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Could a Relational Database Give Your Email Marketing a Significant Edge?

The world is growing ever more complex and businesses right along with it. And the more complex a business becomes, the more sophisticated its email marketing strategy must be.

In order for that to happen, most business will need to use a relational database as part of their email technology. Or maybe I should say all businesses will need to have a relational database–those that want to compete and succeed, at least.

What is a relational database?

A relational database is “a database structured to recognize relations among stored items of information.” In other words, you can “relate” a piece of data to other pieces of data without having to add new fields. From an email marketing perspective, relational database gives you unlimited possibilities for segmenting and targeting.

This differs from a flat file database which is limited in functionality. In a flat data file, every time you want to add new data, you have to add a field. For example, consider a restaurant that wants to track which food and drink items specific customers order so they can target future marketing messages appropriately to those customers. The restaurant might want to track data such as how often the customer dines there and when, what they order and their beverage choices, their average meal ticket amount, etc. So when they are working on their restaurant email marketing plan, they want to be able to work out who had which dish.

In order to track this with a flat file database, they would have to add a field to the flat file database every single time…for every single customer.

relational database email marketing

Or think of it this way: If you have a flat file database with one record per customer, but for each customer you have four actions to keep track of, you will have to have four records for each customer. To use your data, you’d have to merge that data and each instance would have a unique record. One customer record could easily turn into many records, making the data unwieldy to work with, as well as making all that data vulnerable to human error along the way. (That sounds like a backwoods version of email technology!)

With a relational database, you can have a table with only one record per customer tied to another table that contains the actions.

Why relational databases equate to better email marketing.

The benefits of a relational database are fairly obvious. Next, let’s look at how the capabilities of a relational database translate into better email marketing without dramatically complicating your email technology.

Because you can relate different types of information to a customer or subscriber, a relational database enables a degree of segmentation far beyond what a flat, single table database can do.

Sophisticated segmentation is important because it enables targeted messages that are tailored to individual customers or specific categories of customers. And that’s important because smaller, targeted lists consistently deliver more opens, click-throughs and conversions.

Let’s revisit that restaurant. With a relational database, the restaurant could easily identify its high-value customers, those who eat there more often and/or spend more money. These customers are already loyal, and therefore likely prospects for upselling with email incentives to eat (and spend) even more. Or the restaurant could segment based on time of day, for example, determining who frequents the restaurant for breakfast vs. dinner vs. Sunday brunch. If I’m usually a Sunday brunch customer, the restaurant might encourage me to bring along guests with an email offer for a discounted price on a second person, for example.

The point is, a relational database enables countless ways to segment—and target—customers. And targeted, relevant, personalized emails generate much higher engagement rates and results. (They also protect you from unsubscribes and spam complaints, both of which can hurt your email deliverability.)

The ESP caveat.

If you’re seeing the value in relational databases, and you’re ready to “relate” to your customers in a whole new way, there is one caveat: your email service provider (ESP). Not all ESPs support relational databases. You’ll need to start with your own ESP to find out what’s possible.

With the right email service provider and a flexible database structure, however, you’ll be relating to customers on all different levels and they’ll be loving your company for it.

Hey. I can relate!

Marco Marini
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