segments and tags. While having multiple ultra-specialized segments may seem like a great idea, an excess of micro-segments without relevant overarching groups is a surefire way to miss your target audience altogether!

Your marketing team will know more about the email marketing platform of your choice, so consult with them about this issue!

Email Personalization Examples

“Examples: Inspiration for Your Emails” overlays a photo of messy paint palettes.

So, with all of that out of the way, what do good personalized email marketing campaigns look like?

Obviously, there are many, many ways to personalize your emails.

Many companies stick to tried-and-true options like putting the name in the subject line or generating a unique coupon code for certain segments, but there are plenty of other ways to enhance your email marketing strategy.

To inspire you, I’ve found some of the best email personalization examples out there!

Abandoned Cart Emails

Few email marketing campaigns are iconic as abandoned cart emails.

These examples of personalized communication are triggered emails sent whenever a user leaves an item in their cart for too long.

Unlike personalized wishlists and recommendations, abandoned cart campaigns are easy to implement. No personal browsing history is required, and most e-commerce platforms have built-in tools to send these email campaigns.

A wonderfully simple example of such an email comes from Stetson:

An example of a personalized email from Stetson. The header reads, “Still Thinking It Over?” Below is a CTA.

Visual simplicity and clear call-to-action aside, this email personalization example knows its target audience. It’s an easy and ubiquitous way to handle trigger emails, and the personalized image (namely, the photo of the product) is a great touch.

The Personalized Wishlist Update

If you’re a fan of video games, you’ve probably seen dozens of these emails from Steam:

An example email from Steam. The header reads, “Save Now on 3 Games You’ve Wished For!”

These fantastic examples of email personalization utilize customer data to create unique experiences for subscribers.

Behind the scenes, Steam has set up a code that sends an email campaign to users whenever a game on their wishlist is on sale. Each email includes personalized images and information on the games (in case you’d forgotten why you added it to your list)!

This form of email personalization is more advanced, but it can have big payoffs. These targeted email campaigns are a great way to catch your audience’s attention and re-engage inactive users. Successful utilization of wishlists and personal recommendations can even prompt increased website visits and boost brand loyalty!

Year-in-Review Email Personalization

One of the most advanced personalization strategies is year-in-review messaging. These email campaigns are ubiquitous examples of many tech giants’ power and require a lot of subscriber data. However, the results are wholly unique!

Here’s an example from Chess.com:

An example email from Chess.com. The header reads, “Hi, Smiles Davis! What a long and crazy year for chess!” “2021” is featured in large, centered text. Various statistics are displayed below, each featuring a unique personalized image.

The text may be hard to make out, but the general idea is clear.

This email personalization has gone above and beyond by aggregating the user’s information into a single email message. At this point, the campaign has gone beyond email marketing personalization; this is an individualized message for Mister Smiles Davis!

Much like a good welcome email series, year-in-review campaigns are customized to fit the individual. Many use a purpose-built email marketing tool, making this example one of the pricier email personalization strategies.

What You Should Know About Email Personalization Strategies

So, what’s the TL;DR of all this information?

A header image features a photo of leaves. “Key Takeaways: What to Know About Personalization,” overlays the image.

Aside from being an email marketing necessity, personalized messaging is a great way to deliver relevant content with (relatively) little effort and fairly low expenses. Personalized content has the power to boost your website visits and click-through rates, and it may boost your profits, too!

However, there are a few key drawbacks. Personalized content needs to strike a balance between relevant information and personal space. Good campaigns will usually go beyond a name in the subject line but often fall short of invasive assumptions and extrapolated data.

You can learn more about email marketing by browsing the rest of my blog, or you can skip the hassle and enlist the experts!

The Email Marketers can help you deliver amazing results by collecting the right data.

Give me a call, and we can discuss your company’s needs. Whether you’re looking for re-engagement emails or need to polish your B2B business emails, The Email Marketers are here to help!