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2020 – The year we unlearned everything we learned

Five facts to bear in mind as we prepare for the New Year.

Here we are, at the end of December, and you know what I’m not seeing? A lot of predictions for 2021.

Now, this isn’t surprising. In 2020, anything I predicted, or anything anybody else predicted, surely didn’t happen. A meme that circulated early in the pandemic sums it up best: “Those who made their five-year plans? It didn’t work out too well.”

We all planned for a better year. For a more interesting and innovative year. For a year that would be “normal.” That didn’t happen.

So, for my last post of this year, I’m not going to spend time predicting 2021 trends. I don’t know anybody who can do that with any hope of accuracy. Instead, I have five facts about 2021 that should guide you as you try to plan for the year.

Fact 1: Retailers must explore ways to market to their customers based on a whole lot of changes that happened in 2020

In the past, we had predictable patterns of behavior in our customer bases. We had the customer group who always shopped in the store. The group that mainly ordered online. The group that needed a discount in order to buy. We had models and segments and lists of people who could be counted on to do X, Y and Z every time.

Then 2020 mixed everything up, put it into the blender and hit “purée.”

The people who used to go to the store? They’re staying home and shopping online. Will they stay there? Now we have people who were never our customers but are our customers now. Will we keep them?

How will marketers determine what types of experiences their customers will bring?

Take me as an example. I always went to the grocery store. I am the home chef. I never ordered groceries online because I liked going to the store and picking out my own things for dinner.

But I’ve had to use Instacart for the last nine months, and I kind of like it. Now, as soon as they let me go back to the store, I will go back rather than use Instacart every time. But there might be days when I’ll let Instacart do the work for me.

My shopping pattern has changed. Now marketers have to learn how to predict behavioral changes like this.

Fact 2: All of our data is in flux

These behavioral changes are upsetting the data apple cart. Also, the United States will be going through a rolling vaccination schedule in which some segments of the community can go wherever they want because they got the shot and certain others can’t. That upheaval means the old behavior models will no longer be accurate.

Marketers used to update their models regularly. “Regularly” might mean every few quarters. Now that pace of change has accelerated.

That’s why nobody can predict what will happen in 2021 in a single model or help you understand what to look for.

Fact 3: We will “unlearn” what we know

To quote Yoda, it will be the year of unlearning what we have learned.

In a recent Sparkpost webinar, I told attendees, “Nothing you have done before will work the way it used to.”

This means you have to go back and look at every strategy you ever had and adapt it to the new customer dynamic.

  • Your welcome email – does it promote your mobile app? Does your mobile app have new functions or reflect any new policies from 2020?

  • Look at your automations. Are the timings right? My car dealer still sends me emails every 90 days telling me to bring my car in for an oil change. But I’ve put maybe 1,000 miles on the car since February. So I ignore those emails, and that’s a lost opportunity for my dealer.

  • Review your transactional messages. If you operate both ecommerce and stores, do your emails mention curbside or in-store pickup? Have you extended or updated your return policies to adapt to 2020 changes? All of that information needs to be in your transactional messages.

  • What about your customer segments? You surely need to update them. That might require new data in your ESP if you’re replicating data out of your CRM. And how do you think about segments for 2021?

Fact 4: We need new models and data

If you don’t have extensive models that are run out of your CRM and pushed to your ESP regularly, you need to ask for new data. And you need to find a way not just to ask for the data you need but also come up with the best way to get that data.

Recently, at a online conference, where I was a panelist, someone asked me the best route to find out information about customers.

“Ask them,” I replied.

Progressive profiling is not done as often as it should be. When done right, it can yield great results. Yes, it’s self-supplied information and has an expiration date and bias. That’s because the data someone gives you is often what they want you to think about them, not who they truly are, as their behavior shows.

So, you pair it with behavior signals to see if the information your customers gave you is valid.

Here’s how you can make all that work:

Set up – or revise – an onboarding email series in which you ask key questions in each message that build on answers your customers gave you in earlier messages. This is essential for retailers whose business plans and models have changed dramatically over the last 12 months.

Fact 5: We need to help each other learn

As upsetting as this pandemic era has been, and as much as we have struggled to chart the right course through it, this time reminds me of the early days of email marketing.

I joined the email industry in 1998, working at a start-up business in Omaha, Neb., where I was running both the email and affiliate marketing programs.

It was an exciting environment because people shared what they had learned, what they tried and what worked. I remember vigorous discussions with prominent people about abandoned-cart and abandoned-browse emails and what we could do about them.

What we could do was limited, back then, but we learned from each other and shared everything in white papers, speeches, educational sessions and conferences.

I hope that free flow of information and the eager willingness to share it with others continues. This is not the time to guard our secret sauce. Yes, you can continue to have your edge, to do what helps you succeed. But now is the time for marketers to get involved with each other, to share ideas, ask questions and learn from each other.

What we will see now is a rebirth of the email industry – unlearning what no longer applies and relearning, from our own experiences and the lessons from our peers, what will work in the new environment.

The foundation doesn’t change. Email is still the strongest digital channel. Along with the foundational elements – the welcome, promotion, transactional, attrition, and automation – those are the core elements that you must get right. How you execute each one of those – that’s what you must change and update.

Wrapping up

Once again in the online conference, someone asked about starting to work with AI and machine learning. My answer was to call the ESP or email agency and ask for help.

That’s my answer to anyone looking to revamp a program right now:

Ask for help. Do it today. Don’t wait.

That week between Christmas and New Year’s Day where you normally take a breather? It’s the perfect time to think about what you need to revise and improve.

It’s going to be a heckuva year in 2021. Those of us who survive it will be talking about this time for years to come.

I would love to create a badge for any marketer who made it through to December. If that’s you, pat yourself on the back. You did a great job.

Now, what’s next? And how can you help your fellow marketers make it to December 2021?

This story first appeared on MarTech Today.

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