Real-time Content Personalization in Emails

Personalization has become a core element of online and digital marketing (see “Personalization: It’s the Person, not the Persona”). Its presence can be seen on most popular websites, social networks and brand pages. But its marketing value is increasingly off the web, in the form of real-time content personalization of a more traditional medium: email.

What is real-time content personalization?

As you might infer from its name, real-time content personalization requires a connection to data that is both 1) live or nearly-live and 2) relevant to the specific customer. The data is then used to generate dynamic, fresh information that helps tailor otherwise generic content into a unique, on-demand, experience. We see this all the time on websites and mobile apps that instantaneously reflect changing inventories, last minute price drops, and up-to-the-minute editorial.

Why is this important? Consumers have been conditioned to expect, and rely on, this type of experience. If it’s not fresh, it risks not grabbing their attention, and potential customers may move on. Real-time content personalization is about creating an experience between a consumer and a brand that is trusted, relevant, and contextual— all keys to building a solid brand/consumer relationship.

How is it relevant to email?

Email has traditionally been a static medium (list, batch merge, and blast)—it didn’t have the benefit of the always-on, live data connections that power the web and mobile apps. Customer identity and behavior during the long lead time required for designing, pulling lists, and sending out emails was not reflected in the content—pushing it past the “fresh” date.

However, new systems have been developed that now allow real-time content personalization to be implemented within the body of an email. This extends the sales funnel from the web to the inbox, and allows a brand to dynamically shift ongoing campaigns to promote the products and inventory they need to move the most.

How it works

Let’s take two New Yorkers, friends who are both part of the same Weekend Entertainment email campaign that is sent out Friday afternoon at 3pm EST.

The first friend opens his email immediately in NYC. When opened, the email reaches to the Brand’s website and pulls in the hottest local dinner spots directly from its dining page. Each restaurant appears on a map, highlighting the cuisine saved in the user preferences, showing table availability from a reservations partner, the latest Tweets about it, and a countdown timer indicating how much longer a 20% discount will be available. There’s even a local weather forecast to help the reader decide if he should walk or take a cab.

The beauty of real-time content personalization is that all this information changes dynamically within the email. If he opens it again in the evening, the list of hotspots will have changed (this is NYC after all!), and the associated open tables, Tweets, and discounts will all have been refreshed to reflect the latest data.

Similarly, the other friend who traveled to Chicago for the weekend and doesn’t open her email until the following Saturday morning will see information personally relevant to her: Chicago breakfast spots with her favorite cuisine, in the neighborhood around her hotel, with a local map and the current weather forecast.


There are challenges to implementing real-time content personalization. They often require business relationships with 3rd party sources of dynamic data, and technical work to implement API’s that allow access to it. Marketers must consider a number of what-if scenarios (e.g., what if inventory runs out, or no preference data is on file for a particular customer) and also determine what information needs to be real-time (e.g., the latest hotel prices) and what probably does not (e.g., a customer’s preference for cruise travel).

Summing it all up

Incorporating real-time content personalization within emails creates value for both the consumer (receiving relevant, timely, and actionable information) and the brand (by building more unique and deeper customer relationships). And ultimately, if executed thoughtfully, these new types of email experiences create the same level of awareness, urgency, and opportunity that the recipient would experience on a website. The end result can be profitable, real-time conversions.