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Targeted vs. Typical: Evolution of a 20 Year Old Email Playbook | Lessons from Sendlane and Obvi

Targeted vs. Typical: Evolution of a 20 Year Old Email Playbook | Lessons from Sendlane and Obvi

Last Updated:  
May 9, 2024

The way DTC marketers reach their customers in an omnichannel environment continues to change. Whether it’s due to changes to anti-spam legislation, privacy features, or adding multiple touchpoints with customers through community engagement and SMS messaging, DTC businesses need to have a clear strategy for communicating their value proposition to both customers and prospects. 

Some people think email marketing is a thing of the past, but that couldn’t be further from the truth! 

At The Whalies DTC event in New York last month, founder of Sendlane Jimmy Kim joined Ron Shah, CEO of Obvi for a presentation about how we can take the old email marketing playbook and toss it in the trash. Plenty of things have changed with respect to email marketing in recent years, and the addition of SMS marketing has meant companies are often overcrowding customer inboxes and texting them at the same time. And over-sending can only result in overspending. In this article, we’ll review the three lessons Jimmy and Ron shared in their presentation on the main stage at The Whalies. If you’re a watch and learn type, check the link out below!

But first, let’s talk about what’s changed with respect to email marketing over the last few years and why it’s impacted the best way to send emails.

The Five Biggest Changes to Email Marketing in the Past Decade

In an editorial for CMS Wire, Chad S. White shared the 5 biggest changes from a decade of email marketing, which I’ll summarize below.

1. CASL, GDPR, and CCPA have gone into effect

Basically, it’s illegal to email someone marketing content without their explicit permission in Canada, Europe and some other countries. While the USA hasn’t adopted a blanket anti-spam law across all states, some states are slowly enacting their own anti-spam legislation, like the CCPA in California. While the law is slow, many states are expected to follow suit. This changes a lot about how you can email your customers, and is only expected to get tighter.

2. Apple introduced privacy features to protect user data

In September of 2021, Apple introduced Mail Privacy Protection, which hides a user’s IP address so senders can’t link it to your other online activity or determine the user’s location. It also prevents senders from seeing if and when the user has opened the email. Unsurprisingly, this had a huge impact on email marketing efforts, making it difficult to understand email analytics, deliverability and design. 

3. Ability to centralize cross-channel data in customer data platforms (CDPs)

At long last, the ability to centralize data from several platforms in one (*cough* Triple Whale *cough*) enables us to have a holistic view of customer behaviors. This enables marketers to serve customers better via email, or maybe connect with them on the platform they use most, like SMS (more on that later). 

4. Utilizing email in concert with other marketing channels

Compared to a decade ago, there are plenty of other marketing channels that can be used in combination with email marketing. By setting up segmentation and automation of messages on both email and SMS channels, DTC brands can create a synergy with their marketing efforts and send messages in a way that makes the most sense. 

5. Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning have their hands in email marketing, too

We’re fans of AI and ML, of course. A decade ago, all of the email marketing content was driven by a single human (or several). But now? AI and ML can assist with selecting the right audiences, deciding which email content will work best, choosing times to send, writing email copy, and more. As AI and ML continue to improve, there could be further roles that are taken over by the robots versus us sitting here and banging away on a keyboard…

Leverage the Most Important Intent Signal in Email and SMS Marketing

A lot of what doesn’t change with email marketing are the basic flows most businesses set up (and we’re not saying these are bad):

  • Pop-Ups: Collect leads through pop-ups on the website
  • Newsletter: Blanket “email blast” or message to customers about sales
  • Automation Flows: Welcome email, Abandoned Cart, Post-Purchase, Replenishment
  • Big Sales: Holidays or times were there are plenty of marketing messages
  • SMS Blast: “batch and blast” to everyone on the list (where you’re not applying the learnings from email to SMS)
  • Segmentation: know the goals behind audience and create targeted audiences for automated flows

So a lot of businesses just set up their flows like this and let them run. And they’ll produce some sales, but they’re not truly optimized. When we look at paid media, on the other hand, every day is optimized. When you’re spending money on ads, you’re deciding which ads are converting the best and investing in those. And the top of the funnel is supported with retargeting: 

This isn’t done enough in email and SMS, and we’re not using the most powerful signal of all: contextual data. The truth of the matter is, the customer shows you what they want with their behavior. And the loudest behavior is the ‘click’. 

How Contextual Data Improves Email Marketing

Customers are telling you what they want through their behavior. Contextual data can include:

  • Behaviors: opens, clicks
  • Website visit(s)
  • Purchase(s)
  • Cart abandonment

A lot of information is contained in a click, because it shows intent or interest. But oftentimes, we’re not really listening closely enough. With the click, the customer tells you how to sell something to them. Not convinced? Here’s some data from Obvi that tells the exact story.

Before Obvi really paid attention to what customers wanted, their email data looked like this. Over 100,000 subscribers, 2-4% of which clicked through on an email (2000-4000 clicks), and a 5% conversion rate (for 100-200 sales). Not terrible, and pretty typical numbers for email marketing. 

But then they asked a question: what about those 1900 to 3800 people who didn’t make a purchase? 

The best way to learn about what a customer wants is to send a campaign that has tagged links inside. Sendlane is able then to enter the user into a new automation flow, so if someone clicks on a link that says men’s shoes, they can receive a targeted SMS about a sale on men’s shoes 3 hours later. 

This is a targeted approach versus the typical one, which would be to send a generic blast out to everyone, which just doesn’t work as well. Which brings us to the first lesson:

Lesson 1: Your Audience Tells You How It Wants To Be Sold To

To understand what your customer wants, you need only ask: the answer is right there! 

In an example from Obvi, getting a deeper understanding of your audience can come from sending an email that offers people a great variety of open-ended questions. 

This has customer buy-in for a few reasons: 

  1. It’s optional. A customer doesn’t have to participate if they don’t want to. 
  2. It’s informed. The customer knows that they’re clicking through and consenting to providing that data, because they want to help.
  3. It’s relationship-building. By clicking the link, the customer feels as if they’re contributing to bettering Obvi. It makes them feel like their opinion and goals are valued.

On the technical side, how does it work? Using Sendlane, Obvi tagged each of the above “health and fitness solutions” so each click was a pathway. In the end, they were able to discover a clear winner for which solution their customers were seeking, and it was ‘weight loss’, with 14,000 of 14,194 responses. Doesn’t get much more clear-cut than that! 

After they got this valuable information, they decided to drill it down even further. Weight loss is a pretty broad umbrella, so what did the customers specifically want? Did they want to burn fat, tone their bodies, get another diet plan, or increase their energy levels? 

They added four tags to this second email to discover that the majority of people focused on weight loss were looking to burn fat - 67% of responses clicked the ‘burn fat’ link.  

Obvi used this information to their advantage and changed their overall messaging. They used to market their product as a wellness solution, with benefits like improved skin and nails. Now that they knew most of their customers wanted to burn fat, they could go all-in on their fat-burning rhetoric. 

The result of their marketing efforts after making this change were pretty staggering!

When hitting the customer base with the marketing they were looking for, Obvi had an improvement in AOV, higher revenue, and a giant increase in both Campaign and Automation sales: 

Using tools like Amped to get more personalization in pop-ups, Elevar to understand ad data, Nostra to increase site speed, and Pretty Damn Quick to create an Amazon-like experience for their checkout, Obvi was able to fully understand what their customers wanted, and acted on it. 

Lesson 2: Retention Marketing, Not Email and SMS Marketing

Obvi realized that the most important part of marketing is the audience. When it comes to retention, there should be an entire department circling around bringing a customer back to make a purchase. The old “batch and blast” technique should be a thing of the past. 

There are 3 segments you should be using as a base for your marketing efforts:

  • Prospects
  • Customers
  • Customers (2+)

With those three segments as a base, you can then layer on top with behavioral things like engagement data, time between purchases, clicks, page visits, etc. to dig a little deeper. Get focused on building those segments, as a customer who has been on your list for 120 days is not the same thing as a prospect that opted in 120 days ago. 

Each segment also needs its own distinct goal:

Prospects: Goal is to get the first sale

Customer: Goal is to nurture to 2nd sale

Customers 2+: Goal is to advocate and nurture for repeat sale

Since each segment has its own goal, the way you talk to each segment will be different. For example, different campaigns, flows, subject lines, and calls-to-action will reflect those specific goals first and foremost. 

When it comes to prospects, you want to get aggressive with them. You need to win them as a customer. Once they’re customers, you go easy on them. It’s easy to fall into a trap where you bring them together and market to them the same way. But you shouldn’t!

Lesson #3: Send to the Right People in the Right Channel

Not only did Obvi adjust their messaging, they also were able to unify their stack with email and SMS under Sendlane. 

Before Sendlane, they were sending over 8 million emails. When they started to dig deeper into the type of messaging that would resonate with their customers, they could get better results with less messages. That means better ROI in addition to funds saved on sending emails that weren’t landing. 

By having their SMS and Email data under one umbrella, they were able to determine that SMS was converting better than email, which led them to cut the emails sent while multiplying their SMS messages. Obvi believes its increase in revenue came from unifying email and SMS under Sendlane, and they wouldn’t have been able to understand the impact separately. 

The key, according to Jimmy from Sendlane, is understanding which channel your customers prefer. Some people just don’t check or read their emails anymore, and SMS is easier to open/respond. If you’re sending customers communication through both channels, they most likely prefer one. Save yourself some coin by not sending them messages on the platform they don’t use. 

Unifying the stack means: 

  1. No data delays
  2. Clear attribution (even better when you use Triple Whale!)
  3. No more over-messaging: set exclusions cross-channel
  4. Better customer experience (based on cross-channel behaviors)
  5. Ability to evolve your playbook (everything in this playbook hedges on the fact that you’re unified.

After Obvi unified their stack, they sent more targeted emails and less “90 day active” blasts. They adjusted their SMS sending from “mass blasts” to targeted follow-ups based on the contextual data from the customer’s previous behavior (ex. If they clicked on “burn fat”, they got SMS texts with messaging about burning fat). They doubled-down on weight loss messaging and were able to enjoy higher ROI because they were marketing what their customers were looking for. 


It can be easy to over-message content to customers, especially in today’s marketing environment where it always feels like more messages = more purchases. Obvi’s little case study shown here indicates that more is not necessarily better. The first step is to discover what your customers want. With that knowledge, you can tailor your messaging to your goals - whether it’s grabbing that first sale, nurturing your existing customers, or building a community with the customers who have come back several times. When sending messages to the right people in the right channel, you’ll have better results because you’re reaching customers where they’re active with content they’re more likely to vibe with. Take these findings and apply them to your own marketing efforts and see if you’re able to have the same success! 

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