Working off of a single spreadsheet, ASCD learned how to develop customized member content using dynamic fields.
By Carole Hayward
As part of our ever-evolving email strategy, we wanted to respond to our readers’ requests for content that is specifically tailored to them. Talking over options with our email service provider (ESP), we learned how we could incorporate customized elements within an e-newsletter using dynamic content and customized fields of data.
As I contemplated this idea, I had a flashback to the early days of doing a simple mail merge in Word, where my documents ended up with a scramble of data I never intended. "Dear 43 Elm Street” wasn’t really the personalized touch I was going for. I knew that using dynamic fields to customize our content would likely be even more complex, so I was apprehensive about how to begin.
Last year at ASCD, an educational nonprofit member association, we developed an e-newsletter specifically for our members that would, in one message, inform them about their member-benefit publications. But once we scratched the surface of the messages we needed to send, we realized this was not a simple e-newsletter to put together. We figured out that we needed to incorporate several elements for each member:
- member name
- category of membership
- membership logo
- member number
- blurbs of copy specific to each level of membership
Unsure where to begin, I contacted our ESP, and they helped me to develop a clear picture of what we wanted to deliver. Then we designed the e-newsletter in-house using one of our ESP’s templates. Essentially, we wanted to develop a single e-newsletter with customized content using dynamic fields to create a publication for our members and work off of a single spreadsheet with all of the member/subscriber information.
The result has been a useful, customized monthly e-newsletter that has on average a 19 percent open rate and 5 percent click rate (higher averages than any other of our e-newsletters). It has also a high awareness and value rating among our members for a product in its first year.
To create something like this yourself, consider what information you have about your members, customers, or readers. The possibilities are endless in terms of how you can delivery customized content. Here are some to consider:
- Do you have news about your association that is particularly relevant to your readers in a particular geographic area?
- Do you have information about previous conference attendees that you could use to customize their message?
- Do you have previous purchasing information about your customers that you can use?
- Do your members have any elements of managed choice within their membership options that you could use?
- What information are your readers asking you for specifically?
One customized blurb that we need to include is information on their member book. Some categories of our membership receive a print copy of the book, so their blurb of copy includes information on when the book mails. Members who receive the e-book version get instructions for how to download their e-book. Members who receive no book at all get a blurb about the book with links to sample chapters and the free study guide. Each of these blurbs is entered as a separate piece of dynamic content.
To deliver the proper customized elements to the right people, the dynamic fields you create need to match up with data you upload. In the images below, you can see where the dynamic and custom fields are in the template and how they appear in the actual newsletter. Below that you can see the data we upload as a comma-delimited spreadsheet (csv). You then match up your fields with your data columns; for example, the first name column of the spreadsheet matches up with the INSERT_FIRST_NAME code, and the membership number appears in the INSERT_CUSTOM15 field.
A key to success in this enterprise is testing. We created a small, internal group to test all of the customized versions that we create to ensure that the correct logos, member categories, and book blurbs appear as they should. Everyone is assigned to one of our customized versions, and we send a test out to the internal group the day before the e-mail message goes out to verify that everything appears as it should in every version.
Although the entire process may require some trial and error during the development phase as you became more familiar with the technology and what it can do, your ESP should be able to help you troubleshoot any problems you experience. If you are currently looking for an ESP, ask what their capabilities are regarding dynamic content and what templates they have to assist you with this.
Carole Hayward is the interim publisher and director, newsletters & special publications, at ASCD and a member of the Association Media & Publishing Content Creation Committee.