The email marketing community has had all eyes on privacy shifts in recent years—for good reason. Last year marked the launch of Apple’s Mail Privacy Protection. Google’s plan to end third-party cookies by 2023 remains a key element of its Privacy Sandbox.

There’s a lot of uncertainty about the future of data privacy and what it will mean for email marketers. But we know that change will come—and the dust will eventually settle. We marketers will find ourselves challenged to think and do differently—and eventually, in a newer normal. Yet again!

I believe email marketing will prove to be the power player in this adjustment. But to make that pivot as seamless as possible, we’ll first have to use our email programs to proactively build first-party data—and store and segment that data effectively.

What first-party data is–and why it has become so important

The “textbook” definition of first-party data is pretty straightforward: individual-level data collected from your audience, on your own channels.

But that explanation doesn’t capture why first-party data is so important for email marketers to build. First-party data puts the emphasis back on self-reporting and how critical it is. Your prospect or customer inherently gives you permission to know more about them. Every time they say “yes” to providing their first-party data, they are saying “yes” to a continuance of their relationship with you.

That consent is incredibly powerful–as is the responsibility that comes with it. Consumers expect that the business they trust with their information will use it effectively. As privacy restrictions become even more of an issue in coming years–which will absolutely happen–the emphasis will be on having your own data.

How email overcomes typical first-party data challenges

There are many ways to collect first-party data–from loyalty programs to website and app activity. But email is the closest thing in marketing to a one-to-one connection. Done well, it’s the next best thing to an actual conversation. Any marketer can run an ad targeting people based on age or a set of specific interests. But the effectiveness of that data set and or the ability to personalize based on it will never be as powerful as the data collected in email.

Why? Almost all of the data points we gather via email or form fills are self-reported. The subscriber is telling us how they’d like us to market to them. It’s our job to take that information and make use of it.

Here are four strategies that can make building your first-party data in email more beneficial to you and your subscribers. 

Consider what data you have–and what you still need

The first-party data you capture by way of your email marketing is the most important source of truth you’ll find; it came right from the horse’s mouth with their permission and encouragement. But email subscribers are probably engaging in your app, social media, on your website or in a physical store or place of business, too.

Looking at engagement across multiple platforms will give your big picture data view. Through that lens, you can take stock of what information you currently have–and what you still need to know.

Identify what data points to prioritize

You and your subscribers get the most value out of first-party data when you take the time to prioritize what you really need to know. (And anticipate that it’s subject to change at any given time!)

Start by identifying what data points you want, based on the biggest strategic impact. If you’re a retailer and knowing your customer’s birthday is a key part of your promotional strategy, focus on how you can collect that data for as many customers as possible.

If you’re a B2B brand and a person’s role and company size will determine how you present your solutions, collecting that information should be your top priority.

Only ask subscribers for as much information as they can stomach at one time–and make sure you know how you’ll use it to provide value on the back end.

Keep your data collection gentle

You’re playing the long game when you’re building first-party data–but it shouldn’t feel that way to your customers. Tools like progressive forms meet the customer where they are without burdening them. These essentially swap out fields of information you already have about a person from a past visit, with a new field that asks the next best thing.

When you have their attention, don’t forget to borrow from the age-old “while I have you” tactic. For example, “you’ve told us you love summer dresses–do you like to wear heels, sandals or tennis shoes the most in the summer?”

Hierarchically set data priorities based on your current database

Building first-party data with email can present a “chicken or the egg” conundrum. Do you start with strategy– or collection of the data? Both need to be tightly aligned so you don’t have endless data points that aren’t complete.

Start by considering how your audiences differ–both in what they value and how they may respond. Then decide how that will play into your first-party data collection strategy.

At Litmus, we serve both B2C and B2B audiences. We know they are very different business models, and that our data approach can and should change based on how they identify. When we’re collecting first-party data that may mean that in some campaigns, we apply a unique strategy for our B2C brands. After all, they have different interests, tactics, approaches, channels than a B2B brand.

Once we’ve made that distinction, deciding what to ask requires a hierarchical understanding of the most important data point. For us, company size means a great deal because it determines what kind of Litmus products are most likely to be a benefit. Beyond that, a person’s title may further change the experience we deliver. It’s about understanding dotted lines that connect your audience, and which buckets in your own strategy really matter. One data point can completely inform a contrasting strategy.

Building first-party data for mutual benefit

We as marketers may be driven to build first-party data because of privacy changes–but the audience shares first-party data for their advantage. A study from Publicis Epsilon found that 80% of customers are more likely to make a purchase from a brand that provides personalized experiences. More than once, I’ve put things in an online shopping cart hoping someone will remind me what I forgot in an email–or might send me a discount!

Data collection and management is a continual challenge;  it’s not a “set it and forget it” proposition. Be flexible on what you want to know from customers and how you’ll ask for it. Establish your own “why” for collecting certain types of information, and form an actionable plan to make it come to life in a more personalized and contextually relevant customer experience.

You’d be surprised how much information your subscribers will offer up, once you prove that you are asking them questions with the intent of making their life easier or better.

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