If you had to guess, what would you say are the average open and click rates for marketing emails in the sports sector?

According to MailChimp statistics, collected across hundreds of thousands of email campaigns, the answer is a little bit above 25% and 3%, respectively.

Yep, only 1 in 4 people who receive your emails open them and less than 1 in 30 take any kind of action reading through them.

So, when it comes to converting your mailing list and converting to paying participants, there’s things you can do to rise above the average. And one of the most effective is email personalisation.

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💡 A lot of the techniques shared in this article are based on MailChimp’s email marketing platform. If you don’t already use an email marketing tool, you can register for a free MailChimp account. If you use something other than MailChimp, it is very likely your current email marketing platform uses something similar.

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What is email personalisation?

We all have an idea what personalisation means in the real world: adapting something to suit the needs or specifications of an individual.

Personalisation can take many forms, from in-flight special meals and personalised hotel welcome cards to bespoke tailoring and beyond. And when it comes to email, the objective is very much the same: delivering an experience that is specifically tailored to each recipient.

Unlike real-world personalisation which can be often cumbersome and expensive, email personalisation is fairly straight forward and can be easily scaled up to a large number of individuals. All that is required is the right data (always  obtained with the explicit consent of each individual subscriber) and a bit of imagination to put it to use.

Why should I use personalisation?

The benefits of personalised communications in terms of higher email engagement rates are very extensively documented.

To take just one example, a 2013 study by Experian concluded that just adding your recipient’s name on your email’s subject line can increase open rates by 26%. And when it comes to conversions – that’s registrations, in the events business – a personalised campaign can deliver up to 6 times more results than a generic one.

That’s a lot more people standing at your start line, isn’t it?

Ok – so how does it work then?

Email personalisation works a lot like a fill-in-the-blank form (millenials may need to look those up :)).

Here’s an example. Perhaps, as a race director or racer, you’ve come across medical certificates:

 

I, the undersigned Dr ____________ , Doctor of Medicine, certify that the examination of Mr/Ms _____________, born _________ , reveals no contraindications to his/her participation in running events.

 

This is a good example of personalisation. We start off with a standard template that is the same for everyone and customise it to accommodate the personal details of each participant.

Personalised email works on exactly the same principle by using so-called merge tags instead of blanks.

Merge tags are placeholders embedded in standard email text (commonly in a format that distinguishes them from ordinary text) that change their value from one recipient to the next. Think of them as plugs within standard text where personal information goes.

To understand how they work, let’s go back to the medical certificate and re-write it in terms of merge tags:

 

I, the undersigned *|DOCTOR_NAME|*, Doctor of Medicine, certify that the examination of *|PARTICIPANT_NAME|*, born *|PARTICIPANT_DOB|* , reveals no contraindications to *|HISHER|* participation in running events.

 

What happens when MailChimp sends out a batch of emails based on the above snippet is that the merge tags in the text are replaced with each recipient’s actual information.

So, if you’re sending two emails, one to Alice Young, born 12/12/96 looked after by Dr Harris, and another to Bob Lewis, born 4/4/98 looked after by Dr Stuart, the emails that will go out will look like this:

 

Email 1: I, the undersigned Dr Harris, Doctor of Medicine, certify that the examination of Ms Young born 12/12/96, reveals no contraindications to her participation in running events.

Email 2: I, the undersigned Dr Stuart, Doctor of Medicine, certify that the examination of Mr Lewis born 4/4/98, reveals no contraindications to his participation in running events.

 

MailChimp has replaced the name tags with the participants’ names, the DOB tags with their respective dates of birth and even picked the correct pronoun (“his”/”her”) to seamlessly finish off a perfectly customised sentence. Instead of manually replacing personal information on each email, merge tags have taken care of this for you.

example of mailchimp merge tags

MailChimp provides easy access, review and management of fields and merge tags for your mailing list

Nice!…Now what?

As mentioned above, personalisation is a very powerful tool. You can use it for anything from very simple stuff, like adding a personalised greeting to your email campaigns:

 

Hi there *|NAME|*

 

to, well, anything your data can support, really.

If you’ve got the information and the desire to be creative, you can pull off some really amazing personalised content. And here’s an example.

The Example: Sending out a registration campaign

When registrations open for one of your races, you probably send out an email to your mailing list letting everyone know how they can register for your race. And in all likelihood it looks something like this:

 

Hello,

We just wanted to let you know that Our Amazing Half Marathon is now open for registrations.

To enter please click the button below. Early Bird registrations last until the end of October.

Best regards,

The OAHM Team

 

The good news first: you sent an email campaign to publicise your registration open. Give yourself a pat on the back (if you can). Many races fail to do even that.

Now for the bad news: that email’s a bit too bland. Chances are, to paraphrase Jerry Maguire, you lost everyone at ‘hello’.

So, how do you make it more appealing? Let’s look at a slightly different version of the same email campaign:

 

Hey John,

Keeping fit? We thought you would.

Listen – Our Amazing Half Marathon is open for registrations. Yeah, we know you did the race last year, but how about you come join us again and break 2 hours this time? 🙂

We’d love to see you back. So to help you beat the queues, here’s a quick link to registrations for Early Birds like you.

See you at the start line!

Best wishes,

Alistair (the race director)

 

Put yourself in John’s shoes: would you not rather have received this email?

Now, there’s a number of things we’ve crammed into this email, not all of which have to do with personalisation and not all of which will be relevant in all circumstances. But we did this to demonstrate a few interesting techniques – and also drive home the point about thinking a bit harder when sending out email campaigns.

By the way, this is what the above email looks like with merge tags:

 

Hey *|FNAME|*,

Keeping fit? We thought you would.

Listen – Our Amazing Half Marathon is open for registrations. Yeah, we know you did the race last year, but how about you come join us again and break *|PB|* this time? 🙂

We’d love to see you back. So to help you beat the queues, here’s a quick link to registrations for Early Birds like you.

See you at the start line!

Best wishes,

Alistair (the race director)

 

This email is clearly aimed at a past finisher of our race. You’ll notice we are only using two pieces of information about them here: their first name and last year’s finish time. If someone’s finished our race, this is all information that should be available to us.

Obviously, our finisher’s first name populates the *|FNAME|* tag – easy! But what about the *|PB|* tag?

What we are trying to do with the PB tag is give our reader (and past finisher) an incentive to come run our race again. And one way to do that is to tempt them to go for the kind of time they would want to do this year given last year’s finish time.

For example, let’s assume someone finished last year’s half in 2:05. It’d be reasonable to expect they’d want to go for a sub-2-hour time if they did the race again. So what we do is this. We dig out all of last year’s finish times, bucketise them in groups (say group participants with times between 2:00 and 2:10) and assign them a next year “wish-PB”: the time all these people would want to go for given last year’s time. Which for the 2:00 to 2:10 group would be “2 hours”. This is the information we will use to populate our *|PB|* tag and after that tag is populated a runner having run our race in 2:00-2:10 last year will read on this year’s registration email: “come break 2 hours this time”.

Neat, huh?

There are practically hundreds of ways you could use these same techniques to enhance your email communication and increase your recipients’ engagement with your emails.

By the way…

What about some of the other bits we added on that email? They may not strictly fall under personalisation, but they do help and warrant a mention:

  • The ice-breaker: “Keeping fit? We thought you would” Nothing too personal or over the top here, just something following your greeting to get a friendlier tone going.
  • The personal sign-off: If you’re sending the email as race RD, sign off as race RD and include your name. If it’s your volunteers manager sending out an email to volunteers, get them to sign off by name. Only sign off as “The Team” or similar if you have no alternative.

Conditional formatting

If you’ve made it this far and have been enjoying the lovely cake that is personalisation, you’re gonna love the cherry on top: conditional merge tag blocks.

Now, we saw in the registration campaign example how you can use merge tags to control what subscriber information gets plugged into your email text. That is not all you do with merge tags, however. You can actually control the flow of text itself depending on subscriber information.

Let’s go back to the registration email and let’s assume that you are sending it to a larger list of recipients which may include both past participants and new prospects. It would definitely not make much sense for the new participant prospects to be reading the red bits below:

 

Hey *|FNAME|*,

Keeping fit? We thought you would.

Listen – Our Amazing Half Marathon is open for registrations. Yeah, we know you did the race last year, but how about you come join us again and break *|PB|* this time? 🙂

We’d love to see you back. So to help you beat the queues, here’s a quick link to registrations for Early Birds like you.

See you at the start line!

Best wishes,

Alistair (the race director)

 

Well, you can actually carve out that whole bit of text that is only relevant to past participants using conditional merge tag blocks. And for the purposes of economy you can use the existing *|PB|* tag to do this.

Let’s see what the email would look like with the use of conditional blocks:

 

Hey *|FNAME|*,

Keeping fit? We thought you would.

Listen – Our Amazing Half Marathon is open for registrations. *|IF:PB|* Yeah, we know you did the race last year, but how about you come join us again and break *|PB|* this time? 🙂

We’d love to see you back. *|END:IF|* So to help you beat the queues, here’s a quick link to registrations for Early Birds like you.

See you at the start line!

Best wishes,

Alistair (the race director)

 

What we’ve done here is instructed MailChimp to only show the bit enclosed between the *|IF:PB|* and *|END:IF|* tags only if there is a *|PB|* entry for a recipient in the first place. Since in a mixed past/future participant mailing list only past participants will have valid *|PB|* information (you should keep this field blank for non-finishers for this to work), the enclosed block will only show for them.

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💡 Now that you know how conditional formatting works, can you think of how you could implement the *|HISHER|* tag in the medical certificate example above using your recipient’s gender information?

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Can this get any better ?!

Actually, it can!

Alongside merge tag information that you choose to upload for your subscribers (things like name, date of birth, finish time etc), MailChimp also provides a rich array of intrinsic merge tags you can use in email campaigns.

For example, you can use the *|DATE|* tag to embed the current date in your emails. Or you can use *|OPTIN_DATETIME|* if you want for some reason to show the date a subscriber joined your mailing list.

And remember you can use all of MailChimp’s merge tags in conditional statements as well. So you can, for example, create a block of email only if your subscriber’s joining date was more than a month ago etc. Amazing 🙂

And here’s the full list of available MailChimp intrinsic merge tags.

Deep breath time…

That ends our crash course on email personalisation for race organisers. That’s a lot to take in, isn’t it?

Well, do not stress. This feature is not going anywhere. You can come back any time and refer to it as you build your personalised campaigns.

If this has been your first introduction to email personalisation, may we suggest you start simple? Try adding your recipients’ names in your next communication. But do start now. And you’ll never look back.

Once you master the ins and outs of personalisation – and MailChimp, being the fantastic tool that it is offers an excellent knowledge base to help you do that – it will become second nature. After that, you’ll wonder how you ever sent email out without it.

More advanced MailChimp-ing coming soon, but for now we bid you adieu!

 

READ NEXT: Discount & Referral Strategies: Using Incentives to Sell Out Your Race →