Article | October 13, 2017

The Personalization Myth: Why Most Email Programs Suck

Source: Oracle + Bronto

By Greg Zakowicz, Senior Commerce Marketing Analyst, Oracle + Bronto


Ask yourself this: Do your customers find your marketing emails useful? Honestly, do they? A statistic I came across from Fluent suggests consumers think marketing emails are consistently useful only 15 percent of the time and not useful nearly 60 percent of the time.

Ouch. Not great numbers by any standard. Yet, many commerce marketers don’t realize this or worse — they turn a blind eye to it.

We can all agree email is a powerful tool to reach and engage with customers, so how do you ensure your email program is effective and among the 15 percent of emails consumers actually find consistently useful? You need to start by ramping up your sophistication.

Sign Me Up

Not long ago I presented a session on Why Your Email Program Sucks. My goal: Offer my own research on where email marketing is lacking and make the group stop and think about their own brand’s email experience. To provide authentic examples, I signed up for the email programs of five well-known brands, using the same five to seven email addresses. I wanted to not only assess their effectiveness, but how each company used the information I provided (at sign-up, via the preference center, my click, browse, and purchase data) to better target me.

With one email address, I never opened a message. With another, I consistently opened but never clicked. For another, I opened and clicked on the same link in every message. I also used the accounts to manage my preferences, abandon my shopping cart, and make purchases.

Here are a few questions I wanted to answer:

  • Did the brand differentiate itself from competitors?
  • Did they influence me to purchase?
  • Were the messages timely and relevant?
  • Did they incorporate my purchase behavior?

The answer was generally a resounding, “No.” I only received targeted messages in a few cases. And each time a brand asked for my gender at sign-up, they failed to use it. Post-purchase messaging was lacking in all instances. But this was just the tip of the iceberg. Here are some of my more interesting findings.

Welcome Messaging

  • Three of the five brands asked for my gender at sign-up. None customized the welcome message or series based on that information.
  • Only one brand sent a traditional welcome series. It was four messages long and contained a social invite and a message inviting me to manage my preferences.
  • One brand sent me a welcome message every single time I filled out a form and, for some reason, even sent one after I abandoned my shopping cart (two weeks after my original sign-up).
  • One brand sent two welcome messages. The initial message sent with a from name of “online” was in plain text and included no call to action. A well-designed, branded welcome was sent two days later.

General Messaging And Segmentation

  • Send cadence to the various email addresses was almost identical, regardless of shopping behavior. Only two brands had slight variations.
  • Only two of the five brands sent mobile-friendly emails. I was stunned!
  • No brands included product recommendations in their emails.
  • Almost all messaging was batch-and-blast.
  • Only one company sent me gender-based messaging more times than not.
  • Email open or click activity did not affect the marketing strategy for any of the five brands.
  • One company signed me up for three sister brands (all related to children), but it was not for the address that clicked the maternity link in every email.

Abandonment Messaging

  • Only two brands had a cart recovery strategy. One had only one message, while the other sent two.
  • None sent browse recovery messaging.


  • No brand included a true post-purchase series.
  • One brand sent me two product review messages on the same day. I should note these came two days after the company issued a return label to me.
  • Only one brand had optimized their transactional messaging by including sister-brand promos in the message.

Time For Change

Expectations are on the rise and consumers expect more today now than they ever have before. They want you to listen to them and they want your brand to offer a relevant, personalized experience. If you don’t deliver, they’re going to move on to a brand that does.

Whether you believe your email program to be flawless or feel like there is room for improvement, I encourage you to thoroughly analyze your email program (and other digital marketing tactics) to see how well you’re connecting with your customers. If you see some of the same results, it’s time for a change.

About The Author

As a former consultant with more than 10 years of experience in email, mobile and social media marketing, Greg Zakowicz has first-hand knowledge about the challenges facing the retail industry. Now, as Senior Commerce Marketing Analyst at Oracle + Bronto, he provides thoughtful insight to the Internet Retailer Top 1000, and is a frequent speaker at ecommerce events.