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Procter & Gamble, who coined the phrase ‘the consumer is boss’ well over a decade ago, now has a new internal mantra: “Mass reach with one-to-one precision.”

It probably sounds like an oxymoron to most marketers, but this new goal, voiced by P&G CMO Marc Pritchard, aspires to personalized marketing at scale. It’s a worthy aim when viewed against the current landscape, where consumers expect personal relevance from brands, and where marketers continuously strive to provide it.

The biggest obstacle to achieving personal relevance in marketing targeted to prospective customers, particularly mass marketing, is a lack of data — it’s virtually impossible to know much of anything about a customer who has never done business with you. You can create fictional personas and market to them but in the end, that’s little more than guesswork.

But think about it. You have mountains of data about your existing customers — existing customers who were, at some point, new prospects.

Email engagement data can provide a wealth of information that can be used to tailor personally relevant information and offers going forward. Transactional email can also give marketers a back-end view of customers in the post-purchase phase of the customer lifecycle, one that can offer granular data about their preferences, their wants, and their expectations. Marketers who think of transactional email as solely utilitarian, or as outside their purview, are missing out on both revenue generating and market research opportunities.

Reverse engineer your acquisition strategy

As a recent Forrester report outlines, marketers may have become too enamored with the distribution possibilities of digital media. As a result, they have used targeting to blast consumers with too many emails, often to the point where they see negative returns. As one consumer told Forrester, “Please don’t bombard me with a bunch of useless information about something I may have looked at once out of curiosity.”

In an age in which the best marketers are customer obsessed, the shotgun approach seems a bit wrong-headed. Instead of bombarding potential customers with promotional emails, marketers should be listening. And who better to provide insight into what will appeal to potential customers than those who have already converted?

Email data can help marketers anticipate what will resonate best with prospects. For instance, using transactional email to test adjustments to brand voice and tone, typography and phrasing, color palettes, or imagery is relatively easy and inexpensive. The results of those tests can then inform promotional emails, digital and print ads, and even website and landing pages. For example, uSell, the online marketplace for selling used electronics, leveraged transactional email subject line testing to improve offline conversions by almost 10%. They then applied those findings to website and landing page copy and improved conversions there as well.

Transactional email can also be used to test specific product offers, such as ‘Customers who bought X also bought, A, B, and C,’ to help improve curated product recommendations based on browsing behaviour. Curated offers that your existing customers find relevant will likely also resonate with prospects.

How email data helps

Email has been shown to offer the best ROI of any other form of marketing outreach. But this efficacy overshadows another use of email — as a vehicle to better understand customers. Email is the rare media channel that offers a one-on-one dialogue with consumers.

For probably the first time in history, marketers have all the tools they need to put the customer at the center of their ad strategy. Mass marketing and direct response are part of the same conversation, so they should be coordinated and data from the latter should inform the former.

Instead of only using email as yet another form of ad distribution, marketers should be using email data to help refine their acquisition strategy, to help create ‘mass reach with one-to-one precision’. Marketers spend huge amounts of money on email marketing, but the shotgun approach can not only be ineffective, it can be counterproductive. Using transactional email as a research tool allows marketers to know their customers better, allowing them to not just spend less but spend smarter.