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Q&A: Mike Hilts, Infogroup Interactive

E-mail can be a powerful strategy for marketers, but challenges in the industry remain, from data management to inbox fatigue to continued deliverability challenges. As president of Infogroup Interactive, Mike Hilts is responsible for leveraging the strengths of both Infogroup’s Yesmail and Walter Karl Interactive brands to create interactive marketing solutions and strategies for clients.

Direct Marketing News’ editor-in-chief Carol Krol recently spoke with Hilts about a wide range of e-mail marketing industry issues, including the crowded in-box, the importance of personalization and triggered messaging, as well as the challenge of data management and the integration of e-mail with mobile.

Direct Marketing News: What is the biggest trend in e-mail right now?

Mike Hilts: At an industry level, everyone is challenged by a much more crowded in-box and a more mature user, so there has been a steady decline in open rates and click-through rates. Marketers are asking, “How do I reverse dwindling open and conversion rates and what techniques can I use to do so?”

Some of the things we’re working on are more sophisticated segmentation strategies, where we look at personas and behavior. We’ve been implementing dynamic content personalization.

With dynamic content personalization, if I use a template for an e-mail with four product images, those will be populated with [different images] based on the target’s persona and behavior. For example, not only am I personalizing to “gadget guys,” but maybe I’m personalizing further by not offering a product to one of those gadget guys because he has already purchased it.

We’re also creating e-mail personalization by delivering conditional content. Personalization usually occurs at message assembly, but we are testing open-time personalization. We’re testing time of day and counting down to a sale price. We’re testing this with a restaurant franchise right now, and specials in the Portland, OR area are different from the promotion in another city. Also, if the recipient opens the e-mail at lunch time, they might get a lunch message rather than a dinner promotion.

DMN: What about social media?

Hilts: There are not many e-mails that go out nowadays where the content is not share-able. Most have a “share this” tag, or a Facebook “like” capability.

Marketers are trying to drive open rates, and they’re trying to integrate e-mail with social. We’ve tied our e-mail with Twitter posts. You can schedule tweets to go out and be posted on your company Twitter handle after an e-mail goes out. We can also structure it so that [marketers] only tweet a message if, for example, it gets a 12% or higher open rate. That builds automation and intelligence into the program.

DMN: Are you doing much in terms of mobile yet?

Hilts: Everyone in the ESP market is dealing with the rendering of an e-mail on a mobile device. It’s not that you can’t do it; you just have to build the right template. You need to have anywhere from seven to 27 different templates for all the different platforms and phones. We came up with a universal format. It’s a huge win for the marketers.

Mobile is going to get a lot of attention, but the industry has not figured out how to harness it and integrate with e-mail. The hot thing right now is couponing and the daily deal-type stuff. That certainly has a mobile tie-in. There’s no elegant way to do the versioning, but you can do a mobile coupon very easily.

There’s text, a form of mobile, and it can be used pretty effectively with e-mail. Then there’s the mobile Web, which includes the mobile website and a mobile version of an e-mail. You need to integrate all of those.

The native applications are an interesting opportunity for marketers. It could also be a threat. You may have a native app running on an iPad, so why sign up for that brand’s e-mail? As e-mail marketers, we’re working with companies to build their mobile strategies.

DMN: What about the data deluge that comes from adding social media to the mix?

Hilts: We’re making better sense of the data from the Web analytics and data providers, so you can do more extensive, one-to-one triggered e-mails. Whenever I talk to customers, I always say before we get down the path of dynamic content, let’s exhaust triggered e-mail programs. There are very few moving parts and it’s all automated.

[Data is] a bigger challenge than before. Companies have not been equipped to deal with Web log data and response data. Online marketing has produced the data management challenge. With online data, you’ve got more data points on customers: e-mail event data, Web event data, and now you can potentially have millions of observations through social media. Now your 1 million records have 30 billion data points to analyze. Some of our top mailers, whenever we send e-mail, our event data is multiple billions of rows of data. Response data has become very relevant and voluminous as well, and marketers struggle with that data that grows exponentially every day and every week.

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