Intent And Context: The Future Of Email Marketing?

Inspiration often comes in strange ways. Mine recently came from my car's GPS navigation, which helped me crystallize my views about what's happening in email marketing and where it has to evolve.

It happened as I headed out to attend the recent Personalization Summit, about an hour from my house in Mountain View, Calif. I had checked out the route I wanted to drive and entered the address into my GPS and found it didn't offer my preferred route as an option. So within a block of my house, it started telling me I needed to go a different way than I preferred.

For about the next 30 minutes, I ignored the GPS' repeated attempts to "sell" me on "Take the next exit." Finally, but also with no other alternatives left, the GPS recognized I was ignoring its instructions and began to give me directions for the route that I preferred.

GPS Points the Way to Marketing's Future

Although my "ah-ha!" moment happened on the way to the Personalization Summit, this marketing evolution goes beyond our established ideas of personalized content.

My GPS stubbornly insisted on selling its own route and disregarded what I was doing until it was almost too late. Sound familiar? Most broadcast email operates like this, too.

This episode marks the ways the marketing perspective is shifting, away from the marketer dictating the terms and toward a system that pulls in streams of data to create messages based on what the customer does rather than what the marketer wants to sell.

Preferences vs. Intent vs. Context

Smart email marketers have been changing much of their programs the last few years, from ones that rely on broadcast email to more of a one-to-one communications channel.

The first transition was from the pray and spray of broadcast email to educated guesses via targeted messages based on profiles and preferences. Now, though, focus is shifting to triggered messages based on intent and context.

Intent is mainly what customers are telling you through their behavior, such as browsing, purchasing or clicking/not clicking on email messages.

Context marries location, device, buying stage and social activity to intent and preference behavior. It's the next frontier because it also pulls in real-time recommendations based not just on what the customer himself bought but also what similar, or "like-minded," individuals bought.

The goal of course, is delivering the right message at the right time to consumers. Rather than crossing your fingers and hoping a message is relevant, ( a marketer's behavioral GPS system listens to individual actions and responds in real-time with content and offers that solve a consumer's problem.

Sources of Intent and Context Data

Data and behavior are of course the keys to this approach to marketing: data that's all around you now and new kinds of data from multiple sources. Below are a few examples of what may lay ahead:


  • Web tracking: In an earlier column ("What B2B And B2C Marketers Can Learn From Each Other"), I covered the practice of matching anonymous Web behavior to an email address when the customer opts in, and placing her in a track right away that matches her intent from browse activity.


  • Purchase, browse and cart abandonment: These activities can launch individual streams of messages, such as post-purchase follow-ups; suggestions based on Web pages or products browsed or recommendations based on what others browsed or bought; and reminders to redeem items left in a shopping cart.


  • "Mocial" initiatives: That's shorthand for "mobile/social/local" marketing, which fits right in with this shift to a consumer-centric approach. A few examples:


  •  Social log-in: More customers or prospects will log in to sites using their social networking accounts, giving marketers access to their social profiles.


  •  The Facebook "Like/Recommend" buttons: When consumers like a brand, product or piece of content, they are clearly demonstrating valuable affinity and potential purchase intent.


  •  Local check-ins: Checking in to Foursquare, Gowalla, Facebook Places and others provides marketers not only location data and history, but also customer loyalty, value and influence.


  •  Mobile apps: Use of mobile apps provides engagement and usage data that can further round out the picture.


  • Channel optimization: Your marketing database will know when, where and in which channel a customer has engaged more often and serve up a message optimized for the individual in the channel they are most likely to engage in at the specific time and context.


Some of these data and behavioral sources are commonplace today, and others may be a bit down the road. Regardless, they don't render broadcast email obsolete, but rather help email deliver on the dual promises of one-to-one messaging and the right message at the right time. Both will help marketers realize the greatest engagement and ROI from their efforts.

The challenges of course for marketers and their vendors will be how to sort through all of this emerging data and behavior, make it actionable in real, or near, real time and use it responsibly in a way that provides clear value to consumers.

Until next time, take it up a notch.

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