This essay originally was published on September 9, 2021, with the email subject line CT No. 94: "Not so good, better, best."

True personalization of a content experience, wherein a user receives a content experience tailored to their tastes and preferences, is not an easy accomplishment. Like many web tech experiences, the promise of personalization gleams a little bit brighter than the execution, especially with the current capabilities in machine learning.

The first installment of this series defined six common tactics often described as personalization; the second brought up two major problems with the operation and user experience of personalization. In this third and final installment, for paid and founding Content Technologist members only, we'll look at a variety personalization experiences in the wild in both consumer and business media.

Personalization tactics in email: From spammy subject lines to true customization

Email tech accommodated many personalization tactics long before we heralded the return of the email newsletter as the next big thing. In the mid-2010s, email was trying desperately to be sexy, trumpeting its advantages as the only real cross-platform medium with a unique user ID. Advanced email tech and marketing automation software systems can accommodate dynamic, segmented content; customized triggers based on automated actions; and preferences in when and how often email is delivered.

So how's email personalization doing these days?

Not so good: personalized emails, same subject line

One of the biggest B2B media sites for digital marketers, MarketingProfs, likely has performed many experiments with email segmentation and personalization, but I have received none. Why? Because I have no idea what's in the email.

Although they're supposedly "tailored just for you," the subject line is same same same all the way down the board.

An email inbox with 11 unopened emails with the exact same subject line: "Today's topics tailored just for you"
Although they're supposedly "tailored just for you," the subject line is same same same all the way down the board.

Solution: If you're going to personalize the content of the email, maybe you should also attempt to personalize the email subject line so that I am enticed to open. Also, scrub your lists for people who never open your emails! It will improve your open rate and sender reputation.

Good: First-touch behavioral segmentation

When you opt into a brand's website with your email address, sometimes marketing automation systems intuit that you only want to see content about the topic you viewed that day you signed up, and no other content.

Segmentation like this is typically used in sales automations, typically after a user has downloaded a lead gen deliverable like a whitepaper. Two weeks after you download the whitepaper, a sales rep from the company follows up with another piece of content around the exact same topic. If you're me, after the fifth or so communication about this one topic, you unsubscribe, dismissing the brand or mailing list as a one-trick pony. I'm sure other people like it, I guess. It's a tactic that gets ok results for lead gen, but doesn't do much for building a content brand.

Better: Email customization by topic

I love a user portal for email newsletters. It's pretty sweet when I get to look at all of a brand's emails and opt into the ones I am interested in receiving. Digital-first media companies like Axios and Tech Crunch have focused on their user portal experience, and they clearly find success: let curious, media-friendly users see all your newsletter products and opt into the ones they want. They know they can opt out at any time, and feel some control of their brand experience.

That experience is the opposite of many legacy media companies' email strategies, when you are just dumped onto every single mailing list for the brand the second you opt in. I'm still opting out of promotional emails from my local newspaper, assorted Condé brands, and the Wall Street Journal. Legacy media, do better with email!

Best: Email customization by topic and send time

Is there an email automation I love more than Send Time optimization? With send time optimization, machine learning systems understand what time of day you are most likely to open their email, and then schedule the email to send the hour before.

Send time optimization, however, is only available with swanky, enterprise email products. Little guys like Ghost and even Mailchimp are fairly limited with user-level machine learning.

That said, email personalization can really be knocked out of the park with both frequency and topic opt-in options in an email user center. I don't need to read email on certain topics every day, but it's nice to get a wrap-up once a month. (Axios and Tech Crunch again come to mind, but other media brands are rising to the challenge of creating better, more customized opt-in emails.)

Honorable mention: Machine learning through email content

The promise of The Sample's* machine learning and email rating system is pretty cool. If you subscribe to The Sample, you're forwarded a different email daily on a variety of topics. You can rate the email's relevance and provide notes on topics, supplying the machine with more data to read your tastes. It's like the old Netflix personalization system for email newsletters, perfect for discovery as long as you don't mind the occasional complete content miss.

*There's a referral code attached here, FYI. I'm currently running an ad experiment with The Sample to surface my content more often. We'll see what happens!

Personalization in entertainment products: Big data, big preferences

Last week's screed about how I'm tired of being sold the band Interpol speaks to my expectations of entertainment personalization: super high! Both Spotify and Netflix have on some occasion sincerely impressed me with their abilities to predict my taste and serve new content.

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