Email marketing is generally considered the king of direct to customer communications. In fact, emails prove to be 40 times more effective than Facebook and Twitter combined, and 58 percent of businesses say they plan to increase their use of email marketing in 2014. But just because companies know they have to focus on and improve email marketing strategies, doesn’t mean they’re producing the messages that are relevant to and resonating with customers – leading to opt outs, low click rates and worst of all, a direct trip to the trash bin.

In my experience, most brands consider unsubscribes as the worst outcome for email marketing, but I would argue differently. The kiss of death to your email campaigns isn’t that consumers decide to no longer receive them – it’s that they simply stop listening and you don’t even know it. The spam folder is far more detrimental to your marketing strategy than a smaller list of engaged customers because it not only means that you can’t speak to that customer, but it can affect the deliverability to others as well. When too many people ignore you, email providers like Gmail and Yahoo take notice and soon you may find that your emails aren’t working at all.

So what’s a brand to do? Here are my top tips for getting and keeping your consumers’ attention.

Go beyond first name personalization

Personalization has been one of the most talked about marketing tactics for some time now, but what many companies still don’t understand is that for personalization to be effective, you have to go beyond customers’ first names. Sure, I enjoy opening an email that addresses me directly, but if the rest of content goes by the way of handbags, jewelry and women’s clothing (all items that clearly don’t apply to me), the first name won’t do much to make up for it.

Instead, work to make each email you send more relevant and tailored. And I don’t mean putting your customers into siloed groups and batch sending four or five of the same emails – I mean truly personalized emails for every customer.

Before you roll your eyes, understand that it’s not as crazy or labor-intensive as it seems. The key to personalization is being able to collect data on your customers across each touchpoint they interact with – regardless of how small or large that data collection is – and leveraging it to your advantage.

Consider this – a one-time customer purchases a $200 black purse. The current state-of-the-art marketing would tell you that if and when you run segments you should include this customer in handbag emails. This is a fine approach, but if you don’t have a handbag email scheduled (and you shouldn’t run one every day) this isn’t going to help you with your email tomorrow or even next week. How then do you personalize for this customer?

While it is just one item, you need to look at all of the things you’ve learned about that customer from this single transaction – they like accessories (which opens up possibilities in jewelry, belts, scarves, etc.), they have minimal price sensitivities (if they’re willing to spend $200 on a purse, you have a wider range of items to offer them in the future), they’re okay with dark colors, and they have a preference toward a certain brand, which means you can show them other items from the same designer. Certainly if you had other data – email opens, click-throughs, browse sessions (even the one leading up to the handbag purchase), more transactions, returns –  you could paint a fuller picture of them. But it turns out for most retailers that their median customer only shops one to two times per year. So for a huge portion of your customer base, this one transaction may be all you have. If you are not trying to learn everything you possibly can from this one interaction, then you are missing a lot!

Frequency is NOT one size fits all

The average consumer receives 416 commercial emails a month, so it’s crucial to stand out in the crowded inbox. On the flip side, the top reason (54 percent) consumers unsubscribe from email campaigns is because they’re being sent too often. Here lays the double-edged sword of email marketing: you don’t want to spam your customers to the point of annoyance, but it also turns out that every time you send an email you drive sales.

The golden rule for email marketing is that if you don’t have anything relevant to say, don’t say anything at all. That doesn’t mean you can only market to a customer once a year on the anniversary of their last purchase. You actually have thousands of things to say everyday that could be relevant to that customer – new items from their preferred brands, price changes for categories they like, or great advice on items in a season in which they have ever purchased. The trick is to select the most relevant things to say and avoid saying things that aren’t relevant. If I purchased a BBQ from you, feel free to send me stuff about cooking, or patios, or backyards. But avoid sending me Easter dresses, okay?

This means that there will be days when you are just dying to market to me, but you really shouldn’t. If you don’t have any messages (creative assets, etc.) that work for me, don’t talk to me. You want to build trust with your customers that your emails are always worth reading. If you don’t follow this, you run the risk of burning me out.

I think many flash sale sites are running into this problem. They excited people at the beginning with great deals on brands they liked, so daily emails were welcomed. But after too many emails, talking about too many brands customers didn’t care about, consumers lost interest. It is a fate marketers must be careful to avoid!

Email = Mobile. Mobile = Email. Repeat!

It is 2014. By the end of the year, there will be more mobile-connected devices than people on earth.  And since the end of 2013, over half of all new mobile phone sales have been smartphones. What are people doing with all those devices? Reading email! If you are not designing your emails to be read on a smartphone, then you are missing the boat. Many of the retailers we work with are seeing upwards of 70 percent of their email opens coming from mobile. Just look around you (if you can pull your eyes away from your own smartphone) and you will see people constantly checking their phones. It is imperative, therefore, that your emails work on mobile.

And by work I mean both that you customers can easily read the messages you’re sending them (the easy part) and that the messages are immediately relevant to them (the hard part). You have a whole less real estate to make your case to a consumer, so you have to get right to it. The ultra-long emails that have “something for everyone” just don’t cut it any more. In mobile, “something for everyone” means “nothing for me” because I don’t have the time, inclination, or screen size to hunt for what is relevant for me. It’s much easier to delete and move on to one of the other 10 to15 promotional emails I received in the past 12 hours.

Improving your email marketing isn’t going to happen overnight, but the common denominator in any successful email campaign is relevance. Personalized content, spot-on frequency, and optimization for every device are all aspects of being relevant. If you can prove to your customers that your emails are worth reading and the content you deliver is uniquely tailored every time, your email campaigns will be more than just a selling tool. They’ll be a trusted resource for each of your customers, and the foundation for a long term, mutually beneficial relationship.