The Prizes and Pitfalls of Personalization #LBB

The Prizes and Pitfalls of Personalization

In this issue of List Building for Bloggers you will learn:

  • Boosting relevance: why you should learn more about your subscribers.
  • Risks and downsides: why you should think twice about custom fields.
  • Alternatives to custom fields.
  • Custom field usage.
    • Planning.
    • Collection.
    • Reporting.
    • Personalization.
    • Segmentation.
  • Thinking outside the demographic box.
  • A quick “how-to” for FeedBlitz users.

[This is the latest article in the List Building for Bloggers series “ Click here to read all the recent #LBB posts]

Why learn more about your subscribers

The ability to customize your mailings to subscribers (and, via segmentation, which subscribers you mail in the first place), is a more advanced part of email marketing than most casual bloggers will typically reach.

That said, the more you know about your subscribers, the more you can tune your interactions with them, and so the better your results will be. Think for a moment how you might be able to improve your interactions with your readership if you knew more than their email address:

  • If you knew buying history you can offer you best / newest customers early bird discounts or special packages;
  • If you knew location you could invite people to your next training course, tweet up or conference in that city;
  • If you knew their names you could make your mailings more personal;
  • If you knew their gender or age range you could write more articles that appealed to that group;
  • If you knew their Twitter account you can follow them in social media.

It’s possible to do all of this without having this extra data – typically known as custom fields – but when you can’t target content to the right people at the right time then you’re losing relevance. Relevance is the core benefit to using custom fields: it allows you to really get very focused with your content (especially non-automated delivery), which means greater relevance to your target audience. That in turn leads to better response rates.

Risks and downsides

Before diving into custom fields, however, my advice to bloggers is to think twice about it. As bloggers we’re typically content marketers, and our focus is that content and our audience. One of the benefits of using email marketing (and, specifically, fully automated email marketing like FeedBlitz delivers) is that it’s easy. You can do a really good job with some up-front work and let the automation take care of getting your word out.

This is less true with custom fields. Custom fields take work; it’s going to take more time from you to set up, use and manage them. You need to determine whether that time’s worth it.

Secondly, collecting that data from subscribers when they sign up will reduce your list growth rate, simply because any extra friction in the process reduces your growth rate. Even asking for basics such as a first name or the recipient’s gender will increase the bounce rate from the form. The more you ask for, the greater the hit. Again, up to you if that hit is worthwhile (you can test it, of course!).

Also bear in mind that, unless the extra data is coming from you (e.g. purchase history), user entered data can be unreliable. People lie. They type badly. There may be several ways to enter the same information e.g. in the US, they might report their state as “MA”, “Mass” or “Massachusetts”! That makes extra work (yet again) for you in terms of trying to prevent that or bearing it in mind when you come to use your custom fields.

Finally, various jurisdictions have laws about user data and privacy. If you collect custom data and the user demands you change it, you pretty much have to change it. More work there as well.

So it’s perfectly OK to say, like the idea, I have better things to do and my results are great as is. That said, the larger your list becomes, the harder it is to back fill custom field data if you have a change of heart or hire someone (e.g. a VA) to help you with your blog or list.

Custom field alternatives: Multiple Lists

If you want to segment your audience, bear in mind that there are simpler alternatives to using custom fields on a single list. Use multiple lists! Have one list for group A, another for group B etc., and power both from the same blog using tag filters. Easy to set up, the subscribers self-select into the right list at subscription time, much less work all around for you. For basic segmentation I would recommend this approach for bloggers instead of custom fields.

Basic custom field usage

A primer on jargon

  • Custom fields – Data you associate with a subscriber, such as their name, location or birthday.
  • Personalization – Using that data to modify the content of your mailing.
  • Segmentation – Using the data to select individuals from a list for a mailing instead of mailing the whole list.


So you’re ready to take the plunge? OK, first you need to do a little planning. Think about:

  • What do you want to do with the extra data?
  • Where is the data coming from?
  • What about existing list members where you didn’t collect the data?
  • Is all the data going to be required or optional?
  • What data will the user add, and what will you add yourself?
Say you’re running a mommy blog. Most of your readers are going to be, by definition, women. It makes little sense to use gender as a custom field. So don’t ask for it. Make a “Just For Dads” list instead.

You may also have data that you want to associate with a subscriber instead of having them add it themselves. Say you’re a gym and you want to give everyone a special offer on the anniversary of their membership – you can add their “Member since” or “Month Joined” data yourself. You don’t want to ask subscribers when they joined on the subscription form, since they might not be members (yet!) or they might not remember. If subscribers have to start thinking as they subscribe then they’ll lose momentum, and list growth will suffer.

This is also an example of data you might want to hide from a user. Others might include whether the user is a prospect, customer or partner – data you might use to tune a mailing later.

Decide, too, which data is essential to your plans. Name? Gender? Location? Job title? Experience level? Make essential data required, and the rest optional. But be really brutal on prioritization; remember that the more friction you add (required fields) the lower your growth rate will be. On the other hand, the more friction you add, the more committed the subscribers are who join your list. If you’re getting a lot of “tire-kickers” adding themselves, extra friction might very well be a Good Thing. Extra friction (in the form of extensive required fields) is also very useful if your list is being used as a lead generation tool for your business. You want the leads to be as pre-qualified as possible.

Some of the biggest challenges with custom fields, though, come from back filling data from existing subscribers, and what to do when that data (or optional fields) isn’t there. There’s nothing worse than a mailing that starts “Dear Valued Customer” since that actually shows the very opposite. What are you going to do if you don’t have the subscriber’s first name? Can you find a decent default? Can you conditionally exclude personalization elements if there’s no data? Is there a form or link you can mail out to have the older subscribers add their data? Think, too, about segmentation. If you’re going to segment by state, say, what do you do with users for whom you have no state data? Always mail them, just in case? Or never mail them?

Planning is essential. Whatever you do, don’t skip this step.


For new subscribers, this is pretty easy: ask for the data they can supply at subscription time. If you want to restrict choices to a few, make the field a choice field (such as a list box or radio buttons) to avoid the MA / Mass / Massachusetts issue.

For data, you provide, e.g. a link to your contact management or CRM system, you’re going to have to sync the email database with your CRM’s data. That requires manual or automated import / export – more work.

For the old list, you’re going to have to ask them to add the data. You’ll need a link to your form from your provider and you’re going to have to send them to your readers. Since there’s no real incentive to having existing subscribers tell you more about themselves (they’re already on the list; they’ve done the hard part), don’t expect great results from this. You can offer incentives and prizes to help, but be prepared to live with data gaps. Since you’ve done your planning up front, this won’t be an issue, right? Right! But you can add a link to the form in your template, so you can give readers a chance to provide or update their data with every email.


One use of custom fields is not to use them in your outbound mailing at all. You can think of them as simply a one-time survey. Looking at the data can be interesting, though, so don’t neglect reporting once you’ve set up your custom fields. You may well be surprised at what you learn, and that in turn can lead you to produce better, more relevant content, or enable you to reach out to your subscribers in other ways.


Not just “Dear Jane” instead of “Dear” (although that’s good too). You can personalize based content based on customer status (regular / preferred), gender and more. So with FeedBlitz, for example, you could conditionally include (or exclude) content from a different feed in your mailings based on the subscriber’s status.

Also understand that “content” isn’t just what’s in your post. It can also mean the HTML you format the post with. So you can change, for example, an image or color scheme based on custom demographic data.

There are dangers here, though. Beware customizing the subject line, as that looks really spammy. Test for cases where the data is missing or defaulted, so that the email still looks good. If you use conditional substitution, test again. If you want to test design changes “safely”, clone your list, place test addresses in there with the test cases you want to use, and test using that list before moving your design into production.

Did I mention this was work?


A great example for segmentation is going local. Say your blog is really focused on events in your area. You can collect the ZIP code from subscribers, and then mail only people in the relevant zip code for info on that area. From a monetization perspective, you can start to sell sponsorships and advertising into your segments once your list gets big enough (but keep the messages relevant else you’ll lose people). Once you get good with targeting and customization you can really make every email work much harder for you.

Again, however, there are traps for the unwary. Segmented mailings are typically slower than “all readers” mailings simply because your email service has to figure out whether each subscriber qualifies; personalization (if you’re using it) adds to the load too. It may not be significant but you should test using a non-time critical mailing to understand the difference.

Secondly, a botched segment mailing can be downright embarrassing. Make sure you have tested / evaluated the segment before you use it with the tools your email service provides; you don’t want to send a blast about an upgrade discount to people who’ve already paid full freight. And it doesn’t take much imagination to envisage even worse scenarios.

If you have a segment you like, save it if you can to make it easy to reuse in the future; it’s both a real time-saver and SNAFU risk reducer.

Thinking outside the demographic box

Demographics – broadly speaking: name, gender, location – are the typical use for custom fields, especially for personalization and segmentation. But you can do more than this. I’ve talked about using internal data (customer class or purchase history, for example) as one type of data. You can use activity stream information (did they click or open an email recently) as another. If you collect twitter, facebook or web site links, you can use that too. In fact, simply knowing a subscriber has a website or twitter account may be enough to work with – you may not need to know the details to get a good segment going.

You can also get completely obsessive about this stuff too, so beware the law of diminishing returns. For example, you can make smaller and smaller segments to get more precise, but if you get to the point where it would be faster to use your personal email app to do the mailing, you’ve gone too far. As with most things in marketing, your mileage may vary. Test, measure and update.

Ultimately, remember that custom fields and the benefits they bring are only really good at optimizing your existing list. If you’re not getting the basics right – subscription form positioning; compelling and relevant content; gripping subject lines; effective calls to action – then you’re missing a bigger opportunity.  Plan for custom fields up front if you have the luxury to do so, but I’d recommend that you make sure you’re well past square one with your blog and basic email marketing before you start digging into custom fields and the work they add. Your time is limited and precious; be sure you’re spending it wisely.

A quick “how-to” for FeedBlitz users

Custom fields are a lot of work, but they can be excellent tools for making better use of your list. The features are complex and can be found under the Newsletters tab at FeedBlitz; click the “Custom Fields” button in the left side bar. Since there’s a lot of ground to cover, there is also a sequence of FeedBlitz-specific tutorial posts on using custom fields and entries in the FeedBlitz knowledge base – click here to start.

Next Up

DIY or outsource your blog-based email marketing – A beginner’s guide.

About List Building For Bloggers #LBB

Written by Phil Hollows, the FeedBlitz Founder and CEO, List Building for Bloggers (#LBB) is a series of posts to help you make the most of your blogging by harnessing the power and capabilities of email, the universal social network, with your bog and social media communications. No matter whether you’re a novice or a more advanced blogger, there will be something for you to learn, apply and benefit from in this series. Click here to read more about #LBB

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