The Power of a Customized Email Promotion

My wife and I just witnessed, in our personal lives, the power of a customized e-mail promotion. Our son is a North Carolina high school senior, and an excellent student. He also runs cross country, although he has not been particularly successful. One reason is that two leg injuries have sidelined him for over a year.

Our son's leg has finally healed, so he is running cross country this fall. However, he is so far behind in his training that his competitive high school career is effectively over. In sum, no college cross country coach would be interested in recruiting our son for his running achievements. Nevertheless, he recently received the following email from a well-known university on the west coast:

Dear [Name of Our Son],

My name is [name of the coach] and I am the Director of Cross Country and Track & Field at [name of the university]. I am very interested in knowing if you have considered [name of the university] as one of your choices for your undergraduate studies. I also would like to know if competing in Cross County and/or Track and Field at the collegiate level would interest you. We are an NCAA Division III school and compete in the [name of the athletic conference].

[Name of the university] is one of the top research universities in the country and if you are interested in learning about the school and our running programs, please respond to this email and we can go from there. We would be very interested in talking with you about the possibility of applying to [name of the university]. You can get more information about our department at [link to the website].

Thanks for your time and I look forward to hearing back from you,

[Name of the coach]

As direct marketers, my wife and I are fascinated at how this university took several pieces of data that are readily available for rental from The College Board - our son's SAT scores, his self-reported GPA, and his self-reported interest in cross country - and created a nicely-customized email. We are also fascinated at the effect it has had on our son. It got him thinking about applying to the university, even though it is on the other side of the country. He even looked up the typical cross country times achieved by the school's athletes during intercollegiate meets, and concluded that with continued training he might be able to eventually become competitive. In short, the email sparked our son's imagination, and brought the school to life.

There is nothing fancy about the format of the email. It is text-only, with no color or graphics. Nevertheless, it stands out in our son's mind compared with the hundreds of other emails he has received from colleges and universities. This is because the other emails are, for the most part, generic. After you've read the twentieth, "Log on to our website with the following identification and password, and read about everything our institution has to offer," it doesn't take long to stop reading altogether.

The simple email from the west coast university also puts to shame the large number of direct mailings our son has received from other schools, the combined volume of which fills a large box in the corner of our dining room. Many of these mail pieces are very elaborate — and, expensive. Quite a few institutions have sent multiple pieces, and some have even followed up with phone calls. The problem is that, like the emails, they are pretty much generic in nature. And, they typically focus on the characteristics of the schools - types of majors, average class size, and the like.

In contrast, the simple email from the west coast university resonates with our son. Instead of rattling off facts about the school, it created a vivid picture in our son's mind of himself as a student at that institution. Now, that's direct marketing!

So, for more traditional direct marketers, what are the characteristics of an effective email? The following are some important ones:

  • The content should be determined by data-driven business rules. Just as with recruitment emails from colleges and universities, generic pitches are much less likely to be effective.
  • Ideally, the business rules will be derived from robust source data. When a modern marketing database is coupled with a high-quality delivery infrastructure, the sky is the limit in terms of target marketing creativity.
  • Do not employ data in such a way that the recipient will feel as if his or her privacy has been violated. In the email example just discussed, The College Board had requested, and we had given, our permission for the data to be used for third-party marketing.
  • The email should be sent as soon as possible after a purchase. This makes sense if you keep in mind that the "R" in "RFM" stands for "Recency." For many direct marketers, it is remarkable just how frequently - to reference the "F" in "RFM" - consecutive orders take place within a short period of time.
  • As for the mechanics of what drives the follow-up emails, marketing database analysis should determine the hierarchies of the product and/or service relationships that correspond to customer purchase history. Then, these hierarchies should be programmed into the operational systems, in order to "productionalize" the corresponding selection logic.
  • Ideally, the selection logic should contain an adjustment factor to handle the instances in which a targeted customer has recently purchased one or more of the products and/or services within the hierarchy.
  • The hierarchies should be refined over time, as ongoing database analysis generates additional insight into the dynamics of customer purchase behavior.