4 questions to launch your data-driven email strategy

Pondering bringing in additional data sources to enhance your email program? Contributor Ryan Phelan offers advice on getting started.

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Data Bacon Ss 1920

I was at the grocery store getting supplies for my weekly steak night ritual. As I walked to the checkout, the teenager at the cash register looked at the t-shirt I was wearing.

“‘Data is the New Bacon?'” he read off my shirt.

“You bet data is the new bacon,” I said. “From just your email address I can guess up to 1,300 data points about you and use predictive modeling to find out what you’re interested in and how to advertise to you.”

He gave me a typical adolescent look of disbelief. So I went on, enjoying the spectacle of seeing him totally bedazzled as he bagged my groceries.

“I can use that data to figure out how to advertise to you on different levels, too, from the sites you visit every day, from the Instagram accounts you follow to what you watch on TV,” I said.

As I talked, I could see his mind explode.

“Really? Just off my email address?”

“Yep, just your email address. Give me your email address and your ZIP code, and it gets me even closer to you.”

I chuckled to myself as I trotted off with my groceries about how much fun I had messing with this kid’s head. But then it occurred to me that I should have added, “Yes, if you know what you’re doing. That’s the most important thing.”

Everything I told my grocery-store pal is possible. But you must know how to do it right.

That’s a vague term, though. What is “right?” How do you know if you’re doing it right? Is it choosing the right KPIs? Getting the right conversions? That’s the challenge for marketers who want to step up their data-driven strategies.

Most marketers I talk to want to do email right. They know they need to incorporate their data into their messaging strategies. But data handling and integration isn’t as easy as flipping this switch and tapping that database.

Every marketer who wants to drive deep into the complexities of data-driven marketing experiences must be able to answer four questions before starting to work out a plan.

(I won’t get into the implications of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in this column, other than to say that you need to ensure you’re complying with applicable laws, especially when you’re putting together data gathered from a variety of sources with different opt-in mechanisms.)

1. What data do we have now?

This should be the easiest question to answer, but I find many marketers don’t realize how much data they have. Marketers often think they have a single set of data. But when we ask the customer-relationship people, we find much more data than marketers know about.

You must fully understand what your data model looks like. You might get used to thinking you have access to only one dataset. But when you start down the road to data-driven strategies, you should not only inventory your own data but also reach out to others in your company — your CRM people, ecommerce, customer service, web and any other departments that have data you could use.

Find the person who holds all the information to learn what information your organization collects. It’s a constant struggle to track down all the systems where data is hidden and who controls it. However, you need this information to work out a fully informed strategy.

2. What data is available to us?

Once you know what data is available to you across different systems in your organization, you can start looking to see what’s available outside your organization. Talk with different data vendors to learn the breadth and depth of the data they have.

You might think this should be your first step. But it’s not. The ability to get third-party data is relatively new in terms of how easy and quickly you can obtain it. So, knowing what’s out there and what new pieces of information are coming out is important. New sites and information sources come up every day, whether through social media or people selling information. But that’s only part of the story.

3. How valid is this data?

There are only so many sources of true data. Other entities that sell data to companies sometimes peddle older copies that have not been updated or refreshed regularly. Yes, you could get cheap data, but it could be over a year old. Or it might not be from reputable sources.

Knowing what’s available and what’s valid are important because then, you can start coming up with ideas to use it. That’s when innovation kicks in. Now, you can say, “With this data, I can do that.”

4. What data do we need?

Once you know the data you have and what you can put your hands on outside your organization, it’s strategy time.

You might say, “I need all the data I get!” But that’s not realistic, and it’s way too expensive. Nobody gets all the data on a record unless you’re a Fortune 50 company, and even those people don’t get all the data. Everybody is selective about the catalog of data they seek.

Instead, you look for the data you need to accomplish your business goals. After that, it’s time to get tactical. You identify how you can get the data you need, how to integrate it into your systems, how often to refresh it and so on.

Wrapping up

I realize that I have somewhat simplified this process into four digestible bullet points. But you must understand the basics of the process and tie each one back to strategy.

Each step is a microcosm of what to do and how to execute on it. If you keep these goals in mind, you’ll find they structure your strategy. You can’t skip a step, either, or try to run them in parallel to save time. You must answer Question 1 before moving on to Question 2.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily MarTech. Staff authors are listed here.

About the author

Ryan Phelan
As the CEO of RPE Origin, Ryan Phelan's two decades of global marketing leadership has resulted in innovative strategies for high-growth SaaS and Fortune 250 companies. His experience and history in digital marketing have shaped his perspective on creating innovative orchestrations of data, technology and customer activation for global leading retail, FinTech and technology brands as well as ESP’s.

In 2023, Ryan received the industry’s top honor of Thought Leader of the Year Award and is the Chairman Emeritus of the Email Experience Council Advisory Board. He is also an in-demand keynote speaker and thought leader on email marketing.

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