Using custom fields for personalised email marketing

With personalised email marketing delivering six times higher transaction rates than standard email, it’s a surprise that only 30% of brands make the effort. Custom fields are the magic sauce that transform simple emails into powerful sales tools. Here’s how to use them.

What we will cover

Fields of opportunity

We have probably all had an email with our name on it (personalised email marketing), so what is a custom field?

When composing a single email, we simply type what we want to say into the subject line and body of the message and hit send. Job done! But clearly this is impractical when sending out mass emails as part of a marketing campaign.

For this, we might use an email marketing service such as Mailchimp, Constant Contact, Aweber or Campaign Monitor.

Custom fields enable us to automatically inject the information we know about subscribers (as held in our subscriber database) into our emails. However, as this article will reveal, custom fields can be much more than simple time savers.

By the way, you may recognise much of what follows from the ‘mail merge’ function in your Outlook or MS Word program. In this context, custom fields are usually known as ‘merge fields’.

This function is still available with today’s email services although you may have to source a third party add-on (e.g. a Gmail Extension) if it’s not built in.

Where do custom fields come from?

Whatever email marketing provider you use, custom fields broadly work in the same way. They are formed by mapping information in your email subscriber list to specially formatted ‘personalisation tags’. 

The tags will be recognisable as they will either be within brackets of some kind or perhaps between a set of symbols. These symbols act as instructions, to your message composer, to replace the tag with its corresponding value in your subscriber database. So instead of ‘Hey {firstname}’, your subscriber sees ‘Hey Jo’ or ‘Hey Sally’, etc.

While the most common data fields (such as email, first name and last name) will almost always be set up by default, you may need to set up extra custom fields to suit your marketing needs.

Most providers will allow you to set up more than enough custom fields for marketing purposes. For example, Mailchimp’s basic package permits up to 30 custom fields while Campaign Monitor give you a whopping 50!

Adding custom fields to your emails

Once your custom fields have been set up, it is usually simple to add them into your email messages where needed.

Although the process will vary by provider, you should find an option to insert a custom field wherever you want to in the email subject line and body.

Some providers will even enable you to add custom fields to images, buttons, blocks and widgets.

Personalised email marketing, beyond ‘Hey, Firstname’

One of the most common places you will come across custom fields is in the first part of your email subject line and in the introduction to the email. Here is where the {firstname} tag or its equivalent is often found.

This creates a basic level of personalisation but you can do better! 

For example, if you run an insurance company, consider adding a ‘Car Make and Model’ custom field. When a subscriber receives an email with the subject, ‘Have you insured your Honda Civic yet’, you can be sure they will be more likely to notice it in their inbox!

Combining custom fields with rules creates dynamic fields that change depending on the context.

One of the simplest forms of dynamic custom fields includes fallback terms within the tag. For example, one such tag might read {firstname fallback=Subscriber}.

If the matching field data is missing from your database, your email composer will switch the tag for the fallback term instead. Your subscriber gets a generic, ‘Hey Subscriber’ introduction.

It is often possible to set up more complex dynamic custom fields using expressions such as IfThenElse (which will be familiar to coders).  Providing you take care in setting them up, these can add even more subtle levels of personalisation in your emails.

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