The Ultimate Guide to Personalized Email for Higher Conversions

Illustration symbolizing email personalization - a woman holding a book with a clearly bookmarked page

Whether we like it or not, corporations have spent billions of dollars getting the modern internet user accustomed to personalization. This means that today personalized email is a must for every marketer.

In a sense, emails which feel like “bulk email” trigger a sense of unease in the recipient. They feel off, at least compared to the emails that they are used to getting.

The good news is that personalization is now within reach for small businesses and even solopreneurs. The even better news is that implementing even a bit of personalization will make a huge difference in terms of email engagement and profit. However, let me warn you, this is where the biggest danger lies as well.

If you try to research and learn about personalization, you will find a bunch of guides and articles that bombard you with information. If you tried to implement the things they suggest, you would quickly get overwhelmed, and most likely give up.

This is because the articles in question are written to impress you with fancy sounding features and make you buy something. They’re not designed to get you immediate results from proper implementation of email personalization.

Why this guide is your best bet in getting more profit out of personalization

I wrote this guide using the same principle we use for everything that we do at Emercury – and that is to ensure something gets you as much results, as quickly as possible. We’re all about getting you a maximal return on your investment of time and effort. And that holds true even for these free guides and articles.

Now, here is how to get the most out of personalization, starting with instant improvements you can implement today. The trick lies in the order and hierarchy of implementation.

Whereas most guides on automation and personalization start with the latest and fanciest features, we will do the opposite. I will show you how personalization evolved over time, and how and why we made it more complex and advanced over time.

blocks spelling out "deep dive", signifying that this article will be a truly in-depth look into email personalization

I believe it is best to implement personalization in the same order in which it evolved. Start with the earliest and easiest-to-implement tricks first. And only then, gradually add the newer and fancier features. This is the only way to implement things correctly by yourself, without getting overwhelmed or making mistakes.

Of course, if you have the help of an expert team or multiple employees, you do not have to stick to this linear process and can implement the more advanced features in parallel to the more basic ones.

One way to get access to an expert team is to sign up with Emercury where you get access to our expertise and we can help you with implementing strategies and personalization using our platform. To get a sense for that experience, consider booking a demo.

The relationship between segmentation and personalization

People are sometimes confused about the difference between segmentation and personalization. This is often due to bad communication where the two are mentioned in the same context, without clear delineation.

So let me try and simplify this as much as possible. Personalization is what you do in order to give the subscriber an “ideal journey”. And what is an ideal journey? Well, it is one where they get just the right email at just the right time, based on their specific and unique needs at that point in time.

An ideally personalized email sequence will feel as if a top-level expert manually wrote each and every email for that one subscriber, and then sent those emails manually at the right time. The ideal personalization experience would result in a situation where each subscriber is treated as an “audience of one”.

In order to achieve this feat, you need data. Now what is data? Well, it’s a lot less fancy than it sounds, data is just information. For example, their first name is a piece of data. And this is the perfect example of how data relates to personalization. If you have their first name, you may send emails where you automatically refer to them by their first name.

The same is true with segments. Albeit a little bit more complex than a first name, “belongs to segment xyz” is also a type of information. And just like the first name, you can use this information to treat people differently. A person who “belongs to segment xyz” will get different emails than a person who “belongs to segment abc”.

But aren’t we supposed to treat every person as an audience of one when we send a “personalized email”?

Well, that’s what we want the emails to feel like, however, for practical purposes we have to take some shortcuts to achieve this perception. And one of those shortcuts is to treat certain types of subscriber in one way, versus treating another type of subscriber a different way.

For example, people who engage and read more of your emails are one type of subscriber. And people who rarely open your emails are another type of subscriber. Subscribers who click on more of your video links and less on your article links are a different type of subscriber.

Category data vs unique personal data

When we talk about data that we utilize to personalize an experience, it generally comes in two forms. The first is category data, such as for example “interested in men’s clothing”. The other type is unique data personal to that one individual, such as for example “bought a suit on this date for this much money”.

Overall, when it comes to getting the most bang for your buck, segments are the best overall way to start personalizing a subscriber’s experience. However, you also want to, over time, implement and utilize more of those individual pieces of data to get closer to the ideal experience.

How you might utilize each of these

You might for example have a segment that’s defined based on people who open your newsletters. This is category-type data, and you might use this to treat these people differently when appropriate. 

For example you might always first send a newsletter to the opener crowd, before you send it to the rest. Or you might factor that into your automations, which we will learn more about later.

On the other hand, something like a person visiting the pricing page is unique to them. So you might build an automation that automatically sends them a voucher or an offer to talk to sales. That is, when the “viewed pricing page” event occurs, you automatically send the “talk to sales” email.

All of this is possible to achieve in Emercury with our customer tracking, custom events and automation functionality. But more on those later.

This guide is an ordered plan of action steps, however…

Note that we wrote this guide in an ordered fashion, where you can look at things in the general order in which you would want to learn them, and then implement them. 

However, you will notice that some of the steps are about implementing personalization. Some of the steps are about improving your segmentation. Other steps are about automating aspects of segmentation or personalization. 

And some of the steps are about implementing some technical things which are a prerequisite to segmentation and automation. Such as for example how you retrieve or store the data used for segmentation and personalization.

1) Separating people into different lists – still crucial to do it properly

When email marketing was first introduced, we just put everyone into a main contact list, and simply sent people newsletters and broadcasts. And then, the first form of segmentation that we came up with was to simply have multiple contact lists.

That is, we realized we can treat people slightly differently by simply splitting the audience into multiple lists. In the early days we simply had people added to a different list based on the signup form. Personalization at this point simply meant sending different broadcasts to the different lists.

Over time we added multiple ways of moving people onto different lists. For example we would move them around manually. Perhaps we would move them once they confirmed they want to sign up for a different interest list.

Eventually we came up with automatic and semi-automatic ways to move and copy subscribers between lists. But at this stage, all segmentation was still done through lists alone.

It eventually got the point where marketers had hundreds of lists in order to segment as much as possible. And you can’t blame the marketers for doing that. The finer your segmentation, the better you can personalize your broadcasts. And at that time, lists were the only way to segment, and hence treat people differently.

It is at this point that we realized we obviously need finer ways to segment

This is the point at which we invented “segments”. In technical terms. A segment is something like a “sub-list” in your email-marketing platform. It is a defined sub-group of people that belong to a larger list, but are further defined by certain criteria. In terms of hierarchy, a segment is a sub-list of people who belong to a larger list.

How we use lists these days

We create a lot less lists these days, but using them properly makes them even more important than before. That is, you want to understand how to split people by lists, more than ever.

As an over-simplification, I would say that with modern segmentation features, it’s best to treat your list as a “business”. So all the contacts that belong to a list, are the leads that a certain business has access to. 

And then use more modern forms of segmentation for further differentiation. Whether those are “segments”, utilizing custom fields, or tags. 

There are no hard and fast rules, and what I’m giving you is a generalization, but here is another way to think about it. You might want to think about lists in terms of what the person gave permission for. What topic, brand or business did they give permission for?

Let’s say that you run a yoga studio and a skate shop. If people signup to get yoga tips, you might add them to your general yoga list. And then use tags, custom fields and segments for further differentiation. But you wouldn’t keep both your skating customers and yoga customers in the same list.

Now, this isn’t to say you’re not allowed to use multiple lists for the same topic and brand. You can, and the specifics will depend on your specific business model. 

If you need more help in deciding, then consider becoming an Emercury user. As an Emercury user you get access to a super helpful team that helps you solve dilemmas like this one. To get a sense for this experience, consider booking a free demo with our team, while we still have spots left.

2) Implement basic personalization

Beyond treating different groups of people differently, dynamic values were the first type of personalization. And it was the first way to dynamically show different content to different subscribers. Personalization tags are just a special tag you can add when crafting your email. 

For example you might insert the “Recipient First Name” snippet. So you would write a sentence such as “Hello there Recipient First Name”. When the subscriber receives the email it will read “Hello there Angela”. That is if their name happens to be Angela, obviously.

Now, a lot of people ignore this personalization trick. Probably because this was the first way we came up with to dynamically alter email content. It doesn’t get attention or publicity, because everyone is busy talking about the latest and fanciest newer features.

However, this is actually the single best way to personalize

And when I say that it is “the best way” I mean in terms of ROI. It takes seconds to do, and yet the returns are quite large. As opposed to more advanced and newer ways to personalize.

Just to be clear, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t use fancier and cooler personalization tricks. What I am saying is that this is the first thing you should implement. And then make sure that you use it on a consistent basis.

You can start off by trying to utilize the person’s first name wherever appropriate. Everyone should do this if they do collect the first name for subscribers. You then can of course also look at the other pre-built fields that you can insert as a snippet. Just look at the dropdown menu for recipient details.

Also note that you use personalization tags for other things which are unique to a subscriber. So if you want to insert a personal unsubscribe link, you use the appropriate tag. Same if you want to give them a way to forward the email to a friend. Just check out the list here.

This also sets you up for future personalization

It’s a good idea to get used to inserting personalization tags (or merge tags) early on. This is because you will also use them in the more advanced levels of personalization. 

That will happen after you start utilizing so-called “custom fields”. You might for example have a custom field that tracks the person’s “favorite artist”, and dynamically insert that into emails. But more on custom fields later.

3) Build simple automations

When people first discover automation it is because an email marketing platform is bragging about the latest and most advanced ways to automate and personalize. They tend to give all these super-fancy examples that look so cool “on paper”.

However, the main problem is that you can’t start with the super-advanced over complicated automations. You are just going to get overwhelmed. So it is a good idea to take automation step-by-step.

The first thing that you will want to build in the automation builder? Just build yourself a simple drip sequence. This is where, for example you have it send email 1 right after they subscribe, then it sends email 2 a week later, then email 3 a couple of days after that, and so on.

But, can’t you just use an autoresponder to create a drip sequence? Why do it in the automation builder? Well, here’s the trick. If you build your basic drip sequences in the automation builder, you can upgrade them over time. That is, you can take a basic drip sequence and make it more personalized and complex over time.

You want to start off simple

For example, let’s say that you’re building a welcome sequence for new subscribers. It drips a set of 7 emails after they join.

If you personalize it a bit further, you might insert one conditional branch. That’s just a fancy way of saying “if this happens, do that”. For example you might have the automation go in two different ways based on whether they clicked on the links in the first email.

So, everyone gets the same first email. But then the sequence is different for people who click the links in the first email, versus those who didn’t.

Personalization through the automation builder can get a lot more complex than this, and we’ll touch on more advanced automations later on. However, to start, I would suggest keeping it simple so you don’t get overwhelmed.

4) Create segmentation based on email behavior

The most powerful way to personalize is to do it in response to people’s behavior. Today we have all kinds of fancy ways to track behavior, and respond to it. However, remember that these were invented one-by-one and evolved over time.

The first thing that we came up with was tracking people’s behavior within and in relation to the emails that you send. That means tracking whether they open your emails, forward them or click on links inside of them.

Compared to the fanciest methods we have today, it doesn’t sound exciting, but it is. In fact, it is still one of the most powerful ways to build segments.

For example, having a segment of people who open emails, versus those who don’t is quite useful when you do broadcasts, send warm up campaigns, send promotions, etc.

And notice that I said “when you do broadcasts” 

In general in email marketing we utilize segments as a way to make broadcasts somewhat more personal. While it is possible to use segments in automations, this is rare, and not common practice, or even necessary.

When you build automations you have access to all the finest levels of personalization in real time. This includes tags, custom field values and real-time events as they happen. So you will generally build an automation such that “when person performs event x, send them email y”.

So, just to reiterate, as a general rule, you build segments to make your broadcasts more personal. Whereas when you do automations, you tend to rely more on other data such as custom field values, tags, events, etc. 

To get a better understanding about broadcasts vs automations, please check out one of our most popular guides – on when to use automations, and when to use broadcasts.

5) Start storing more data in Custom fields

All personalization is in essence based on treating people differently based on data. A lot of this data is automatically collected and stored for you, by Emercury.

For example we collect and store all the data about whether they opened an email, whether they clicked on a link. And if you set up website tracking, when they visited which page on your website, etc. All of these things are automatically captured and stored as data in Emercury.

However, as you get more advanced in terms of personalization, you start utilizing more custom types of data. This is the kind of data that is unique to your business and your customer’s buying journey.

This is where you want to define custom fields inside of Emercury. For example, you might create a custom field called “interests”. And then you can store an individual customer’s unique and specific interests in that custom field.

Now, you can fill in those custom fields in several ways

If you run a web-shop, you can use some of our ecommerce integrations to do this for you. That way you can keep track of shopping-related data in fields as you define them.

For most other businesses, you will want to start utilizing the power of the automation builder to capture and store different types of data. 

Now, most people look at the automation builder as a way to personalize. That is, they think of the automations as a way to automatically treat people differently based on different conditions. If a person has the x tag, then do this, if they have the y tag, do this other thing.

However, the automation builder is also one of the best ways to assign and get the data into tags and custom fields. You will build automations, or parts of automations that do that. For example, when a person opens email x, assign such and such tag to them. Or if a person visits your pricing page 3 times, add this value to that custom field.

6) Create more segments based on the custom field data

Emercury has always had powerful segmenting capabilities, but we recently released “advanced segmentation”. With this I think we probably have the most powerful segment-building tool out there.

You can build segments with quite complex and/or logic that combines many criteria. That includes whether they have a certain value in a certain custom field. As you get further into your personalization mastery journey, you will want to build more advanced and refined segments. 

7) Add more email behavior logic into your automations

In the earlier step I recommended that you start off building your automations on a very simple basis. Don’t try to do too much, and maybe have just a single condition in each automation.

As you become more skilled and experienced, you can get fancier with your automations. One way to do that is to have more sub-paths based on email-related-events. This is things like whether people opened an email or clicked on links inside of your emails.

This is also how personalization technology developed over time. The first type of behavior-tracking we ever developed was to track people’s engagement with the emails. So it’s generally a good idea to start adding this into your repertoire in the same order that we invented things. The older techniques are more mature and also simpler to implement.

8) Start utilizing website behavior as a condition for personalization

Once you get confident having more complex automations based on how people interact with your emails, you can start utilizing the newest level of behavior tracking. This is where we can track what your subscribers are doing on the websites you own.

With our amazing events technology you can define all the industry standard events. So you can of course make an automation that does something when a person visits a certain page. However, we’ve gone a step further and you can even define your own custom events based on anything a person might do on a website.

A person flips a switch on your pricing page? You can define that as an event. Someone visited a set of pages 3 times (a goal), well you can use that as well. And then you can build automations that trigger off of anything you can imagine.

9) Personalize with external events (unique to Emercury)

We really pride ourselves on delivering cutting edge features that most vendors are lagging behind with. One of these features is the ability to define custom incoming webhooks inside of your Emercury account.

If you know what incoming webhooks are, then you are probably already super-excited and imagining all the possibilities. If you don’t know what incoming webhooks are, let me give you a simple illustration. 

An incoming webhook is a special technology that “listens” for data coming from outside sources, and then does something with it.

For example, you may create a situation where the sales team changes a customer’s phone number inside of the CRM, and that change is sent to the Emercury hook. This number then gets automatically updated in the customer’s Emercury profile.

Or to give you a more exciting example. Let’s say that you want a personalized journey to trigger for a lead, based on what happens with that lead in other software. That’s right, I said based on what happens to that lead in other systems, not your email marketing software.

So, an event or behaviour occurs with that lead in another platform or piece of software, and the moment it happens, that pings your Emercury incoming hook. In turn that triggers a special personalized email automation that (for example) does an upsell to this customer. Can you imagine how many extra profits you can derive from this?

Get a partner on your side

If you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed about the idea of implementing all of these ideas, don’t worry. There’s a reason we present all of our information in a prioritized order, like we did in this list.

We actually care about the idea of getting you results. And a big part of that is helping you understand when to implement what in email marketing. Now, we try to achieve as much of this as possible with our free guides. However, there is only so much we can do without talking to you one-on-one.

For a truly personalized experience, nothing beats getting personal one-on-one attention from the Emercury team. We can help you implement personalization and craft a custom-tailored plan that’s ideal for your business model.

If you want to get a sense of this personal attention and experience it fully, consider booking a free demo with our team. The help and tips you get alone will more than make it worth your while.

And if you want to get even more free guides, as well as access to the best free email-marketing plan on the planet, get yourself a forever-free plan. While we are still giving away these forever-free accounts that is.

Some people on my team are suggesting we should stop giving them away. So grab one, and keep it forever. Do it before they convince me to have that free-signup option removed. It only takes seconds.

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