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Email is something of a contradiction. On one hand, marketers love email marketing because of its track record in building relationships, converting leads and generating sales. But on the other hand, email overload has given the practice of email marketing a bad reputation.

How do we resolve this tension? The problem associated with email overload isn't about volume: the real issue is that of relevance. If you get a lot of emails but they're all relevant to you, then those messages add value.

In 2014, make it a priority to improve the relevance of your newsletters and other email marketing communications by following these tips:

  1. Figure out your target audience's content needs.

Relevance starts with a deep understanding of people's needs. Some tactics - getting people to opt-in, researching subject lines, and driving email subscription sign-ups - are no-brainers. But if you don't know what your customers want from you, your email-marketing program is less likely to satisfy people's needs in the long term.

An ad hoc survey will help optimize frequency or satisfaction rates among your subscribers, but you should go beyond that. Longitudinal studies done through insight communities and other research methods can help identify unmet needs and problems your email-marketing program can help your customers with.

  1. Get a complete picture of your customers' tech habits.

Email is just one of the many ways you can reach a customer. How people buy is very nuanced, with the path to purchase differing by category shopped, age, gender, and other variables. That's why email marketing works best when combined with blogging, social media and other tactics.

Marketers often forget that relevance is more than just about content; it's also about the medium. In-store promotions, for instance, might be more relevant if pushed via an app instead of an email. Similarly, some promotions might be more relevant to your Facebook fans than your email subscribers.

To optimize your marketing programs, you need a complete picture of your customers' habits, including the way they use social media, smartphones, and tablets to make their purchases. With a clearer picture of how various mediums affect purchasing, you are more likely to develop an email-marketing program that adds value to people's lives.

  1. Verify what analytics tell you.

Email-marketing programs now provide robust analytics to show you what works. Numbers can show you whether your emails are resonating with people or not. But there are a couple of important considerations when analyzing email marketing analytics.

First, don't look at just the success of one campaign, as doing so can be misleading. Ebbs and flows can be one-offs, so take them with a grain of salt. Look at your activities over a number of months and look for longer-term trends.

Secondly, don't forget to validate what your analytics tell you. For example, if your click rates are dipping and you suspect it's because of your email's design, show email mockups to your insight community to test your hypothesis. Your analytics can tell you what is happening, but it's not always apparent why things happen, so check with your customers.

  1. Don't get too creepy.

There's a fine line between being relevant and being intrusive. Email retargeting, a tactic that is increasingly getting more traction, is a good example. The technique works by triggering follow-up emails based on the respondent's recent online activities, delivering a more relevant experience by inferring people's current needs from what they previously looked at. While often an effective marketing tactic, retargeting can also creep out people if the execution is poor.

Companies claim that they use data to improve people's web experiences, but more consumers are becoming concerned with how companies actually use this information. It's up to marketers to navigate the grey area of what's acceptable and what's not, but consumer insight can help gauge people's comfort levels when it comes to various remarketing practices.

Despite all the talk about email overload, emails are here to stay: a recent ExactTarget study found that 67 percent of marketers say that email is core to their business, with 57 percent of the respondents planning to increase the number of emails they send out in 2014. If you're part of the majority of marketers putting more effort in email marketing this year, assessing the relevance of your marketing programs now will help ensure that your messages land in people's inbox and that they clearly communicate the value of your products and services.

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