AI in email marketing: Dr. Matthew Dunn discusses deliverability, privacy-versus-personalization, and challenges
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AI in email marketing: Dr. Matthew Dunn discusses deliverability, privacy-versus-personalization, and challenges

Published : July 27, 2023

Welcome to the tenth blog in our ‘Ask the Expert’ interview series, where we bring you industry experts to talk about outstanding practices in email marketing.

Dr.-Matthew-Dunn_Founder_CEO-Campaign-Genius

Dr. Matthew Dunn is a serial entrepreneur and the founder of Campaign Genius, the smart creative platform for email. He has been a startup CEO, Fortune-1000 Senior VP and CIO, and professor. Dr. Dunn is also an award-winning speaker, director, and inventor. He helps companies transform marketing results with personalized, visual marketing content from email/CRM/marketing platforms, short marketing videos, and explainer videos.

In this Q&A blog, Dr. Dunn talks about the pervasive influence of AI across content creation and personalization and the privacy-versus-personalization data challenge in email.

1. Tell us about your professional journey. What led you to become an expert in email marketing, and what kind of projects and experiences have you had in this area throughout your career?

The first job I had with ‘email’ in the title was in 1990, creating and managing the first LAN email technical support team at Microsoft. Email meant LAN email then.  I remained in/around email in different ways through the LAN era as Microsoft created Exchange and Outlook.  Post MSFT as the Senior VP and CIO for the largest ski company in the world, completing Exchange atop our pioneering global VPN was the first major project.  Subsequent jobs, primarily as a CEO, pulled me into digital media, cloud, and edge computing.  Returning to the email space to launch Campaign Genius brought this full circle back to email.

2. We have witnessed the pervasive influence of AI across various industries, transforming the way businesses operate and enhancing their overall efficiency. AI has also made significant strides in revolutionizing how we engage with customers via email. Could you share your expert opinion on the role of AI in email marketing?

AI is a 50-year overnight success story; technologies that properly belong under that umbrella have been part and parcel of email for over a decade.  The Sputnik moment of ChatGPT has given AI public credibility, and funds are beginning to pour into the space.  Like most fundamental technologies, the short-term impact is overestimated, and the long-term impact is underestimated.  For email, specifically, the ripest opportunities in the short term lie in reducing the number of mundane ‘digital manual labor’ tasks involved in email.

3. Which aspects of email marketing have already been transformed by AI, and in which areas do you believe there is still potential for AI to make an impact?

Deliverability is a live example of ‘humans scrambling to keep up with AI’ already! SPAM, inbox placement, and other aspects of email delivery are handled in part by AI, machine-learning and other ‘black box’ algorithms.

Generative AI, specifically, holds promise and peril for the email space.  We’ll see lots of poor uses in copywriting and subject lines. Human+AI collaboration will start to shape up as we figure out how to work with Assistive Intelligence. More technical and invisible-use experiments are already in the market, ranging from ESPs adding AI-driven writing tools (Rasa.io, MailChimp) to AI-powered email clients like Shortwave.com.  True long-term gains will only come when we start thinking beyond point solutions, proprietary band-aids, and gimmicks to deliberate the evolution of industry AI standards.

4. Personalization is key to any successful email campaign. How can AI contribute to the creation of highly personalized and targeted email content? Are there any best practices or strategies you recommend for leveraging AI to enhance personalization in email marketing?

I don’t agree that personalization is key to any successful email campaign!  I think personalization is talked about far, far more than it is practiced because (a) it’s an undefined term, (b) few companies have enough data to do it well, and (c) better privacy practices (and laws) are reducing first-party data more and more.

For email marketing broadly to benefit from AI, we’ll have to move past pretending that first-party personalization is a well-defined, successful industry practice.  Measured by volume, it isn’t. First-party personalization is the Northwest Passage of email marketing — it got a lot of people moving in an interesting direction, but it’s not a practical route.

5. Predictive analytics has received more attention in recent years due to the emergence of AI. How can brands make the best of AI-powered predictive analytics to enhance their email marketing process?

Get analytics out of the email/ESP silo.

6. How can AI help measure the success of email marketing campaigns, and what metrics should be used to evaluate performance?

Get analytics out of the email/ESP silo again. 🙂 AI tools and technologies will be evolving incredibly quickly; they should be focused on a broader view of the business and the customer, not used to dig deeper email-only holes.

7. What are some challenges of implementing AI in email marketing, and how can these be overcome? 

If AI work in email marketing is targeted at trying to get more done with the same email budget and staff, the likely outcome isn’t success. Email marketing teams (and agencies) should slipstream the AI buzz and say, “Give us some time/resources/budget to start figuring this out.” And they should commit time to work with their key vendors and partners to figure it out.  Little tactical ‘copy-and-paste-from-ChatGPT’ patches aren’t going to move the field ahead.

8. AI-driven automation has streamlined various aspects of email marketing, but there is always a need for human input and creativity. How do you think human interaction and AI automation should coexist in email marketing campaigns? In what areas or tasks do you believe human skill is still necessary and cannot be entirely automated?

The current state of generative AI, impressive as it is, is at best Assistive Intelligence.  It’s like getting a free intern who was a straight-A student but hasn’t worked a day in their life.  Give them a shot at success, but check their work and never, ever use that work for customer-facing content without human sign-off, at least at this stage.

9. There are concerns about potential ethical ramifications as AI develops further. How can businesses ensure that AI is used ethically in email marketing? Are there any guidelines or principles that organizations should follow to maintain transparency and build trust with their audience?

Organizations should put hard-nosed policies in place that require that ‘work product’ — copy, code, campaigns, subject lines, whatever — has an employee attached and accountable.  They should equally provide budget and headcount/time to drive experimentation with AI.

10. What are some key skills or knowledge areas that marketers should focus on developing in order to leverage AI in email marketing effectively?

If your job is too overloaded to allow any sense of play, that has to change.  We’re in completely new territory here; a pundit that prescribes ‘how to use AI in your job’ is guessing.  Hands-on experimentation, measurement and collaboration are key.

11. How do you see AI evolving in the email marketing space over the next few years, and what trends should marketers be aware of? Also, what resources or communities can marketers use to learn about and stay up-to-date on AI developments in email marketing?

Change is always messy. Marketers — especially email marketers — want every hypothesis to be successful but forget that ‘that didn’t work’ is a successful test result.

I expect to see many technology vendors make expensive AI feature additions as they run after the AI bandwagon. Many of those features are going to flop.  Part of that ‘ask for AI budget’ above should go to carving out the time to work with your vendors.  Vice-versa, the vendors who double down on customer participation in bringing AI to email are going to do far better in the long run.

Staying ‘up to date with AI’ — impossible.  Developing some fundamental knowledge about the domain is a good investment of time. (Books still rule.)  Take the long view in learning about the space; breathless headlines and shiny-toy announcements will come and go. Real transformation in a space like email will be a game of fundamentals and inches.

The Future Of Email newsletter has a new section dedicated to ‘AI in Email’. Interestingly enough, under the hood, the newsletter itself is AI-in-email-in-action. Each subscriber’s interests are tracked to tailor content for them one to one.

The role of AI in email marketing is undeniably transformative. Its current applications, from personalized content generation to automated campaign optimization, have already driven up engagement and conversion rates. Looking ahead, we can expect even more efficient targeting, predictive analytics, and enhanced customer experiences, cementing AI’s crucial position as a powerful tool for email marketers in the future.

Netcore was recognized as “Ahead of the curve at applying AI to marketer workflow” in The Forrester Wave™: Email Marketing Service Providers Report 2022.

Feel free to get in touch with us to learn about the current trends and futuristic concepts in the use of AI for email marketing and how you can use them to get never-before ROIs.Benefit from our expertise and experience – we send over 20 billion emails a month on behalf of 6500+ businesses across 40 countries.

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