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2021 is email's time to shine, especially as an outcomes-based channel

You heard it here first: 2021 will be the year email marketing steps back into the spotlight.

In a report released in November 2020, eMarketer shared that “there is ample evidence that the pandemic actually grew email’s prominence as a touchpoint between brands and their consumers.” It goes on to note that even with email’s enormous penetration rate, it still has not peaked.

Email may seem like a counterintuitive channel as a high performer in the modern age of marketing. It’s the nature of today’s business that when you have a less expensive channel (like email), it gets less attention from leadership. This can often misconstrue the true value of email marketing. While sending a “bad” email doesn’t appear to cost much, what it is actually costing is quite significant. Bad email turns clients off, loses attention and disconnects them from your brand.

Email is now front-and-center due to the pandemic, and the influx makes it more important for brands to refine their strategy. As a leader in email marketing (per Forrester), we are well versed in creating and executing email campaigns that build strong, enduring brand-customer relationships. Here are four pieces of advice to help you make email a truly personalized, outcomes-based channel in 2021.

1. Let insights drive email content innovation

Your email strategy should always start with the individual, but you also need to account for the larger societal context as much as you can. Building a contextual email marketing calendar—one that is informed by the latest trends and insights—is key to success in 2021.

To ensure you’re developing the right kind of calendar, here are some questions to consider:

  • How are consumers behaving? Your calendar should account for many different consumer segments and their unique behaviors. For example, consider spending levels, top purchase categories and purchase location to inform your strategy. With the pandemic still ongoing and the future uncertain, it’s important for marketers to stay on top of current consumer behavior and sentiment trends.
  • Can you create goodwill? Stories of community involvement, customer care and action plans will resonate with consumers in the coming year—just make sure they’re genuine. A lot of brands shared how they’re doing good during the pandemic, but consumers started to care more about purpose-driven brands before the pandemic and will continue to do so afterward. When it comes to email, make sure you’re sharing what your brand is doing: Gap, for instance, sent an email in August sharing that the company donated $25,000 to two nonpartisan non-profits dedicated to promoting voter registration during the election year. In that same email, Gap also linked to a voter registration page and more information on voting.
  • Are there untapped areas for innovation? Explore if there are areas to expand digital innovation in your calendar. Gamification is catching fire in the industry, along with virtual events and celebrations. Push some boundaries and try something new if it makes sense for your brand. The pandemic brought forth creativity from many brands: Fine dining restaurants like Comedor, for instance, introduced “guided dining experiences” where they ship four-course menu options to participants who meet on Zoom for a cooking tutorial.
  • Are there valuable incentives or solutions to encourage loyalty? Long-term customer loyalty is always the goal, but people need a reason to stay loyal to your brand. Think of new ways to not only incentivize customers in the new year, but also become a trusted advisor to them in finding solutions to their daily challenges.

2. Build personalization to meet an individual’s needs first, not those of the business

It’s important that your email marketing strategy is not created in a vacuum of your brand’s own objectives. “The best email programs are ones that balance business goals with user needs,” said Shar VanBoskirk, VP and principal analyst at Forrester, in a recent article. “Most of the time, email marketers forget about the ‘user need’ part of that equation.”

This can be a struggle. In many ways, we’re still reliant on an old approach to marketing, where it is viewed by channel as opposed to by consumer. Using data to drive your email marketing is more critical than ever. Think about someone browsing your site, adding items to their cart or maybe taking some away—how are you using content, images and hierarchy to inform the next message or email that consumer receives?

Data should be the fuel for all your communication. The more you leverage and use the data to inform your decisions and content, the better off you are. AI and machine learning allow you to get granular with personalization to optimize content, subject lines, send time and discount offerings at the individual level. But it’s more than just technology. AI and machine learning must exist alongside real-time activation, and the experience must be seamless.

For example: When luxury fashion brand Coach used AI-based IQ informed recommendations for individual email subscribers in an eight-week pilot program, the company saw 18% more engagement, a 3.1% lift in revenue per recipient and a 3.7% higher average order value. Coach set out to cultivate more personal relationships with its customers to meet their unique needs, and the brand’s program showed that personal resonance can drive significant results.

3. Understand scale is critical to success

Email is the perfect channel for personalization because people expect it to be personal, intimate and meaningful. But naturally, you need scale to get any kind of impact.

Traditionally, brands have leveraged segments and personas to fuel personalized email marketing at scale, but segmentation is no longer enough. Email personalization isn’t simply first name and product recommendations; it must account for the moments in which consumers are making decisions leveraging content, time of day, cadence, sequence of messages and more. We’re now in a place to personalize every message for every individual—every time.

With email’s resurgence, brands should embrace the technology available to them. To develop strong, long-lasting relationships through email, brands must treat each individual as a segment of one—and they can.

Looking back at the year, the brands that performed best were those that created customer-centric emails and aligned their organizations with what was most important to their customers.

For example, when the pandemic hit, McDonald’s wanted to bring their business to consumers’ front doors. The quick service restaurant began offering McDelivery, encouraging customers to safely and easily get their favorite McDonald’s items delivered. The brand developed different email messages that would resonate with both work-from-home and home-school audiences, optimizing each one to the individual based on past behavior and preferences. In doing so, McDonald’s achieved personalization and scale at the same time.

4. Measure email performance over time vs. in siloed episodes

Lastly, if you haven’t done so already, it’s time to radically shift the way you assess email performance.

In the past, marketers have viewed email measurement as being episodic: They send an email and immediately ask “How many clicks did I get? How many conversions from those clicks?” Instead, marketers need to look at email programs over time and how they affect consumer behavior over time—it’s far more about nurturing client relationships than “did I get a click?”

This concept of increasing the aperture of time is critical to understanding the true value of email. You may have a portion of consumers who respond to emails and click through immediately, but a much larger portion are still gathering information, particularly for considered purchases. It’s time to start asking some new questions: Are you looking at how much value your email customers are bringing over time? Is email effective at building and maintaining client relationships, even if it’s not driving an immediate sale?

In 2021 and beyond, marketers should begin to think about a single email as part of a larger customer journey, and email marketing itself as the gateway to the consumer, not the business.

**This article was originally published on Adweek, January 2021.