How To Send Great Messages: 'First_Name' Is Not Enough

Posted by Josh Weissburg on Mar 9, 2015


Most companies send personalized email. Addressing customers by name is great, but making a quality message—something that's actually useful to the customer—is really about drawing on your history with that person.

A Lesson from Cheers

Remember the TV show Cheers and the song that went along with it? "Where everybody knows your name..." Cheers was a TV phenomenon for 11 years in the 80s and into the early 90s, winning Emmys left and right until Seinfeld took over. The entire show took place in a bar called Cheers where regulars bantered and comedy happened - but the real key to the whole franchise was a basic human desire: we all want to have a place to go where everyone knows your name and "they're always glad you came."

The same can be said for virtually every interaction we have, whether it's social or professional, as an individual or a consumer. We want to be known, valued and appreciated. You may have a coffee shop, dry cleaners or restaurant you visit enough that the staff welcomes you by name and has your usual order ready for you. That feels good; you've moved beyond a transaction to a relationship. Even if you can get the same product or service elsewhere, switching to a different merchant means you will lose that relationship, so you're much more likely to stay. As much as we humans love a good deal (a transaction that ticks our logical boxes), deep down inside we value our social interactions deeply.


"I remember you - and I thought about what you said"

Companies can learn something here. With so many offers and calls to action bombarding each of us in our email inbox, mailbox and mobile devices, it's an incredible testament to our desire for new information and relationships that we continue to pay attention at all. And we do pay attention, though that attention is parceled out more and more carefully as we filter out the junk to get to what matters most to us. In fact, we delete around 80 percent of what is marketed to us, usually without reading more than the subject line.

If you're sending messages, how can you ensure they are actually getting through? There's an easy answer and a hard(er) answer.

The easy answer is personalization: when you customize your messages with things your users have told you about themselves (e.g. their name, neighborhood and interests), people are more likely to sit up and pay attention. Personalization is important because it's the first signal to your customer that this is not a random stab in the dark. You're saying: "We met before, remember?"

What's harder—and much more rewarding—is to make a message actually feel personal. When you see someone you met before, and you use their name, that's good. But what's far more powerful from a relationship-building perspective is to say: "Hey Marcy, I was thinking about our conversation when I saw you last, and I'll bet you would love this band I heard the other night."

Why is it so much harder to be personal than personalized?

  1. Being personal requires history—you need a shared experience to draw on in order to say something meaningful. For a business, that means you need the user to engage with your product.
  2. Being personal requires memory—if you remember someone's name, that's great but it's not that hard to just say it back to them. On the other hand, a personal interaction requires that you remember your history with that person and have it available to you when you need to draw on it.
  3. Being personal requires judgmentYou have to bring that history up in an interesting and appropriate way. For a business, that means you don't just shout random things at your customers when you feel like it. Instead, save your outreach for situations where you can be genuinely interesting and useful to your user. They might be stuck going from one step to the next, they might have stopped logging in or they might have switched from desktop to mobile usage.

In each of these situations, a personal message means you noticed something about them, you thought about what might be useful given that history and you reached out when the time was right. That feels very different than being just another customer on a list. It feels personal.


How to make a message personal

Personalizing your messages is pretty straightforward: usually the items that make up a user profile come in from a form and you just need to pop them into your message thoughtfully. "Hey Bob, thanks for signing up! Take 20% off if you complete your first purchase today."

But what about the harder task of making your messages personal? It may seem overwhelming to think through segmenting customers, crafting and testing messages and delivering them on the right channel, whether that's email, SMS, mobile push notifications or in-app messages. If you are using the right tools, however, it's a matter of being able to try new things quickly and see what works.

Outbound exists to meet this need: we designed the product to remove all the technical obstacles (i.e. no engineering involvement) so you can get to work on creating meantinful interactions with your customers based on your history with them. Let's look at how we do this:

  1. Listen your users' history by hooking your events up to the Outbound API. The intersting stuff comes from the combination of all the things your customers are doing: logging in (or not), filling out forms, clicking on profiles or products, leaving review, inviting other peopel and moving through your product. All of this activity together forms the history you can and should use.
  2. Access your users' history by creating campaigns that start with a particular user situation, as defined by the history of events for each user that you have in Outbound. The frustrated users who signed up but never completed their profile are in a very different place than those who have referred friends, and they need very different messages.
  3. Test your judgment by seeing what actions users take inside your product after they receive the messages you send. DO users actually complete their profiles more? How does this affect other behavior on the site? Do they login again? Useful messages elicit a significant response, so you'll see what's actually working.

Follow the Cheers rule of thumb all the way through: know your customers names AND their histories—and talk to them like people.

Topics: Triggered messages, Best practices