Despite what pundits may say, email is not dead. In fact, email is undergoing a Renaissance, holding strong as the workhorse of commercial communication campaigns while returning $39 for every $1 invested, according to the Direct Marketing Association (DMA). And with the proliferation of connected devices creating tremendous opportunities for marketers to engage customers in new and exciting ways, those marketers must go beyond creating great content to providing something more that stands out from the crowd.

Don't get me wrong: content is still king, reigning supreme over the consumer demand for digital engagement. Today's technology requires further enhancement of the digital experience. In other words, a great king needs a compelling queen.

That's why when it comes to the future of email personalization, context is queen. Contextual data consists of the visual and invisible cues that make a message relevant to that person on a specific device at that particular time. Unfortunately, there's a disconnect between the success of personalized emails and reality: while 68 percent of marketers feel they are doing a good job in regards to personalization, 70 percent of consumers think marketers are doing poorly.

Gone are the days of the "Dear [insert name here]" email personalization techniques that falsely give marketers a sense of accomplishment while discouraging consumers. If marketers are going to successfully connect with consumers through effective cross-channel campaigns, then they are going to have to enhance the consumer experience by deploying a contextual marketing approach.

What is a contextual marketing approach?

Contextual marketing is all about creating helpful and timely experiences for consumers as a brand. This approach leverages truly relevant information to improve the consumer-engagement experience, creating real-time value and interactions that customers will actually care about the moment they open an email.

One of the focuses of contextual email marketing is to deliver better-personalized experiences for consumers. While 77 percent of marketers feel real-time personalization is highly important-with another 80 percent believing it is the top real-time channel-70 percent of consumers feel like personalization is superficial: the result of irrelevant product suggestions, impersonalized service offers, and nonstop email solicitations that can cause consumers to grow numb to heedless brands.

Personalization is no longer a "nice to have"--consumers expect it, which is why it takes a broad range of personalization capabilities for brands to meet today's digital marketing requirements. Fortunately there are effective strategies that can help marketers incorporate the right date, time, and location information with great offers that are custom-fit for individual customer needs.

Context: add value in the right place at the right time

Brands sending customers emails for last-minute deals on flights out of their hometowns are perfect for travelers looking to take off on a moment's notice to their next weekend getaway. But receiving that same flight deal when a customer is already on the other side of the country can leave a customer jaded by monotonous personalization efforts.

Contextual email is all about understanding location, preference, and time to deliver helpful, compelling experiences. Whereas content has always focused more on the "what" of an offering, context is all about the "when" and "where." Organizations that understand the importance of creating contextual email can effectively increase customer engagement while ultimately driving brand advocacy.

Consider a flight scenario where a customer leaves Boston and is traveling to San Francisco. Receiving an email before the flight in Boston containing local information, and then opening another email upon arrival in San Francisco that is filled with Bay Area news, maps, and weather, creates immense value for the traveler you are interacting with. These interactions increase customer engagement in the long term, and ultimately serve to drive brand advocacy.

Marketers have several specific data segments they can prioritize during their next email campaign, creating context for consumers that is relevant to their needs in real-time from the very moment an email is opened.

  • Contextual imagery -- Travelers landing in a city should be presented with imagery representing their new location. Creating contextual imagery gives customers the first visual cue that your brand is striving to deliver applicable content.
  • Local news -- Brands delivering hometown news certainly create value for customers when they are home, but that value disappears the moment they step foot in another city. Delivering local news in real-time tailored to a consumer's current location proves your brand is there to help keep them informed.
  • Weather -- Who cares if it's raining back home? When you are traveling, you want location-specific weather right then and there. Prompting your brand to utilize geolocation to deliver location-specific weather forecasts in emails further enhances the personalization experience, all while keeping your customers out of the elements.
  • Personalized, relevant offers -- Let your customers know if their favorite baseball team is playing in the city they have just landed in, and if so, what time the first pitch is. Customers appreciate genuine personalization delivered contextually through real-time email.
  • Contextual directions -- Providing directions to the nearest hotels, best restaurants, and local venues the moment your customers land in a new city will help them have better experiences wherever the road takes them-experiences that serve to reiterate your brand's value and worth.

Consumers Win, Brands Win

Email still plays a lead role in marketing campaigns, but the competition for opens and clicks is fierce. By delivering contextual email that demonstrates a need to provide customers with the most relevant, helpful, and valuable real-time information possible, the queen of context can help brands show consumers they really care.