If you’ve been around these parts for a hot second, you know that email is one of my favorite marketing channels. It costs peanuts, is easy to test, quick to measure, and oh-so-very-lucrative. It’s also the perfect medium for artificial intelligence.
Whether you’re an AI veteran with dozens of projects under your belt or just starting out with your very first task, email is a great place to master your marketing AI skills. Why? Easy. There are lots of ways you can use AI to improve your email program – everything from segmentation and automation to creative, deliverability, and measurement. Plus, email is predictable, forgiving, easy to disrupt, and immediate. In other words, there are lots of things for you to do; you’ll know what works and what doesn’t very quickly; and if you mess up, it’s easy to get back on track.
So, why should you use artificial intelligence and machine learning (AI/ML) in your email marketing efforts? What are some good places to start? Here are 17 sure-fire ideas to help you maximize your sales and profits.
DECREASE YOUR DTS (DAYS TO SALE)
Days to Sale (DTS) is the number of days it takes a visitor to purchase from their initial visit. When you know your DTS, it’s much easier to find tactics to reduce it. On its own, email is great at reducing the number of days to sale but using AI can put it on hyperspeed. Instead of doing things in batches, you’ll be able to determine a DTS for every individual on your list. This will make it much easier for you to execute tactics to reduce it and get your orders – and money — faster. After you’ve built a solid foundation for DTS, you can look at optimizing it – saving time, increasing revenue, maximizing efficiency, reducing contacts, developing plans for rebuyers, and so on.
HYPERPERSONALIZE YOUR EMAILS FOR MORE BESPOKE BUYING EXPERIENCES
Gone are the days when your “big” personalization effort was adding a visitor’s first name to your subject line. By using artificial intelligence, hyperpersonalization (aka bespoke personalization at scale) allows you to develop, design, and deploy individualized emails. Every user on your list can/will receive an email built just for them with the products they’re most likely to buy, the offer(s) that will best propel them to act, and the messaging/information they’ll find most useful, at the precise day/time when they’re most likely to respond. Best of all, AI learns as it grows which means it will get more knowledgeable about your users over time, leading to better, stronger, more lucrative emails.
CREATE SUBJECT LINES SO COMPELLING THAT PEOPLE SIMPLY MUST OPEN YOUR EMAILS
AI’s machine learning and natural language processing will help you better create must-open subject lines and preheaders, without negatively impacting the ISPs. You can create them in batches or by individual, whichever you prefer. It also allows you to test subject lines and iterate them on-the-fly based on your results/learnings. This can improve your open rate, of course, but it can also dramatically impact your deliverability. Remember, a big part of your email success is inboxing so it’s critical to find what will stimulate your users to open and not get you in the time out corner with the ISPs.
In many cases, using artificial intelligence in your email program/process is like feeding it steroids. It gives it that extra burst of oomph and takes it to the next level. This is especially true when it comes to increasing your engagement. Because AI sees the entire forest AND every individual tree all at once instead of just one isolated tree at a time or little trees in clumps, it’s better at predicting individual behavior and identifying patterns that humans often miss. AI’s holistic secret sauce allows you to target users on the right day, at the right time, with the right message. This reduces unwanted/unnecessary communications to the user and even better, it improves engagement.
Creating bespoke experiences is one of the biggest reasons AI helps you improve your engagement. Plus, because it processes and analyzes oodles of data (SO MUCH DATA) in real-time and at scale, it’s just plain better at testing bazillions of variables to find the perfect images, formats, creative, offers, and such for each user.
OPTIMIZE YOUR SEND TIMES TO BETTER SUIT YOUR USERS
AI helps you send emails to every individual on your list at the time they’re most likely to open/respond. Send Time Optimization (STO) is a controversial subject these days as many vendors say that it’s a “self-fulfilling prophecy” and it doesn’t work. Those same vendors? They usually don’t know how to really use AI. Plus, STO is more than just sending emails at specific times. It’s serves as a fantastic traffic cop which is especially important if you have a robust trigger program and/or are integrating your email program with your SMS or retargeting programs. It’s also been proven to help boost retargeting results (when your programs are integrated) and if nothing else, it’s great at improving deliverability.
TEST MORE VARIABLES EFFICIENTLY
Say sayonara to your outdated A/B split program. Artificial intelligence allows you to conduct hundreds — even thousands or millions — of tests at once. Plus, because AI processes so much data so quickly and efficiently, you’ll be able to read your results up-to-the-nanosecond and then act upon them in real-time. Many marketers like to test the creative (let’s face it, it’s the sexiest part of emails) but there’s value in testing lots of other things too – formats (especially useful with all the new inboxing rules); tone/messaging; integration with SMS; live polls; videos vs links; animation; countdown content; call-to-actions; reviews and FAQs; and more.
DEVELOP SMARTER SEGMENTATION
Let’s be frank… Far too many companies listen to some wackaoodle at their ESP (email service provider) about who/when to mail. This usually means something like “only mail your last 30-day active file in the middle of the night.” This may be innocuous if your list is 10 of your friends/relatives, but for most companies? It’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad advice. (The rate of terribleness is directly related to what you sell, to whom you sell it, and how many times they order per year.)
Solid email segmentation ran off the rails long ago but with AI, your world, and its success rests on your data and how you use it. It’s critical that you dust off your old circulation plans and build up your segmentation muscles again. If you create a strong foundation, AI will do the rest of the heavy lifting. All you’ll have to do is supervise it.
Where will AI help most and why does it matter since every AI email is one-to-one? Good question. It helps with things like integrating your online and offline efforts; reactivation (critical these days); providing a hospitable environment for prediction (sounds cheesy but it’s no joke); creating more robust segments for your specified audiences; and most especially appending new/updated information to your existing data. (The more that you do the latter, the more valuable your data/file will be.) Plus, it’s killer at helping marketers better understand their reporting.
When you’re working with AI, it’s important to remember that you don’t go from 0/100 to 99/100 overnight. Things improve over time as the AI gets more efficient at reaching the goal(s) you’ve set. The more you do to prime the pump and train the algorithms, the better (and richer) you’ll be.
BOOST YOUR EMAIL DELIVERABILITY
Zzzzzz. Talking about deliverability can be such a snoozefest. However, if your emails don’t make it into inboxes, then none of the other stuff matters. AI helps you send the right emails to the right people at the right time. It also excels at helping you with hygiene (better hygiene = better deliverability); developing plans for emails that bounce; precisely targeting people who don’t open your emails before your provider or the ISPs suppress them; determining when you should execute same-time-same-place emails and when you need to swap things up for your users and their inboxes; and more.
IDENTIFY AND PREDICT INTENT
As we move more and more into a one-ask-one-answer world, intent becomes exponentially essential, especially for search and voice. One of the best ways marketers have found to gauge overall intent? Tracking how people act/respond/engage with your outbound communications, specifically your email and SMS. The more you’re in your customers’ faces with your blasts and triggers, the more data/information you’ll be able to collect from/about them. The more you know about your visitors, the better the AI will be able to predict their intent, match it up with their expectations, and then figure out how/where/when to close the sale. If you’re not in eCommerce, “close the sale” might be something like “get the quote” or “schedule the meeting.”
AUTOMATE YOUR WORKFLOW
AI excels at gruntwork. From a workflow perspective, it can improve your productivity in all sorts of areas, especially content and project management support. It powers through even the largest of data sets and organizes them lickety-split. Plus, it’s exceptional at scheduling and automating routine tasks, which saves you money, of course, but it also allows you to use your brainpower on things that will move the needle in your business.
AI can help you prioritize your incoming customer service emails based on their urgency and categorize/distribute them to the right team members. It can also ensure they’re appropriately followed up and/or participate in the process with automated email and SMS triggers. It makes it easy to use incoming data from your emails and SMS to enhance your customer file. (It’s excellent at scraping your data for appending internally.)
If you’re in B2B or have a sales organization, use AI to rank customers based on their propensity to purchase/act and then ensure that they’re followed up at the right time, with the right message, by the right people/method.
HELP YOU CREATE AND PERFECT YOUR CONTENT
Of all the email-related benefits, AI gets the most press for content creation. You’ll see literally hundreds of variations of “A robot wrote this” or “email copywriters quickly being replaced by AI.” As sexy as that may sound to you and your bottom line, most of the BIGGEST wins come from companies using AI to improve their copy, not create it from scratch.
Right now, one of the things that AI is most advanced at content-wise is dealing with the unsexy side of content generation. It’s solid at checking spelling; giving grammar recommendations and tone suggestions; and integrating reviews, informational/persuasive copy and frequently asked questions. It’s excellent at blending different types of content, balancing what’s needed for your users versus what’s required for the search engines, and strengthening your accessibility status with simple additions/tweaks.
There’s also software that will benchmark your email program against millions of other emails sent to show you how you stack up vis-à-vis your competition in terms of persuasiveness, subject lines, mobile previews and responsiveness, reply availability and optimization, and overall sales power.
EXPAND YOUR TRIGGER EMAILS
The companies that have the most successful email programs all have one thing in common. Trigger emails. Triggers (the juiciest emails in your arsenal) have better deliverability, inboxing and much better performance. How much better? Typically, 4-6x better on average, depending on the trigger. Do you know what’s crazy? Those numbers are small compared to what happens when you add artificial intelligence to the mix. With AI, you can take a good thing and make it even better, fine-tuning the audience, the creative, the offers, and more.
Take your abandoned cart series, for example. You probably already insert the product that they abandoned, but do you try to convert them with dynamic messaging and offers that they’re most likely to respond to at the time that they’re most likely to convert, bypassing all the unnecessary steps? Do you integrate your retargeting and SMS efforts with your sends? That’s just the tip of the iceberg when integrating AI into your trigger plan. Incidentally, this one often has the biggest impact on revenues and most significant of all the items listed here. If you’re just starting out with AI, getting some of the easier, more manageable tasks, (creating subject lines, send time optimization, upgrading your reporting, etc.) under your belt is worth it. Once you’ve got a solid system, though? This is the place to go wild.
SUPPORT YOUR LEAD GENERATION EFFORTS
AI excels at helping you push your prospects down the pipeline to an order, a meeting, or whatever else you desire. Give the AI your goal, and then let it build you a plan to support that objective outlining the who, what, when, where, why, and how for you. It can prioritize your leads based on propensity to buy and related timelines. It will tell you the best way to contact them and how frequently you should do it. It will analyze the prospect based on what it knows about them from your data and any other 2nd or 3rd party data you’re using to help you figure out the messaging, the timing, the offers, and the next best logical step.
AI looks at each user individually to determine how long it will take to get them to buy, inquire/ask. Then, it pinpoints how many contacts the user will need to complete the desired action and builds a campaign around it. It can do this with email alone, or it can do this with some/all your channels combined. Furthermore, it can look at when and how each contact should occur, right down to the number of products shown, the offer, and so on. Because it does this by individual in real-time, it’s constantly adjusting to the user’s exact behavior. This, in turn, reduces churn and improves customer sentiment.
SOLIDIFY YOUR ANALYTICS
For the most part, email analytics are pretty cut and dry, so many folks underestimate how much of a dimension AI can add to them. How? Two BIG ways. First, it can track more information and then slice-it-and-dice it in whatever way you’d like. You’ll get to see things you’ve likely never seen before. (This is especially true for behavioral information.) Second, AI is a beast at prediction and often spots information and insights humans miss. Are the insights all good? No. A fair share of them are complete garbage. But the good ones? THEY’RE GOLD.
Have a subscribe and save, bulk buy, automatic delivery, or loyalty program? If so, AI will help you beef it up. Because AI analyzes so much data, it’s excellent at identifying and subsequently laser-targeting visitors who are likely to buy more and/or on the regular. After it helps you select the correct list for your efforts, use it to help you with the content and delivery of your recruitment emails. Incidentally, because AI excels at predicting who will churn, you’ll know who/how to position your retention and reactivation efforts.
IMPROVE YOUR LIST HYGIENE
It blows my mind how many companies still send their list out 1-4x year for hygiene instead of doing it inline. The good news is that AI is changing that, making it easier than ever before to update your file in real-time. You can use AI to determine whether a particular address is valid BEFORE you mail it; clean up simple typos and misspellings in domain names; run current data sets against older ones or unsubscribes for consolidation; identify if your B2B contacts are still working at the companies your system assigns them to; determine who can handle AMP and Augmented Reality emails and who can’t; and appending and enhancing your CRM with new/updated information, outside data/lists, and such.
And because I know people will continue to ask, here are the answers to the two most frequently asked questions I get about AI and email….
“Does AI really live up to the hype? Right now, it’s the least of our worries….” Yes. Even the grumpiest of dwarves and the grouchiest of Smurfs in our client base see HUGE value in AI. Does it start that way? Rarely. People don’t usually get all that hyped up about hygiene and automation projects. Consider that the first couple of projects you do are to get your feet wet. After those? That’s when you’ll start to see the magic.
“Will artificial intelligence replace all the humans I have assigned to Email?” No. Even if you’re uber advanced using AI in your emails, you still need human oversight. Yes, AI can do more heavy lifting than ever before, but you’ll still want to set the goals, develop the overall strategy, execute any necessary disruption, review the results, and oversee the process. This will change as AI improves, but humans are critical now.
Have questions about how to use AI to improve your email program? Already using it and have a tip you’d like to share? Tweet @amyafrica or write firstname.lastname@example.org.