What Does Customer-First Email Look Like? Here Are Three Views

"We are no longer an email team, but a push team," Overstock Director of Database Marketing Brent Christense quipped this morning during the opening panel at MediaPost’s Email Insider Summit in Captiva, Fla.

Christensen was underscoring the importance of  message and execution over the specific channel, as part of the summit’s overarching “customer-first” theme.

He was joined by Visa director of performance marketing Manali Gupta and Virgin Holidays CRM executive Charlotte Pink, who, while agreeing with the theme, represented three very different categories developing cross-channel approaches to email messaging.

Visa's "highly manual" process increases its relevancy by incorporating partner data — merchants, issuers, and customers — along with Visa's internal information, said Gupta, adding this is shifting Visa's role from driving that transaction to enhancing the experience.

For instance, Visa knows if a customer is flying to London based on her credit card information. But looking forward, what are some things that add value to customer? she asked.

Visa may also deliver information about possible restaurants that the traveler can visit while in the city, weather conditions, and currency exchange information, she suggested.

Data is also critical to understanding the customer mindset at the time of purchase.

The panelists diverged over how they gather this information.

Overstock’s Christensen noted the company is testing several different models as it evolves from an in-house automation system.

Virgin Holidays, by contrast, has partnered with Adobe, among others, to grow its network.

Visa is "taking baby steps" as it adjusts to the best model that currently collects data from its various sources and then manually partners with internal teams.

Ultimately, data's attribution enables brands to measure inputs to better inform customer profiles.

For example, some customers use abandoned carts as a placeholder. And then there are those who now realize they can receive additional discounts from brands if they leave things in their carts -- which Overstock's Christensen jokes is why his company refuses to offer abandoned-cart coupons. "We offer discounts for nearly everything else," he said.

Still, it's challenging to shift the perception that email is often the channel of last resort when sales are lagging, say panelists. Virgin Holidays' Pink joked that when tourism is down in the Caribbean, members of her team will ask her to spam everyone with sales messages. She will send targeted messages to those who have previously expressed interest in the region, but mass emails are not — and have never been — an effective strategy, she plainly stated.

This mindset is why it is important to educate the entire business about email marketing strategies. Both Visa and Virgin Holidays host internal road shows to help people in different departments understand how email is directly tied to the end product. "It is still a work in progress," said Gupta.

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