Relevance is Irrelevant

Relevance is Irrelevant

"I call bullshit. Because - in email- relevance is irrelevant, once the consumer chooses you. (Cue the wailing and gnashing of teeth music.) Why do I know this? Statistics."

Everywhere you turn in the digital space, the word “relevant” seems to appear. Relevant ads. Relevant communications. Relevant this and relevant that. God forbid that you’re irrelevant – a ticket that some people (mostly vendors who sell “relevance solutions”) will lead you directly to Dante’s 6th circle. In email, dogma has formed that makes you try to believe that you must – at all times – only deliver product content to your consumers that is totally and absolutely relevant to them at that particular moment.

I call bullshit. Because - in email- relevance is irrelevant, once the consumer chooses you. (Cue the wailing and gnashing of teeth music.)

Why do I know this? Statistics.

In any statistical model I’ve been around, the most relevant piece of information you can have to predict future purchase behavior is past purchase of either the same product or that category of product. It’s such a powerful variable that statisticians usually eliminate it because (a) it skews the model and (b) if you actually had the category purchase data at scale, you really would not need a model. That single data element is so “relevant” that if you had enough of it, you could stop there and live off of that variable to build your business.

In the world of email marketing, we have such a variable. It’s called an email address. The fact that people sign up for your email is far and away the most powerful interest a person has in your product. Signing up for your email is their indication to you that they already find you relevant. (Unless, of course, you’re not getting consent for the email sign up…then you’re just kind of a jerk.)

“But Bob! What if I buy a snowboard and all you do is send me emails about skis!!!!! That’s irrelevant and will cause people to (gasp) unsubscribe!!” This sort of logical objection actually proves my point. People are not signing up because of the relevance of your specific product. They are signing up because of the relevance of your category. Yet relevance shamans – who are almost completely focused on product relevance - are causing email marketers to focus on the wrong point.

The genesis of such thinking seems to come from the success of transactional and triggered emails. Triggered emails are hugely successful email efforts that are small in volume, high in relevance and high in attributed revenue. For example, sending me a flight itinerary after I make a plane reservation is hugely relevant. Then sending me a hotel offer for my destination - or sending me an email to buy goggles after I’ve bought a snowboard - just makes good, logical sense. So why not make every communication that relevant?

The problem with using triggered email logic in “blast” type emails is that triggered customers are so far down the product purchase pipeline that they are fundamentally different than someone who is not yet in that pipeline. Just the same that acquiring a customer is different than managing a customer, bringing a customer to a point of repurchase is much different from managing that purchase process.

The tremendous disservice of the relevance shamans in email is the loss of discovery. Email marketers have been told that they must, must, must delivery hyper-relevant content that they ignore the discovery aspects of emails. If you continually ignore discovery, your email program will enter a death spiral that you’ll end up spending millions to fix. Believe me, I’ve been there. It’s no fun.

As an email marketer, you are much better off focusing your customer communications on your category rather than on specific products. As people progress through discovery, then let triggered emails provide the information consumers need to make their decisions happen more efficiently.

So back off on the relevance, people. They already like you. Make sure that you open up your communication to show consumers what else it is that you have. Because THAT’S the relevance they’re searching for.