One Big Behavioral Economics Lesson for Email Marketers

Imagine you’re on your way to work and happen upon a pop-up coffee stand. They’re handing out free cups of coffee in exchange for feedback about the drink. There’s a table with the usual coffee-related complements like milk, cream, and sugar — but also some offbeat options like orange peel, sweet paprika, and anise.

Even if you have absolutely no interest in adding a dash of paprika to your coffee, the fashion in which those offbeat spices are presented — whether they’re in classy crystal spice containers or jagged-edged Styrofoam cups — will likely affect your enjoyment of your coffee.

That’s what researchers Marco Bertini, Elie Ofek, and Dan Ariely discovered when they ran this experiment at MIT. Ariely describes the results in his book, Predictably Irrational:

[T]he interesting thing was that when the odd condiments were offered in the fancy containers, the coffee drinkers were much more likely to tell us that they liked the coffee a lot, that they would be willing to pay well for it, and that they would recommend that we should start serving this new blend in the cafeteria. When the coffee ambience looked upscale, in other words, the coffee tasted upscale as well.

Whether you go for a fancy pour-over at a hipster cafe, the comforting contents of a hefty diner mug, or a skinny extra-hot caramel macchiato upside down venti at Starbucks — you probably have a strong preference about where you get your brew. How did that preference come to be? There’s a lot at work beyond the cut-and-dry calculation of quality and cost — a jumble of taste, memory, perception, feeling, and as this experiment shows, the design around your experience.

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Scale Trust, Not Lists

Stop obsessing over the size of your email lists. It’s distracting you from the real work of quality growth — of building audiences, developing customers, and nurturing relationships.

When you’re consumed by list growth, your job is merely about the numbers rolling in, contained to the hunt and capture of one more email address. Great email marketing is not so simplistic or shallow.

That’s not to disregard the fact that businesses have to make money. But there are deeper values at stake when it comes to how you email. As Justine Jordan, Litmus’s VP of Marketing, told us:

Email is the ultimate way for a marketer to connect with their audience. Too often what happens is marketers just think about it as a high ROI channel.

That opinion leads us down a path of bad behavior, where we look at email like it only has capabilities to make our companies money. Often that comes in the form of shoving promotions, discounts, and deals down people’s throats.

Every email is not a sale, though your inbox may show otherwise. Let’s look at what it means to turn your focus from lists to the people behind those rows of email addresses.

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What’s in an FNAME?

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.”

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