How to Use Live Content to Create Contextual Email Campaigns

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To achieve the goal of converting our subscribers into buyers, we have to send email that is relevant and contextual to them. Subscribers now view anything to the contrary as spam. You must send communications that are interest of them—or else you risk ending up in the spam folder.

So how do you create personalized, relevant campaigns? The short answer: not by using someone’s [first_name]. It’s so much more than that. You need to understand what drives a person’s decision-making process, where they are in that process, and place all of it within the context of their specific challenges.

One way to create these contextual, relevant email experiences is through live content. Justin Foster, co-founder of LiveClicker, a provider of real-time email solutions, shares his insights on the benefits of live content, its use cases, and how it adds context and relevance to campaigns in this interview.

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Justin Foster, LiveClicker

What is live content?

Live content is image, animation, or video-based content that is conditionally displayed in email using data that isn’t known until the message is opened by the recipient. The foundational data “building blocks” of almost all live content are the opener’s location, device, and time of open.

How does live content work?

Live content is added to the final email HTML just as regular “non-live” content is—via a standard < img > tag. The email is deployed as normal by the sender, using a standard deployment process. Once the email is opened by the recipient, the live content < img > is requested from the live content provider’s servers. That request contains information that can be used to change the content at open time.

How is it different from dynamic content?

I’m of the belief that live content is a subset of dynamic content. When I refer to “dynamic content,” I am referring to any content rendered in an email that is dependent on recipient-level data. What makes live content unique is that it’s dependent on data that isn’t known in advance of the send. What makes it exceptionally powerful is when it’s used in conjunction with other known data, whether that data is expressly provided by the recipient (e.g. interests, demographics) or behavior (e.g. cart abandon, page browse).

Is live content supported in all inboxes?

Is anything in email supported in all inboxes? I want to add a “LOL” to that response. For most senders, the vast majority of inboxes support live content. For those mail clients that have limitations, it’s possible to display fallback content so the email doesn’t break.

Does support vary depending on the type of live content? What are the fallbacks for when live content is not supported?

Rather than answer this question in detail, which would require an entirely separate post, I’ll share a live content cheat sheet we developed at Liveclicker for marketers and email developers who are asking exactly these questions. It should be noted that while some of the terms in the cheat sheet are Liveclicker-specific, the applications themselves (e.g. images, polls, etc.) can be generalized.

What are some use cases for live content? Why would a brand want to use it in their email campaigns?

At Liveclicker, we refer to live content use cases as the “RealTime Email Universe.” Like the actual universe, the range of applications is constantly expanding. Core and common uses include countdown timers (time-targeted), embedded video (device-targeted), and local maps (geo-targeted). As I mentioned earlier, the most robust and sophisticated use cases combine live data with other known data. For example, a sports team selling tickets to an event can look up at open time how many seats are still available for the event, what the current pricing is for those seats, and whether the email recipient is eligible for a discount on the tickets based on his or her guest or loyalty status.

For those who are curious and would like to send actual live use cases to their inbox, we’ve set up a sample gallery on our website.

Are there some use cases that are inappropriate for live content?

In general, live content is most valuable for businesses that operate in an environment where things change frequently. Travel is a poster child industry for live content due to constantly changing prices, availability, loyalty tiers, etc. However, even simple businesses can benefit from live content, though the benefits are more likely to be concentrated in live device and geo-targeting rather than live time-targeting.

Are there ways that you’ve seen marketers use live content that you think are unwise or simply just not very effective?

I see a lot of email marketers that view live content as the next shiny toy to incorporate into their program rather than as a strategic tool to drive personalization and enhance the inbox experience. When live content is viewed purely as a tactical tool, it can easily fail.

In my opinion, countdown timers are a perfect example of this. Timers are ineffectively used by most senders that employ them because marketers don’t take the time to understand the proper use context. For example, should a timer be used with a discount offer vs. a flash sale or free shipping? Should one be deployed with email the day before an event expiration or ten days prior? On the speaking circuit, I refer to the solution for this problem as the need to “get meta” about context. It’s a wordplay on live content’s synonymous label: contextual marketing.

How does live content help add context and relevancy to an email campaign?

In my view, the purpose of live content is to drive context and relevancy. The applications enabled by live content (e.g. scratch-to-reveals, video, carousels, etc.) are there to enhance the inbox experience. Two very different things.

When I talk about how live content drives relevancy, marketers will often hear me refer to the “80/20 Rule of Personalization.” The 80/20 Rule of Personalization simply states that most marketers are only able to richly personalize content in email for about 20% of the database. The other 80%? That’s the “batch and blast” group. With live content, it’s now possible to easily personalize content for that previously untouched 80% while enhancing the personalization possibilities for the 20% of openers that already are associated with rich data sets.

In my opinion, this is a truly revolutionary development in the industry. The problem today isn’t lack of knowledge about the effectiveness of email personalization. It’s lack of ability to execute on the vision of mass personalization because the data either isn’t there or the data is too hard to access. Live content is an important step toward achieving the vision because it enables mass personalization, quickly and easily. It’s every email marketer’s dream.

Is there any chance of error when it comes to using live content (ie. the wrong thing displaying for the wrong person at the wrong time)?

This is more specifically detailed in the cheat sheet I referenced earlier, but I’ll share a couple of examples here. By far, the limitation marketers need to be most aware of when using live content are the geo-targeting limitations. Live geo-targeted content relies upon IP geo-targeting, which is less accurate than GPS-based geo-targeting. For example, let’s say you’re a retailer and you want to display a live map in an email you’re sending that displays the locations of the closest stores based on the recipient’s on-the-ground location at open time. With GPS targeting, it’s possible to determine someone’s location within feet. With IP targeting, it’s possible to determine someone’s location with about 90% accuracy within a 25-mile radius. For this reason, I generally recommend keeping map zooms pulled out at this range to minimize the possibility of showing the wrong content.

Another geo-targeting limitation to be aware of is the lack of ability to geo-target Gmail openers that are opening email in the Gmail web app or Gmail mobile app. For B2C senders, that can be as many as 50% of Gmail openers and as much as 15% of the overall database. Fortunately, it’s possible to detect this situation and display fallback content.

Does live content affect email deliverability? Are certain kinds of live content problematic?

No. Using live content does not impact deliverability.

When determining the success of a campaign that uses live content, are there any key metrics on which marketers should focus?

Most marketers use live content to boost email program engagement. For that reason, it’s important to not only measure standard KPIs on a campaign-by-campaign basis (e.g. revenue, orders, click through rate, conversion rate) but also over time. For example, we’ve seen senders that have improved open and click rates by 5% and 2% respectively over a year’s time with regular use of live content. That may not sound like much, but for large programs, it can be significant.

How do you think live content will change in the future? What innovations in live content do you think we’ll see in the near future?

I believe live content is only a part of the overall personalization revolution taking place in the email industry right now. We’ll continue to see more cases where live content is integrated with behavioral targeting and even predictive targeting. On the applications front, we’ll continue to see more innovations.

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