party baloons in different colours

How Serendipity Enhances the Art of Personalisation

By Kath Pay

In a previous post (When “One to Everyone” Email Messages Make Sense), I urged you to send “catch-all” campaigns to scoop up customers and subscribers who do not fit your segmentation criteria or triggered touchpoints.

I am by no means saying that you should scrap your highly personalised campaigns for the customers you know well. But sending only highly segmented campaigns can shut out a wide swath of customers who don’t fit into the criteria or haven’t been anywhere near a touchpoint. And when customers don’t see your emails in their inboxes, your company falls off their personal radar.

Granted, adding a catch-all campaign can mean extra work. But personalisation is not an “either-or” proposition (either you send personalised campaigns or default campaigns).

You can send a catch-all email to your entire database and still personalise it using dynamic content, to make it relevant. Even though it’s a single, unsegmented campaign to your entire database, it’s still personalised to the majority of your database.

This is the middle ground – the art of personalisation – where marketing automation and dynamic content can help you achieve the best of all worlds – highly personalised information, curated recommendations and a little something extra – without creating multiple campaigns.

The art of personalisation: Serendipity adds the joy of discovery to the pleasure of personalisation

Email personalisation is both an art and a science. A key component of the scientific end of personalisation lies in the formula you use to build your email campaigns and whether you use overt or covert personalisation.

This is not to say that your emails should become formulaic – that is, sending emails look and sound so much alike from one campaign to the next that they lose all impact for your subscribers.

I’ve developed an email template with four elements:

  1. Data-driven: Content reflecting activity or informed data on specific products, categories, or pages you know they have visited; also, transaction and interest or preference data. Benefit: Captures their attention first with highly relevant content to customers on whom you have specific data
  2. Business goals: Content that reflects your campaign goal, such as a specific product or event. Benefit: These goals often cut across customer categories, especially with new-product launches.
  3. Relevant extensions: Cross-selling or upselling content or recommendations based on preference and activity data. Benefit: You can push the envelope a little bit farther with recommendations.
  4. Random: This content appears to come out of nowhere, but it could pique your customer’s interest by showing them products or services that they might not discover any other way. Benefit: Because it’s at the bottom of the email instead of at the top where your reader sees it first, you won’t turn off someone who isn’t interested in it.

Overt versus covert personalisation: The art of personalisation involves knowing when to use overt personalisation (content that clearly was chosen based on customer data) or covert personalisation, which also employs customer preference or behaviour data but doesn’t draw attention to that fact.

Overt leaves customers feeling happy knowing that you know them. Covert leaves them feeling as if your email was serendipity, that they just happened to be presented with the item they’d recently been browsing.

For example, consider browse abandonment. Overt personalisation is sending your customer an email saying, “Here’s more about that luxury vacation you were looking at on our site.” Covert personalisation says, “Here’s our weekly newsletter with some luxury vacations we thought you might like.”

One note about random content: This doesn’t mean you can slap up any old product in this section. Think carefully about the product categories your customers are generally most likely to click on in your emails and feature complementary products.

Why email is so good for discovery

Email can be just as powerful a discovery tool as search or social media.

Personalisation lets you present content to subscribers and customers that you expect they will like because it reflects their activity, preferences, or both. And you can do that on a website.

But email is a push channel. We can send messages out when we want to instead of waiting for customers to come to us.

When we want them to discover products or services they might not discover for themselves any other way, we don’t have to hope they find it on their own (and from us, not our competitors). We can send an email campaign that wraps personalised content around this seemingly random item.

After all, people know only what they know. Let’s show them something different – something new and unusual, something they didn’t know we offer, something they can get from us instead of a competitor.

Another bonus – learning more about your customers

Even personalisation has its limits. If we show customers only the content based on what we know about them based on preferences, clicks, browsing, and purchases, we’ll never learn more about them. Adding random content gives them the opportunity to click, browse, and maybe even buy something totally different.

If I tell a brand that I like their handbags, and that brand sends me only emails with handbags, how will I ever find out it has jeans I might love? Unless, of course, it adds a promotion for jeans to the emails it sends me about handbags.

When we send customers content on only the items for which we have data, we lose the chance to tell them about other things we offer, to expand their knowledge about us and to give them the chance to tell us more. We’ll never know, for example, that the children for whom they once bought babywear have turned into preteens.

If we keep sending customers content based on the same data over and over again, we’ll turn them off. Yes, the content is personalised. But it’s no longer relevant.

The art of personalisation: Serendipity in action – 2 email campaigns

As I mentioned earlier, serendipity combines discovery with personalisation. It’s one tactic within the art of personalisation. You’re showing your customers something they might not find on their own whilst wrapping it in enough personalised content that makes the email more relevant than a default campaign.

Sending a handbag customer an email about jeans could be a bit jarring. Adding the jeans promotion to a campaign for a handbag introduces the new product in more familiar surroundings.

You can see this serendipitous mix of default and personalised content in the Food Network’s Recipe of the Day email, below. Look for modules of dynamic content (“Top Picks for You,” “Make It Again”) sandwiched among layers of business-goal and random content.

You can see this serendipitous mix of default and personalised content in the Food Network's Recipe of the Day email, below. Look for modules of dynamic content ("Top Picks for You," "Make It Again") sandwiched among layers of business-goal and random content. Personalisation meets AI.

The Secret Escapes newsletter, below, combines 1:1 personalised information (the pixelated content blocks) based on behaviour using an AI engine, and with both business-goal offers and random suggestions.

The business-goal content leads off (everyone sees it because it is the company’s primary offer), while the random content nestles between two personalised recommendations near the bottom. There, the halo effect of your personalised content can extend to this random content as well.

The key to making this a serendipitous event, is to serve up the personalised offers without overtly mentioning past viewings or browse abandonments or packaging them as product recommendations. This is covert personalisation, and it can work a treat.

The Secret Escapes newsletter, below, combines 1:1 personalisation and personalised information (the pixelated content blocks) based on behaviour using an AI engine, and with both business-goal offers and random suggestions.


The last word

As I’ve noted previously, email personalisation is both art and science. Combining pinpoint personalisation and carefully selected random content allows discovery to happen in a safe space.

Your customers will see something familiar but also something that could pique their interest. This can give them a whole new understanding of your brand and an appreciation for what you offer and how they can use your products to achieve their goals.

Interested in finding out more about the art of personalisation? Check out how the awesome team at Holistic Email Marketing can help take your email programme to the next level.

Originally published on on 15th April 2022