The Future Of Email Has Arrived With Open-Time Personalization

As an email marketer, I think we’re in a really exciting and transformative time.  What used to seem impossible is now becoming not only reality, but also imperative as consumers continue to increase their expectations for brands.  As an industry, we’ve been talking about dynamic content for a long time — and a next-generation level of dynamic content called open-time personalization is making the seemingly impossible, possible.

Open-time personalization, aka agile email or live content, makes it possible to show the most up-to-date or contextual content at the time of open.  This is quite different from traditional dynamic content, which is driven by CRM data that may be updated on a 24-hour cycle and contains information potentially outdated at the time of send.

Open-time personalization is based on very specific information about the recipient’s state at the time of open, such as store locations she’s near. Another common application is adding a count-down clock to an upcoming sale or event. But open-time personalization can be so much more than that. The key is thinking about the types of messages susceptible to change after you hit "send."



Marketers should also be excited about open-time personalization because it can improve the following marketing elements:

Mobile triaging – An increasing majority of consumers are viewing emails on mobile, but not necessarily clicking through and purchasing on a mobile device.  A common scenario is that a recipient will save an email and come back to it later on a tablet or desktop to complete a transaction.  Brands using open-time personalization see increased total open rates, which means customers are coming back to a particular message multiple times.

Production efforts – Traditional dynamic content is not difficult to pull off, but often involves several production steps on each outgoing campaign. Conversely, an open-time personalization widget can often be configured once and reused on future campaigns. Traditional dynamic content also has a limited number of variations, such as the rotation of a set number of images, based on rules set in advance during campaign setup.  Open-time personalization can have an infinite number of variations through a single snippet of code.

Customer experience – Your recipients need simplicity and utility in the messages you send them.  For example, instead of posting multiple links to various app stores, just show the one they need for the device they are currently viewing your email on, because links to app stores that are not applicable to their device are erroneous.  Your recipients will appreciate the focus and hyper-contextual experiences you can give them based on consideration of their device, location, time of day and other aspects of their current state.  

Business alignment – Just as a customer's situation is changing all the time, so too are factors affecting a business' ability to serve that customer – such as store location, hours of operation and product availability. Open-time personalization allows you to customize messages based on relevant business information at the time of open. Never again advertise a product that is out of stock, or offer up "nearby" store locations based on CRM data that can't accommodate a traveling consumer. Optimizing offers based on business factors is not only good for achieving business goals but also improves the customer experience.  

While traditional dynamic content will always have a place in marketing, open-time personalization can replace or even be complementary to it. And advances in technology and pricing now make it possible to expand its use beyond one-off occasions. It’s time that marketers begin to let technology do the heavy lifting to bring contextual marketing to life.  The time to embrace open-time personalization in all your messages is now.

12 comments about "The Future Of Email Has Arrived With Open-Time Personalization".
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  1. Jeff Loechner from MediaPost Communications, May 21, 2015 at 12:08 p.m.

    April, this is interesting, thanks. Do you happen to know specifically which email 'clients' support any open-time personalization beyond calling for images? (Gmail web, Outlook, etc.?) Do the technologies you are talking about here require javascript support and/or media query support in the email client?

  2. Chester Bullock from Trendline Interactive, May 21, 2015 at 1:37 p.m.

    This "future" has been here for some time, with companies like Movable Ink offering this for a few years now. 

  3. April Mullen from SparkPost, May 21, 2015 at 1:43 p.m.

    @Chester, yes, the technology has been around for a while, but marketers aren't embracing it as much as they should.  I think it's largely been seen as a fad, but the perception is changing. With some of the changed pricing models that are much less expensive than MI, it will be more accessible for brands to execute on a broader scale. 

  4. Vanessa Albert from Bubblebox Media , May 21, 2015 at 1:44 p.m.

    Hi April, thank you for the article. I'm curious if your use of "open-time" is any different from "real-time" email personalization, which as Chester pointed out has been around for quite some time. Just curious!

  5. Chester Bullock from Trendline Interactive, May 21, 2015 at 1:54 p.m.

    The challenge I have always seen, whether I was brand side or agency side, is having the resources and planning foresight to be able to generate enough content to really leverage these kinds of tools. Invariably they get boiled down to something simple that can be "set and forget" (such as a countdown to an expiration date on a specific offer) or easily automated (daily weather wherever you are in the world). Generating content requires labor resources that seem to be more and more constrained in the email space, which I think requires education about the real value of email.  ROI numbers are bandied about constantly, but the managerial mindset tends to be one of "this is just like direct mail."  Those of us in the business know that this thinking is absolutely false, yet it remains a big challenge to overcome in any organization, large or small.

  6. April Mullen from SparkPost, May 21, 2015 at 2 p.m.

    @Chester, I totally agree.  It can be tedious when layering in more than just the basic apps or widgets.  What I've seen work effectively is if the brand can tie into a third party content provider for some of the content.  It requires a bit more technical setup, but can be really effective.  For example, instead of just showing the weather in a specific area, put content in for things to do in that area if it is raining vs. sunny.  A weather forecast is great, but putting in the so-what helps drive engagement.  

    Appreciate the comments and thoughts.  

  7. Justin Foster from Liveclicker, May 21, 2015 at 2:02 p.m.

    Love it April and love what Strongview is doing with the KickDynamic whitelabelling.  It will be interesting to see how this evolves over the coming 6-12 months.

  8. April Mullen from SparkPost, May 21, 2015 at 2:15 p.m.

    @Jeff, at the present, this capability by all providers is done through images only.  It'll be interesting to see if the ISPs support the use of javascript in the future to allow the capabilities to expand beyond images. 

    @Vanessa, the terms are synonymous. Forrester calls it open-time personalization, which is why I leveraged the term in the article. Providers are giving different names, but essentially, the technology is similar, if not the same. 

    @Justin, Thanks for hte kudos!  I do want to clarify that this is not simply whitelabeling.  We are using a partner to power the backend technology, but the capabilities are fully integrated into our tabbed UI and make it easy for our customers to build out apps behind a single login and without having to toggle between pages in our interface.  

  9. Dave Hendricks from LiveIntent, May 21, 2015 at 5:11 p.m.

    Hi Folks

    By way of introduction, LiveIntent has been in the 'open time' personalization business for 5 years and has 1000 clients actively using our platform to acquire, reach, monetize and optimize at the time of email Open.   We are serving billions of open time content and advertising events every month, in first and third party comms.  That's just for credibility in this convo.

    Open Time Personalization in first party mail is not particularly hard to do.

    Neither is simple ad serving, if you don't care about getting junked or the solution not working.

    Javascript is accepted by some email clients and not by others.   Today it is not a solution that will work in all clients in all browsers on all devices at all times.  Otherwise we would not be in business.

    There is alot more to throwing an ad tag into an email.  When you actually start using the real time signal, you find that it is a much more complicated than simple dynamic content.  Same thing for image-based lookup.  What do you show?  That is where the computation comes in.

    And then there is the problem of optimization.  What happens when your real time ad doesnt get clicks?  Do you show something different?  What happens when someone forwards?

    I encourage adoption of open time personalization.  Also of its cousin, CRM Retargeting.  

    Just don't get caught up on countdown clocks or geo location of stores.  There is so much more than much more meatier stuff.  

    Happy Thursday, 


  10. April Mullen from SparkPost, May 21, 2015 at 6:08 p.m.

    @Dave, I know LiveIntent has been in the email advertising space for quite some time and brings display advertising technology to email for many big media companies and brands. The average B2C email marketer (who I am largely targeting with this article) isn't going to be allocating real estate in their emails for display advertising purposes.  They aren't managing ad inventory. 

    As for not getting caught up in countdown clocks or geo-location features in email, a customer knowing when a shipping deadline is before a holiday or the closest store to your physical location is very valuable.  The success metrics of my clients are showing that those features are driving performance. No, those things alone aren't super sexy, but they add value. I also challenge my clients to evolve over time.  Don't just show a basic widget forever, but address the "so what" by layering in more information.  A weather widget in email is kind of okay, but it's really cool if we're giving people ideas on what to do today, based on weather conditions. From a CRM marketing perspective, this is a great-performing strategy. 

    As for evaluating clicks, a reduction in clicks doesn't necessarily mean that the widget was a failure. In some cases, the utility of a website can be brought into email, largely making it easier to engage with desirable content without having to take an extra step of clicking through.  This is where a total open rates show just how much people love these widgets and the utility they provide--especially on mobile. 

    I have used other open-time personalization partners in my career. No, this technology isn't new, but it is finally starting to be adopted as a legitimate technology to drive performance and not just a fad. What I have found in the past is when the client saw pricing, they wanted to position it as a "test" or they didn't do it at all, because it is simply too expensive. Until now, open-time personalization has only been something accessible to larger brands with massive budgets. With the smaller players emerging into the space and the feature now available to StrongView clients, what used to seem impossible is now in the budget.  The future is here for everyone now. 

  11. Dave Hendricks from LiveIntent, May 26, 2015 at 2:07 p.m.

    April - thanks for your considered response.  I was trying to agree with you while dishing on countdown clocks and other gimmicks that dominate 1st party open time personalization.   Keep in mind that 1st party campaigns rarely reach more than 15% of your intended audience (openers of your newsletter).  

    But I digress...


    Do not count yourself among those who say "i don't run display ads in my email newsletters"

    Of course you do!

    EVERY single element of an email marketing campaign is advertising or marketing.  What else is it?  

    The Subject line is an advertisement for the contents.

    The Contents are an advertisement for something on the site.  Often in the form of mini display ads/tiles.

    Email newsletters are a form of display advertising.  Sometimes it is a single article ("Plane Crash").  Sometimes it is a series of offers (See:  Yipit, Groupon, Brad's Deals., Macys, etc.)

    The vast majority of US online publishers now run display advertisement in their newsletters.  Many of them are Strongview clients.  Of course running ads is normal, since they do it everywhere else (web, mobile, tv, newspapers, magazines, etc.)

    And a surpising number of brands run 3rd party ads in their newsletters.  For real!

    Real Time Personalization and Display will be really big.   I'm glad you get it.  But it is only going ot get bigger once it goes 3rd party, like all advertising and marketing is.

    Keep up the innovation!  Your clients must love you.


  12. David Baker from Cordial, June 26, 2015 at 12:25 a.m.

    Well Put Dave...   I'd add to your thoughts, as early email advertising was publisher centric who had an eye on the impression, reach and content is a huge challenge.   BUt it offered the frequency and inventory to incorporate ad serving into email.     You've proven that works.  What's really interesting with the real time image personalization and creative uses of "image-tainment" is that its crept into retai, loyalty, gaming and a variety of other industries that have similar problems, and weak spots in ability to create content fast enough.  But they've now realized that a porfolio of communications is rarely limited to a newsletter these days, there's usually an entire portfolio of communications, and opportunities to deliver real-time personalization (at open, for the email world) AND potentially further monetize ads, cross promotions, triggers, renewals etc...   

    That's one of the reaons we founded Cordial, to take this real-time demand and make it easy to manage all types of communications, from the simple Thank you for purchasing to the BUY Now direct response promotion, its just hard to do that at scale.  It takes the ability to adapt on the fly, NOT run flights of promotions. Its more like Dave infers, email is an Advertising world, not a brochure /catalog world anymore and in the ad world, content os completely fluid, even thougth you create 50 ads, you have the ability to change, test, optimize in near-realtime.  I think i even wrote an article years ago on "Email is advertising" where I was praising Live Intent on what they were doing early on.

      Aprils' got a valid point and its a great topic,  content is a huge hurdle in this mass customization world thats shifting from "mail-merge" principles to 1:1 and the ability to be intelligent with real-time ads, even abit predictive in what's appropriate for various cohorts will help shape the next gen marketing.    The consumer is changing, we should too.  

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