Customize Your E-Mails and You'll Avoid Getting the Spam Treatment

Even Without Personal Information, E-Mails Can Be Tailored to Seem Relevant

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In-boxes are flooded with e-mail during the holiday season offering daily deals, specials and whatever else retailers think will create the urgency to buy now. But it gets to be too much, and the glut could lead consumers straight to the "unsubscribe" link. There's a good way to ensure this won't happen: find out what customers want to see and send them e-mails that feel tailor made. Letting a customer know that you know what he or she needs can make the difference between "click" and "delete."

How can you make your e-mails feel more personalized?

  • Ask customers what they want up front. It's hard to get people to give you personal information once they have signed up, so when you ask someone to subscribe to your e-mails, request details that will help you service them. For example, ask starting subscribers which brands they love to wear, their (and family members') clothing sizes and which days of the week they prefer to receive e-mails. When items they like go on sale in their size, let them know.

  • Segment by gender. E-mails sorted by gender have the biggest impact on recipients. While most companies now do this, I am shocked at how many still do not.

  • Remind shoppers to check out. If a customer puts an item in your shopping cart and goes away, send a reminder encouraging her to reconsider. But do it quickly, before she has a chance to make the purchase somewhere else. An example is, one of our clients. The fashion site gently nudges shoppers in a cheekily-worded e-mail ("Your Shopping Bag Needs Love, Too").

  • Send re-stock e-mails. For products that need to be re-stocked, like coffee pods or running shoes, figure out the average lifetime of that item and send a reminder e-mail to the customer around the time when he will need to purchase it again. Even better, include a discount.

  • Pitch by the weather. Imagine living in Philadelphia and receiving an offer for new winter coats just a few days before a blizzard is predicted to hit the east coast. This technique is particularly effective for travel sites, fashion businesses, even home d├ęcor and home-improvement retailers.

    Even without subscribers' personal information, retailers can do much to make the e-marketing experience feel more like a favorite boutique than a big box store. The strategy is to be clear about who your customers are and speak only to them.

    Still, as good as your personalized e-mail marketing is , keeping customers happy and loyal will depend largely on how well you service them once they click through to your site. Customization can go far beyond storing the customer's clothing sizes. If a customer buys running clothing from an e-sporting goods store, for example, the next time they visit, the website should serve up running products, not ice skating or football gear. Department stores should segment pages by gender for returning customers is a good example of a website that remembers customer's previous searches to make travel planning easier.

    The federal CAN SPAM Act (Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act), designed to minimize spam, mandates that any business sending commercial e-mails ask for customers' permission to agree to receive future solicitations. The law does not require marketers to tailor e-mails to what the customers actually want. So typically, once permission is obtained, the e-mail floodgates open.

    Sending an extra e-mail or two almost always increases revenue short-term and doesn't appear to cost anything. But in the long term it will -- damaging your brand and your long-term revenue as you exploit your customers, who will act as if they are being spammed because the e-mail offers feel so off base. What customers really want are shopping opportunities that speak to them. Abuse e-mail, you'll lose them.

    Charlie Graham is CEO of Shop It to Me (
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