7 Strategies to Make Your Lifecycle Emails Work Smarter For You

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How did email personalization become synonymous with merging in a name field? “Hello FIRSTNAME” isn’t what makes people run to grab their credit cards.

The power of personalization is no secret. It generates compelling emotions that persuade, support, and connect. We hear about shiny increases in email success. Marketers keep resolving to prioritize personalization, especially as we face dwindling attention spans and intensifying readiness to hit unsubscribe.

When you hear “personalization,” you expect a message that’s relevant to you. Instead, the term often describes the simplistic use of static identity attributes, like popping a first name into a subject line.

Popular data sources being used for personalization today

Most marketers rely on demographic and geographic data. According to research by VB Insights, over 60% of marketers target fewer than 15 segments — half target fewer than 10. But a person is (thankfully) more than the sum of their demographic parts.

Marketing personalization comes to life when you use real-time behavioral data. Yet marketers still have a long way to go, and the proof is in your inbox. Only a third of consumers feel like they’re getting personalized experiences, cites one recent Forrester study. What’s at stake, as VB Insights analyst Andrew Jones lays out, is that: “Without advancing to more mature efforts, most marketers are leaving money on the table.”

Going Beyond Name Personalization

A great gift for a friend isn’t a shirt with their name literally on it. It’s a thoughtful act, based on what you know about the recipient that you’ve learned from your relationship. And that’s a great starting point for your emails too.

Marketing personalization is also powered by purpose. As John Bononi, growth director at Litmus, explains:

Personalization is about so much more than a [first_name]. It’s about understanding what drives a person’s decision making process, where they are in that process, and placing all of it within the context of their specific challenges.

Your email campaigns help people make progress towards their goals (that relate to your business) by meeting their individual needs. Mutual success requires more than a mail merge. It takes effort, analysis, and contextual knowledge.

While short-term goals are focused on persuasion and conversion, more fundamentally, your job as a marketer is to develop good relationships. And whether we’re talking about a user interacting with a digital product or making a new friend — relationships emerge from conversation and interaction. You pay attention to cues and listen to the other person to know what to say next.

Smart marketers know that meaningful personalization relies on contextual and relational understanding, not short-term tricks like using names and pretending messages were sent from the CEO’s iPhone.

The Magic of Modern Email Personalization

Modern email marketing draws on real-time behavioral data to deliver personalized experiences at scale. Modern email personalization is Netflix sending customers recommendations to kick off another binge-watching session — or Buffer sending me an email when my Twitter queue has run out of posts.

You can send much more effective, personalized messages when you’re able to respond to what’s actually happening instead of taking shots in the half-dark or driving yourself crazy with complicated sequences based on a chain of email open and click interactions. That’s powerful when you have to contend with human nature. People don’t behave in straight lines, from point A to B to C. We can’t even do stuff we already want to (hello, New Year’s resolutions…).

Then why are marketers who say they prioritize personalization taking so long to make use of behavioral data? There’s been a lack of access to that data and lack of knowledge that newer technology and tools have made that access way easier. There’s still a huge disconnect between practice and possibility.

Marketers have had to juggle a dizzying array of decentralized, siloed, and inadequate data sources. They deal with user data buried in application code and CRM tools that store limited types of data that’s focused around the sales funnel. They have to handle batched updates, syncing problems, and a terrifying collection of lists. It’s not so surprising then, that as recently as 2013, 70% of companies didn’t use any type of personalization, even the simple stuff. Or that the majority of marketers just aren’t leveraging behavioral data.

Many businesses are still stuck in the past, focusing on simplistic personalization and marketing emails that focus on top-of-funnel acquisition and lead generation (where there’s less data to work with, anyway). Jones from VB Insights concludes: “Many marketers simply aren’t aware of the scope of possibilities.

These days, there are powerful tools (like Customer.io) that surface primary user data for marketers to put into service through integrations and data hubs like Segment. Now, you can control and automate onboarding messages based on what people have actually done, get super-targeted with offers and content based on combinations of behavior and user attributes, and fine-tune your tactics for nurturing, converting, retaining, and delivering value to your customers.

Tips for Behavioral Marketing Emails

Got behavioral data superpowers? Keep these 3 guiding principles in mind when creating personalized email experiences:

1. Get smart with your segmentation.

Personalization is the opposite of getting up on a soapbox and shouting at whoever is around. It’s about designing a segment of recipients who are most likely to need and welcome your message. And when you work with behavioral data, you’re not working with static lists but real-time, fluid groupings of people that reflect reality. (Head here for some smart segmentation inspiration).

2. Root your messages in purpose.

Focus on helping people decide what to do next and demonstrating your brand’s value. These are just a few behavioral starting points for tailoring your emails and some examples:

  • Abandonment and inactivity: inactivity, app or browse abandonment, funnel drop-offs

Timeshel mobile app activation email
timeshel re-engages you after downloading their mobile app

CloudApp installation nudge behavioral marketing email
CloudApp reminds you to install the app

  • Subscription and membership renewals
  • Upgrades, upsells and rewards
  • Nearing quota limits: time, space, etc.

Woopra quota warning behavioral marketing email
Woopra gives you a heads up if you’re nearing your quota

  • Referrals and Invitations
  • Milestones and accomplishments
  • Reports, digests, wrap-ups to learn about self and activity

3. Personalization is in the details.

Personalization should feel, well, personal, not so very different from getting an email from someone you know. Spend time on your words and tone and voice to escape lazy business-speak, consider going minimal on the design (many email clients turn off images by default), and email like a real human!

Bonus tip: Use Fallbacks

If you’re using tags and templating to include first names, have a fallback to avoid those “HI NONAME” situations. Here’s an example of how I handle this for our weekly newsletter:

use fallbacks for user field and tag insertions


Scaling personalization may seem like a contradiction — but that’s exactly the struggle. With great user growth comes increasing challenges to communicate with everyone one-on-one in a way that’s helpful and efficient.

Automating messages based on behavior works when you employ real-time data, have helpful tools to harness that data, and don’t forget the very human and hard work of deciding how to program it all.

Over to you! What’s the best example of personalized emails you’ve seen using behavioral data?

Photo: byronv2 via Flickr

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