As the name would imply, the Email Evolution Conference (EEC) in New Orleans last week was all about the evolution of email, helping marketers find ways to take their programs to the next level. It was the ultimate lesson in “Crawl, Walk, Run,” complete with examples from brands who are doing it right and advice from experts who helped them get there.

Related: Troubleshooting lack of email list growth.

Digging through all of the sessions, keynotes, and panels, there was one theme that stood out to me: People. Hear me out: We all get caught up in our email KPIs and performance metrics, driving to the bottom line, and making sure our email programs succeed.

But at the end of the day, we’re just people, communicating to other people, through email. So we need to understand who they are as people, not just an email address with data points attached to it. As you start to process what that could mean for your business and email program, here’s a few more strategic points and takeaways I gathered from the Email Evolution Conference.

The Personalization Imperative is Real

Ever since email marketers figured out how to plug a subscriber’s first name into a subject line, personalization has been a thing. But in 2017, simple variable scripting is more or less table stakes, especially in the minds of our subscribers.

Segment and target your email list based off profile data, browsing history, or purchase history.

The Netflix’s and Amazon’s of the world have spoiled us into expecting a personalized shopping experience on all fronts — so much so that 52% of customers will likely switch brands if communications are not personalized (Salesforce State of the Connected Customer Report 2016). But since most of us don’t have the budget or bench of developers on hand that those brands do, how can we deliver on that expectation?

This is where you crawl, walk, run your way to email success. Take what data you have and action off of it. You can segment and target your list based on any number of data points, such as:

  1. Profile data — data like gender and age can be used to target new product launches, product recommendations, lifecycle marketing initiatives, and more.
  2. Browsing history — knowing what your subscribers are browsing and how often can help inform trigger timing, lapsed messaging, and more.
  3. Purchase history — use this data to target subscribers who are primed to purchase again (hint, reference what and when they last purchased for an extra personal touch).

Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence are Your Friends

By letting machine learning and AI do all the dirty work, your team can focus more on the big picture.

While adding something called “machine learning” to your email program might seem like the exact opposite of personalized, “people-based” marketing, consider this; if you let machine learning and AI do all the dirty work, you and your team can focus more on the big picture.

Instead of building and coding individual content areas for each email, your team can be focusing on the overarching message of campaigns, or the next automation or customer journey you want to implement. Again, this is a great opportunity to crawl, walk, run if you have budget or other resource constraints, and the easiest way to dip your toe into this is customized product recommendations. Many ESPs and ecommerce platforms have a predictive intelligence capability you can leverage in email or online, or you can track down a third party to help you send personalized recommendations.

If that still seems too far in the walk lane for you, you can always use static recommendations segmented into a few groups you’ve identified from your subscriber data (women get a set of women’s product recommended to them, men get static men’s recs, etc.)

Your Subscribers are Contradicting Themselves

When you get to a point where you are leveraging subscriber profile and behavioral data, you might start to see that all that data doesn’t just magically align. A great example of this came from one of my workshop co-presenters. 

A travel company asked her where she planned to vacation next. Being a busy mom and awesome email marketer, she dreams of a tropical escape to the beach, so that’s what she answered. However, when it came time to book her next trip…  family theme park, all the way. If that travel company looked at her profile data, they’d see her as a “dream vacation escape” customer, but her purchase history shows her to be a “family vacation trooper.”

Data doesn’t always align. Hierarchies, priorities, and rules help keep from segmenting too far.

So how should they market to her to give her a personalized message and recommendations? There’s no magic bullet answer here, except to say you need to set rules for your data. Hierarchies, priorities, and rules will help you keep your data and recommendations in line so you don’t segment yourself crazy!

Authenticity is Important

At this point, our subscribers not only expect a personalized offer and experience, but they also expect to feel an almost personal connection to the brand with which they are interacting and shopping. Keynote speaker Kathryn Minshew, Founder and CEO of the Muse, gave us an important equation to address this: authenticity + engagement = loyalty.

Brands that are authentic and engaging with subscribers are likely to foster longtime loyalty.

If you, as a brand, are authentic and engaging in your communications with subscribers, that is likely to foster longtime loyalty. And how can you be more authentic and engaging? By creating a personalized experience throughout your email marketing efforts and communicating to your subscribers like they are people, not just an email address.

The great thing about conferences like the Email Evolution Conference is you get a chance to take a step back from your day-to-day and look at your email programs at a higher level. What are we really trying to accomplish? How do we want our subscribers and customers to feel about our brand, our product, our message? Thinking of your subscribers and customers as people first is a great starting point to evolving your email program and taking your initiatives to the next level.

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