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How poor email targeting is damaging your brand

It's easier than ever to damage your brand these days. An errant tweet, a careless Facebook post - but there's nothing worse than a badly personalised email. It's a one-to-one chance to engage with someone, and it needs to be spot on. Get it wrong, and your brand damage can spread quicker than you thought. 

The other day, I received an email from a well-known high street fashion brand. Let’s be clear, I had opted into the newsletter so this was not spam, the email had a catchy subject line and I opened it willingly. But imagine my surprise to be greeted by a range of women's clothing.

The result? I quickly unsubscribed from their newsletter.

Let's be clear - I don't buy a lot of clothes. Like many men my age, I always seem to have clothes. I don't know how, but they're just there. But sometimes I do buy online, but frankly - I never buy women's clothing.

Why did I unsubscribe? Because I felt annoyed by the irrelevant content, and quite frankly I didn’t want a repeat, with more than a few newsletters in my inbox vying for my attention.

Targeting the right gender shouldn’t be difficult, but incredibly this is not an isolated incident.

Chatting to friends and colleagues about email targeting reveals countless similar stories, some of them wildly inappropriate. Think pregnancy tests for men and incontinence pads for healthy 25-year-olds. And the press is also full of email targeting failures.

One of the worst involved American photo-printing company Shutterfly, who in 2014 sent out a mass email to congratulate people on the birth of their new babies. The only issue was that many of the recipients couldn’t recall giving birth.

Despite sending out the follow-up: “We deeply apologise for this intrusion and any offense this may have caused”, sadly the damage was already done.

So, we all receive poorly targeted emails, but why are companies still getting it so wrong?

Email is fast and cost-effective, which seems to encourage ill thought-out bulk messaging.

Often companies fail to put themselves in the shoes of the recipient – evaluating whether their mail is actually relevant or useful. But marketers need to realise that email targeting mistakes are not only a waste of time, but can also have a lasting negative effect on their brand.

When you email someone, you are effectively entering their personal space. Consequently, a positive or negative experience can have a lasting effect on their view of the brand.

An old colleague of mine, Warren Butler, believes in "proactively staying in touch” with customers while ensuring all communications are highly personalised:

“Personalise marketing emails with dynamic content that reflects a customer’s order history, their preferences and other detail to make sure that your message resonates.”

Clearly, in the case of the fashion brand, an attempt at personalisation had gone very wrong. Butler deems it essential to iron out errors that boil down to lack of effective data handling and segmentation.

And the crux of it is that you have to very carefully manage customer data and customise your processes in order to "track demographics and background detail about each relationship in a single interface”.

This allows staff across the business to have a complete view of the customer profile and reduces the likelihood of targeting errors, whether in marketing communications or direct customer contact.

It's a big chance to re-engage dormant customers, too. If you can profile them, identify those who are ready to buy or who need a nudge, then your email database is exactly the place to look. The key is to make it compelling, and the first part of 'compelling' is not your message, it's your profiling.

The opposite of compelling is repelling.

In my experience with the clothing brand, as a ‘dormant customer’, I could have been targeted with an attractive offer, timed towards payday. This might have won back my business and provided them with yet more valuable data on my purchase habits.

First and foremost, all communications need to be well thought out and provide real value to your customers. There should be no excuse for sending bulk, impersonalised message these days.

Secondly, they need to be backed up with accurate, carefully segmented and easily accessible data. The bottom line is that you need to be able to trust your data.

The problem with marketing automation is that it's a crutch, rather than a tool. Too many marketers rely upon it to weed out processes that are seen as 'adminny' (there must be a better word), but too few see these automation processes as something that can be positive for the brand. By automating and not taking care of the detail in the background, the brand can be severely damaged, as we have seen.

Given the cost of acquiring new customers, we should all be doing our utmost to ensure our email communications are delivering. After all, email can be an immensely powerful communication channel and provide the cornerstone for a successful customer retention strategy.