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One to One Email Marketing vs. The Easter Bunny

David Meerman Scott wrote about his experience with an Email from American Airlines. Do check out that post first, but if you are too lazy to, the short version is he’s asking why he was sent an offer to buy 2,000 more miles to maybe use for a family trip when he has a quarter million in the bank and can already take them First Class anywhere in the world. He asked “What can we do about this?” and one of the comments mentioned one-to-one marketing.

I’m reminded of theĀ  4 way street joke in Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy (offensive and totally not safe for work) when I hear this kind of talk. To spare you the obscenity of the street joke, if you think you can pull one-to-one off, you probably are also waiting for it to get delivered to you by Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny on their day off.

The big buzz word is segmentation. The theory is that if you segment the audience, you’ll eventually deliver a uniquely tailored message to everyone. The simple counter to this is that the more you segment, the smaller the group getting the offer. As a business are you more concerned about a small group that may be offended for whatever reason, or the group that will take you up on the offer? (Hint: One group generates revenue, the other includes some legitimate complainers, people with lots of cats, senior citizens with nothing to do, and people wearing the John Wall Signature tin foil hat to protect them from the Government’s mind control rays).

But that’s just a question of how much risk you want to take. There’s also a mathematical reason why you can’t do it:

  1. Your audience can be segmented infinite ways
  2. Every time you cut a segment you increase the complexity of your system exponentially
  3. As most Marketing departments struggle to get out single messages it becomes impossible to generate enough content to support all the possibilities in 10 segments (even if they are yes/no, 10 segments gives you 100 possible message combinations).
  4. If you really want to get granular – i.e. Not just “Is David in the 100k+ group – Yes/No, but instead “Less than 20k in the past year gets A, 20k-100k gets B, 100k+ gets C” the math starts to get ugly real fast – like one of those tables showing how fast bacteria grows.
  5. If you are a hardcore database marketer you may still be saying – no problem, I’ve got the server space to track 20 variables on all 6 billion earthings, and you’d be right – but here’s the big FU: That only works for one campaign. Let that marinate for a minute. Fast forward six months – campaign 2 kicks off, even in our nursery school scenario of 10 yes/no segments who is going to make sure that nobody gets the same message the second time around? (Now that you have 1,000 possible message combinations). Although only linear, that number will still hit the millions in no time. And the numbers are irrelevant because:
  6. Even with tiny numbers a year’s worth of campaigns are too complex for the human mind to work through, and even if you had a team of “Rainman” people that could, eventually someone will quit and be replaced with someone who doesn’t know the whole history.

So what can be done? Two things – you can use your CRM system to track your customer’s entire history but the important thing is not to chase a marketing fantasy but to use it so that sales can create a one-to-one experience. You can also have a list of customer traits short enough for the human mind to comprehend (are they in the 100k club, have they been pissed off in the past year, are they influential in winning us more customers) and segment on that.

Repeat, similar, and irrelevant offers are impossible to stamp out just because of volume and the infinite variation in our situations and the criteria (which may be rational) that we use to determine what is relevant for us. For everyone with 250k miles in the bank there’s one corner case of the guy about to fly all his buddies to SXSW for free, he’s only 1,200 miles short, and is so psyched he got that email (improbable yes, definitely not impossible).

Don’t waste your time fighting it, reap the reward from the happy customers who take you up on your great offer and apologize with a tip of the tin foil hat to anyone you happen to offend.

Update: Photo from hyperion327, thanks for using the CC license