Design, Dynamic Content, Email marketing

Geolocation Tricks and Techniques

Geolocation tipsIn our last blog post, we talked about assembling an email that uses location-specific data to personalize an email. We showed how you can use content blocks to offer information for specific store locations based on the subscriber’s address. In this article we will talk about how to use geolocation in email to personalize each mailing. We won’t be discussing how to obtain address information for your subscribers. There are plenty of articles on that subject, and most of the techniques (surveys, special offers, etc.) are easy to come up with. For now, we will assume you already have this information and would like to put it to better use. For our example, we’ll be using the address locations for the recipients, to show information about the nearest store.

Finding Geolocations for Email

You may have the street addresses for your recipients, and the physical locations of your stores, but these won’t do you much good as they are. It is hard to compute anything from a street address. After all, 1945 Polaris Place, North St. Paul, MN is a lot harder to use in a formula than 45 and -93. To find the actual geolocations, you’ll need the geographic coordinates—in other words, the latitude and longitude. This may sound a bit daunting, but obtaining this information is relatively easy. There are several online sites, such as Batch Geocode and GPS Visualizer that can generate latitude and longitude numbers from street addresses automatically. Now you have the geolocation data you need for your email marketing campaign, but you still need to convert that data into nearest store location information.

More Than Maps

There are some web sites that will automatically take your store address list and your subscriber list and convert these into maps, with arrows showing the store locations. This is relatively easy to do thanks to the online map features in Google, Bing, Mapquest, and others, but there are surprisingly few sites that will give you the same information as text, and it’s text we want to enter in our subscriber database. Online maps are fine for website use, where you are free to use Javascript in your design, but email affords us no such luxury. We can create our own maps as images to insert in the email, which is exactly what we did in the previous post with the content blocks, but we’ll still need actual data that identifies which map (or content block) to display for each customer.

If you have an IT department with a programmer available, the formula for finding the nearest store locations based on each of your recipient’s location information is a simple one. For those using SQL Server or MySQL, it is easy to compute because the formulas are built into these relational database management systems. For the IT department using other methods to compute these distances, here’s a web page that lists nearly every programming language method of accomplishing this.

Using Excel

For the company with a limited number of stores and/or a minimal IT department, we’ve created an Excel spreadsheet that computes the closest store based on each customer’s geolocation information. It has an area where you enter your store latitudes and longitudes, and another where you enter the latitudes and longitudes of your recipients. These should be simple copy and paste procedures from the data you’ve already obtained using the geocoding applications. The formulas in the spreadsheet then compute the distances between the stores and the addresses, and compare them to find the closest store.

Excel geolocation spreadsheetAside from any adjustments you need to make for additional stores (our sample is set up for three), the only things you need to know are the latitudes and longitudes for your stores and your subscriber addresses. The best thing about this spreadsheet is that you don’t have to figure out the formula to use it. We’ve already entered the basic trigonometric function for finding the nearest location. You can simply plug in the values and let Excel do the rest. Computing the closest location involves several steps. We have broken these steps down in our Excel spreadsheet to make it easier to understand. Download the Excel spreadsheet here.

Once the values are computed, it’s a simple matter to import this data into a column in our original subscriber list. Now we have values we can work with. We can use this data to match the content block with the recipient, as we demonstrated in the previous post:

dynamic content blocksWe can also use the data directly via mail merge or dynamic content to add individual details to the content, or the subject line (example: “Don’t miss the 40% off sale at our Stonestown store, this weekend”).

All The Data You Want

Of course, you don’t have to create a field containing the nearest store location. You can enter the geolocation data into your recipient demographics and work with it directly. With some email marketing software (such as Symphonie), you can create a custom mail merge tag that will run the mathematical logic to calculate the nearest store on-the-fly. This can be useful if you are computing many different distances, or your IT department can’t provide the resources when you need them.

Also keep in mind that it doesn’t have to be store locations. In our last post, we used similar data to compute the favorite teams for various locations. By creating separate fields for favorite teams we were able to use the data both for dynamic content purposes (example: If recipient lives in San Francisco, show the Giants image) and for merge purposes (Inserting the “favorite team” field in the email content).

Fine-tuning the Data

One thing this technique doesn’t take into account is the fact that some people don’t choose to shop at the store nearest to them. They might not like the location, or the personnel, or maybe they are using a mail drop that is located in another part of town. Gathering actual in-store data requires either a POS system that connects to membership information, or the credit card information obtained during purchases. As a rule, this isn’t that critical. Most people will understand why you showed the closest store. If someone does complain, you can always adjust their nearest store information to reflect their preference.

If you’re collecting address data as part of your email marketing effort, the best way to maximize the usefulness of that data is by adding geolocation data to the mix.

Content Blocks, Design, Dynamic Content, Email marketing

Using Content Blocks and Dynamic Content

Content Blocks
Too often, articles and blog posts that talk about Dynamic Content never go any further than telling us we should use it because it’s good for open rates and clickthroughs. While this may be true, there is seldom any actual information on how to use Dynamic Content in a mailing. Partly this is because every ESP is different and giving specific details on a procedure might only confuse someone who is not using that software, but mostly it’s because it is a lot harder to come up with examples that are relevant without getting into the details.

In this article, we’ll be creating an email using Content Blocks and Dynamic Content to show you how to generate highly personalized mailings. We won’t go into the details of adding the preheaders and menu bars to the top of the mailing or the CAN-SPAM information at the bottom—we’ve covered that material elsewhere on this blog and in the Goolara white papers. Instead, we’ll be looking exclusively at effective ways to use Content Blocks, Mail Merge and Dynamic Content in a mailing. You won’t find some of these features in low-end email marketing software, but most of these features should be available from the better ESPs. We’ll be discussing two parts of an email: A paragraph using Dynamic Content for personalization, and a Content Block for sales purposes. Here is an example of the final email as it would appear to someone living in San Francisco:

Anatomy of an EmailWe’ll discuss the two sections indicated above in reverse order, starting with the map and store information at the bottom of the email, which was created using a Content Block.

Set Up

In our example, the content changes dynamically based on two pieces of information about the customer: their store location and the nearest sports team. How this data is collected is beyond the scope of this article. The information you’ve collected is almost certainly different from what we are using here, but this should provide an ample demonstration of the power that one or two pieces of demographic information can have on an email when you use Dynamic Content.

Content Blocks

Content Blocks, as the name suggests, are blocks of content that are created outside of a mailing and are inserted into the mailing based on different qualifiers. In our example, we’ve used a Content Block to display a specific store’s information based on the recipient’s location. Content Blocks can be substituted into a message in the HTML or the plain-text section, or both, but the HTML section is the more interesting one. Any HTML elements can be added to a Content Block, including images, links, text, and all the standard HTML formatting.

You may have hundreds of stores, and creating a Content Block for each one will take some time, but once the work is done you can reuse these Content Blocks over and over in any messages you send. Make sure that the opening and closing tags for every HTML container inside of a Content Block (table tags, for instance) fall within that Content Block. Closing them outside of the Content Block will break the design.

In the email, Dynamic Content will identify which Content Block to insert using simple IF/THEN logic. If the recipient is in a certain city, then show that city’s Content Block:

If-then exampleIn the example shown above, the recipient’s location is listed as San Francisco, so they’ve received the Content Block for the San Francisco store. If the person had no location information, either no Content Block appears, and the area collapses, or you provide a generic default Content Block. Note that some ESPs will not collapse the Content Block area, so you’ll need to provide alternate data if this is the case. Otherwise, you’ll end up with a gap in your design.

As with the Content Block creation process, entering these IF/THEN rules might also take some time if you have hundreds of options, but once the logic is defined, the rules can be saved and easily be inserted into subsequent messages without having to re-enter anything.

Dynamic Content Inside Content Blocks

With some ESPs (such as Goolara Symphonie), it is also possible to use Dynamic Content inside of a Content Block. When this feature is available, it increases the power of Content Blocks exponentially. In our example, most of the information remains the same, but we’ve inserted the recipient’s membership number below the store hours. You could also use this feature to add information to the URL’s query string for tracking purposes, although you’ll need to contact your ESP on the correct procedure for doing this.

Dynamic Images

The primary content in the example shown above features a sale on baseball team bedspreads. You could pick a team, and use that image for everyone, but we have location information for the recipients already, why not make this more personal? Recipients living in San Francisco will receive email that shows the San Francisco Giants bedspread, while those in Boston will see the Red Sox design. Likewise, the links in each example take the recipients to the corresponding product pages. Recipients who do not live in cities with products tied to their local team will receive a more generic version of the information that takes them to a page displaying all the choices.

Of course, the fact that a person lives in a certain city does not automatically mean they support the local team, but the odds favor it. Even a New Yorker living in San Francisco who continues to support the Yankees will understand why they received the information for the Giants. You’ll still need to watch your clickthrough and open rates to see if this campaign proves successful, but that will always be true, no matter how sure you are of a campaign’s potential.

Personalizing Messages with Dynamic Content

The first section in the email is the primary sale area. We could have used a Content Block for this section as well, but it’s more work than is necessary. Since most of the primary message stays the same, and we are only planning to make this offer once, we’ve used Dynamic Content to accomplish the same effect with less set up. In our example, we’ve used the location information to determine which sports team-related product to display. We’ve also used it to change certain words in the text to reflect a specific team. Here is the final result with the areas changed using Dynamic Content highlighted in yellow:

Dynamic Content hightlightedWe were also careful to make sure that all our images are the same size. Technically, this isn’t necessary—the software will replace the image no matter what size it is—but it does help avoid potential layout problems. As you can see, most of the text in the first paragraph remains the same. In this case, the city is part of the demographic data, so a simple merge is used to insert the city name, while the team name is inserted dynamically based on the city.

Dynamic Changes within the HTML

An even faster way to make dynamic changes to your content is to use customer data to make link and image changes directly in the HTML. For instance, if we had a data field for the team name, we could use this data to easily change each link in the email like so (dynamic changes shown in red):

dynamic content in HTML linksThere are some limitations to this approach—words with special characters and names with spaces are not recommended, and not all email mail marketing software can track the resulting links, but under the right circumstances, dynamic changes to the HTML is a fast and efficient way to incorporate personalization into your mailings.

Adding A Coupon

Below the first paragraph is a coupon offer. As mentioned in our last article, coupons are a great tool for retail marketing. You can use generic codes that are the same for all mailings, but with Dynamic Content, you can change the codes accordingly. Using the same logic as shown above, you could make a code for members (for example: GOGIANTS) and another for non-members (GOTEAM). If your email marketing software allows you to create Dynamic Barcodes, you can create even more sophisticated coupons using Dynamic Content.

In our example, the paragraph above the coupon also changes dynamically based on the recipient’s membership status. Premium members are given a bigger discount than regular members, and non-members see a special offer for joining.

Using Preview for Multiple Testing

As with any email, you should always test it before you send it. When dealing with mailings, such as this one, that contain large chunks of Dynamic Content, sending test emails isn’t always an efficient way to check if everything is working correctly. You could create several different test accounts, each with different demographic information, and send to these, but there’s a quicker way. If your email marketing software includes a preview function, try selecting a gamut of recipients, each with different demographic information, and view these in your ESPs preview function.

Only Limited By Your Data

As you can see, the possibilities, while not unlimited, are vast. You are really only limited by your own data and the capabilities available to you. Using either Content Blocks or Dynamic Content in your mailings expands the possibilities for personalized, relevant mailings. Using them together can push your email marketing to a new level of engagement. If you’d like more information on using the features discussed here in Goolara Symphonie, contact us toll-free at 888-362-4575.