Automation Is Great, But Where's The Humanity?

Automation was sent from the marketing gods to make the lives of practitioners easier — but can these hugely useful tools sometimes come at the cost of brands coming across as a little less human?

Nick Evans, head of strategic consulting at Celerity, certainly thinks so. He works on the email accounts for multiple household names, including Sky, and insists that automation has indeed meant that many brands have streamlined the process, but there can be a little humanity missing.

“Automation is great for implementing processes, ensuring people get added to the right segment and then get the relevant emails,” he says.

“When I think of the old way of doing things, though, I do fear some of the personality and definitely some of the personalisation and testing is missing. A lot of what we do as marketers is sheer guess work and so automation is just letting us implement that guess work without us checking back to see if it’s the right thing to do.”

Pop The Question, Then Test

The result is that audiences are segmented and there is sometimes an attempt at personalising content for that segment, but assumptions are not challenged and everyone on the list receives what looks pretty much like a page torn out of the same sales catalogue. Hence, for Evans the first step in being more human is to admit that marketers do not know it all, no matter how many data scientists a brand may employ.

“Marketers seem happy to just let the automation tools segment people without ever simply asking those people a very human question,” he says.

“We somehow think our data can’t be wrong but if you’ve got someone down as a pet owner, why not just ask them? They might have been buying gifts for a friend’s pet but don’t have one themselves or you might not have them down as a pet owner for your new list but, actually, they do own one. Marketers are afraid to ask because it means they don’t know and it’s hard to incentivise someone to answer but if it’s a simple yes or no question in an email they may find people can help them clean up their data and build more accurate lists.”

The other problem with relying on automation is that testing is now less frequent because it is easy to assume that the email platform knows it all. However, Evans believes there is still a lot to be said for picking out a target audience and trying different tones of voice and copy, as well as images, to see if there’s a lift in response. If there is, you have a business case to roll out the new approach to other segments on your email list.

This approach of testing is very helpful because to know whom you are going to run a test on you first have to identify an engaged group and that process can also reveal some email-database alarm bells.

“You can’t just rely on the tech, you’ve got to drill down and remember email addresses aren’t just names, they’re people,” he says.

“You can pick out if your impressive click-and-open rates are always coming from the same people or if there is a particular type of customer who unsubscribes more regularly or who is less likely to engage with messages. You can then pick types of customer and do some testing to see if you see improvements.”

Put Back The Humanity

It will depend on the brand guidelines and how big the brand is whether the email team can test out a different tone of voice but Evans insists the more personalised and the more human the message, the better the response.

The secret to building a more personalised email service for different types of customer starts with acknowledging there is a lot of guess work involved in segmenting audiences. Rather than keep guessing, the advice is to just see if you can go out and start asking if those assumptions are right. It may be a quick question in an email, a survey or a poll but, typically, the shortest possible way of asking a question will normally get the best response. When lists are more accurate, then the work of testing what resonated best can begin.

Automation will help build, schedule and analyse campaigns but, Evans insists, if marketers carry on using tools without injecting a human element, consumers are just going to get increasingly fed up with untargeted, one-size-fits-all approaches that look like nothing more than sporadic firing off of catalogue pages to a list of long-suffering recipients.

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