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We're witnessing an unprecedented explosion in digital communication technologies. Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, Snapchat, Slack — the options are practically endless.

And yet email — conventionally viewed as a decades-old dinosaur — remains most people's preferred way to communicate. And it’s not only older people. Forrester reported (membership required) that consumers between the ages of 12 to 17 are using email more than Snapchat or Facebook. Despite Snapchat's growth, email adoption is growing much more rapidly.

The medium remains the best way to build an audience. Yet many companies still aren't doing email right. They bombard customers with bland corporate speak and hope their half-hearted attempts at "personalization" will do the trick. It's time to evolve. Here's how.  

The Inbox Sanctuary  

Thanks to smartphones and Wi-Fi, email is omnipresent. It’s also consumers’ preferred way to communicate with brands (by a landslide). In fact, research from the Data & Marketing Association (DMA) found 73% of people report email as their preferred marketing channel, trumping eight other channels, including social media, text message, online (e.g. web banners), face-to-face, messenger apps and phone.

That's good news for marketers, since email offers several advantages over other forms of digital communication. 

Email newsletters are the rare medium that's opt-in — recipients choose to sign up, and they can unsubscribe at any time. So marketers don't waste time and money targeting audiences that haven't expressed any interest in their products. Email also avoids some of the privacy concerns plaguing newer technologies.

Related Article: Marketers: Stop Abusing Your Email Lists

Personalization Isn't Enough 

Many companies have embraced personalization, the buzz-y concept of using customer data to customize greetings, taglines, body text and delivery schedules to maximize the chance of engagement. And that's smart — personalized email campaigns boast higher open and click-through rates than non-personalized campaigns.

But too many firms stop there. Research from the Relevancy Group shows about half of all email marketing contains no more than basic personalization, which consists of low-cost tactics like following up with inactive customers.

Email marketing must evolve from personalization to humanization. While personalization is unidirectional — companies talking to customers — humanization is bi-directional, a continuous back-and-forth relationship. Effective humanization creates a deep, authentic connection with the audience. 

Related Article: Marketing Automation, Beyond the First Hello

The Human Touch 

So, how can marketers humanize their email campaigns?

First, marketing emails ought to be signed by a specific employee, rather than some faceless department or division. Many iconic brands have been tied to one personality: think Elon Musk's Tesla or Steve Jobs' Apple. The same logic applies to email outreach. People connect with a specific, compelling person.

Second, focus on stories. The blunt tools of discounts and flash sales will only get companies so far. To drive long-term growth, companies need to create an emotional connection, and that's only possible through storytelling. Outdoor apparel company Patagonia, for example, regularly sprinkles stories into its email, including a recent one about a hiker's 140-mile journey from Cooke City, Montana to Yellowstone National Park. That's much more likely to woo an outdoor enthusiast than an email with some information about a discounted fleece sweatshirt. 

Third, embrace the visual. Market research shows videos, pictures and GIFs can boost click-through rates by up to 300%. Emails from Airbnb, the short-term lodging company, highlight popular properties with big beautiful images accompanied by just a couple words of descriptive text. Outdoor brand REI regularly devotes the first half of its emails to images related to its outdoor lifestyle products: Sweeping mountain vistas, a family whitewater rafting, and so on.

Fourth, engineer emails for social sharing. Create something people will be excited to show off to their friends. Use emails to promote fun, interesting things you’re doing on social. For example, Fruit of the Loom’s marketing emails explain what people will get from Twitter and Facebook, including a contest to win a product of choice upon following the brand on Facebook.      

Finally, don't always sell. Subscribers want more informational content and less promotional material. Receiving excessive marketing emails is the top reason people unsubscribe. Emails that simply celebrate milestones in the customer relationship, like the first anniversary in the loyalty program or graduating from silver to gold status, build trust and long-term loyalty.

Email is more important than ever. It's up to companies to use it effectively. The days of simple personalization are over. Now, firms must embrace humanization to create a durable emotional connection and stand out from the crowd.