Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Mastering the art of personalisation in a post-pandemic world

Personalisation is still often seen as the ultimate aim of digital marketing, despite the shine coming off it somewhat recently. NDA is talking to experts in the space for a series of articles on effective personalisation strategies, new technologies and innovations, and best practice approaches.

By Guy Hanson, VP of customer engagement, Validity

As physical stores closed and offices shut due to the pandemic, this year has seen businesses across the globe overhauling how they communicate with their customers, prospects and even their own staff. Sectors like travel and retail have been especially impacted by many of the changes.

While some retailers with established ecommerce capabilities managed to navigate the lockdown and even benefitted from its restrictions, many businesses in both traditional retail and travel had to make a number of immediate changes to its business processes, including their marketing programmes, to keep up with the changing guidelines to lockdown and the financial climate.

Communicate intelligently

New Validity research has shown that both retailers and travel companies have been able to take advantage of particular marketing channels most suited for customer communications to balance their marketing messages to show compassion and empathy while still promoting their products and services. With the severity of the pandemic, businesses that were perceived to be profiteering from the crisis were at risk of generating unwanted negative publicity.

A clear consumer preference for email communications compared with other marketing channels such as social media, direct mail, or mobile apps, has emerged through the pandemic, likely due to email generally being a trusted form of contact, the convenience that it gives recipients, and the non-intrusive nature of an arrival in the inbox.

Even before the Covid-19 outbreak, the DMA’s Consumer Email Tracker 2020 report showed that consumers prefer email for customer services communications, discounts, offers and sales notifications, order confirmations and updates, with that preference only growing.

Validity data shows that between April to June this year, email marketing correspondence drove 12% of all visits to UK travel websites, an increase of 36% compared to the same time period in 2019, while email drove 16% of all visits to UK retailers’ websites, an increase of 18% compared to April and May 2019.

And for both sectors, compared to other marketing channels – such as social, direct, organic search, paid search, and display and referral – visitors through email are also far more engaged and more likely to return. Furthermore, DMA research shows that email creates wider awareness that results in other positive actions that ultimately lead towards sales activity.

For those businesses who are able to tailor communications intelligently and with sensitivity, the brand benefits are clear. However, the current crisis is a particularly tricky landscape to navigate personalisation. For sectors like travel and retail especially, not only do these businesses have to be sensitive to most of their consumers feeling financial strain due to the unstable economy, they are also both sectors that have to be especially sensitive towards the anxieties their customers may be feeling, while still being focused on generating revenue for the business interest.

It’s a fine line – if businesses get it wrong, the downsides such as sharply reduced engagement will be much greater than the potential upside of getting it right.

Inspect your data

This is where having high quality data is crucial. Poor data leads to poor targeting and personalisation, and failure to deliver the right message to consumers can result in them quickly marking an email as ‘spam’ or unsubscribing altogether. Furthermore, with an increasingly large amount of data available, marketers are also having to learn how to tread the fine line between useful personalisation and the creepy “you know too much about me” kind.

In a world where consumers’ knowledge of their data’s value and their data rights is more pronounced, creating a trusted exchange with customers where they are more willing to provide that data is key. Good data quality means both correct and complete – and personalisation is just a facet of that greater goal. As such, businesses need to focus on learning more, and more accurately, about their customers’ needs/interests/behaviours so they can craft communications that are relevant and timely.

Good quality data is more important than ever given that global internet volumes have risen around 50% during lockdown. There may be temptation to take the easy way out and send out emails to large groups of their complete lists, but this causes a huge problem if there are question marks against the age or quality of parts of those lists. Validity research shows that less than one-quarter of businesses report that their CRM data accuracy and completeness is greater than 80%.

Since the pandemic began, there has been a sharp rise in spam trap hits, particularly recycled spam traps where old addresses have been re-purposed for monitoring activity. These senders will be harming their reputation and deliverability as spam traps feed into sender reputation metrics. There are also legal consequences for using old, inaccurate data – for example, a key pillar of GDPR is specifically focused on the obligation to maintain accurate data, and to only keep it for as long as there is a valid requirement.

Be authentic

The increased strain on the internet’s capacity risks slowing down the delivery of content like emails, and resulting in providers like Gmail and Microsoft applying greater rigour to their classification of email traffic, meaning messages are prioritised for delivery based on their relevance, data quality and volume.

It can also be tempting for businesses to reach out more than usual to their subscribers during these uncertain times in an attempt to leverage a ‘tuned in’ customer base that is consuming more information online than usual. However, mail providers categorise your email as spam, especially if you’re sending too frequently or using excessively salesy language. Filtering is dynamic, not just rules-based – providers also respond to subscriber sentiment. So if higher volume or hard-sell content results in an increase in spam complaint rates, providers will view this as a signal of lower quality emails, and will route more of them to the junk folder. Businesses therefore need to be more conscientious than ever when preparing customer communications to ensure they are not categorised as spam.

Customers themselves are put off by marketing messages that are seen to be opportunistic of adversity. Getting this wrong can quickly run the risk of generating a social media firestorm, and the huge brand damage that goes hand-in-hand with that. Even during normal circumstances, successful email marketing relies on an authentic tone of voice to engage with customers. Businesses should avoid sending cliched messages from business leaders, drawing insensitive similarities between subscribers’ personal turmoil and the business’ needs, and using serious current social and political news as a weak link to message audiences.

In these uncertain times, socially conscious consumers are looking for content that is authentic and valuable, and are choosing brands that demonstrate social conscience. Whatever the means of communication, think about what you have to offer customers that will be genuinely useful or appreciated right now. My advice is, whether over email, social media, or a paid ad campaign, if there is any doubt on what is about to be shared, then rather do not share it.