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With all of the different buzzwords that rise and fall in the language of marketing, it’s hard not to get confused.

But what’s even worse than not knowing the buzzword of the month is listening to people who toss these terms around without knowing what they mean.

Take two words that represent hot topics among digital marketers today: “segmentation” and “personalization.” They aren’t the same thing; yet many marketers treat them that way.

I understand why. We all want to be First-Person Marketers – to communicate individually with customers or subscribers instead of sending one-size-fits-all emails that seldom fit anybody (more on that below).

But one of the biggest challenges to achieving this is understanding the fundamentals of email marketing, one of which is the difference between segmentation and personalization.

Segmentation then personalization

Personalization, at its most basic, can be as simple as merging the recipient’s first name in the subject line or message copy. Don’t think though that this is enough to let you check the box marked “Personalization” in your workflow.

Adding “$$firstname$$” to your email coding isn’t enough to make your customers want to do business with you. What you’re saying, instead, is “Hey, Ryan! Here’s our email, and the only thing we know about you is your first name.”

Personalization at its deepest level makes each customer feel as if your email was sent to him or her alone, because it includes personal information that goes beyond the first name.

This kind of personalization reflects a great deal of thought and effort. The way you get there is through segmentation.

Segmentation comes first in the process, and personalization is the result. Segmentation means you put people into similar groups, such as golfers, or wine-buyers. Or golfers who also buy wine. Or even left-handed golfers who like wine. Now that’s relevance as personalization in its highest form.

Using segmentation and personalization wisely

The first thing to know is the terms. As I said above, segmentation and personalization are not interchangeable. Personalization is the destination, and segmentation is the vehicle that gets you there.

The level of effort to use “firstname” as your only personalization is pretty low, and you don’t get bonus points from anybody for doing it.

What gets you points – and purchases, bonuses and promotions – is creating relevant segments and personalizing your email to those segments.

That’s the important step. That drives home the message and makes the personalization in that message show your customers you care, you know them and you give a damn about them.

Personalization for First-Person Marketing

Here’s why it’s important to nail down segmentation and personalization in your email marketing program:

It isn’t just to avoid looking like a goober in front of your boss or your fellow team members. It’s your first step towards becoming a First-Person Marketer.

First-Person Marketing isn’t the new marketing buzzword. It’s a fundamentally different approach to email marketing.

A first-person marketer recognizes a list of email addresses as a group of people needing to be addressed as individuals. A First-Person Marketer sees that everyone is different, so everyone should have a different experience.

This is where segmentation comes in. You have many different types of people on your list. So, create a segmentation plan that speaks to those types. If you’re launching a new segmentation program you might not blow it out on your first pass, but whenever you refine it you take another step toward becoming a First-Person Marketer.

Segmentation starts with data

If personalization is the destination and segmentation is the vehicle, data is the fuel that drives you between the two. You need data to build segments. You don’t necessarily need a huge arsenal of data to be able to segment, but the more information you have, the better and more efficient your groupings can be.

As well as the email address, you also know (or you should be able to tell) when each subscriber joined your list. There’s another data point you can use to ask yourself, “What’s different about each person, or groups of people, on this list?”

You’ll need more detailed data to move to the next level of segmentation, where you can create truly personalized email. If you don’t know whether your customers are golfers or tennis players, if they prefer white over red wine, or even if they’re male or female, you can ask them. You can look at prior purchases. Or, you can buy data that tells you whether this customer is a red-wine biker or a left-handed golfer.

Looking ahead with First-Person Marketing

Don’t forget to ask your CRM group to see whether they already have this data. And then find a way to make your email and CRM databases talk to each other so you can get to that advanced segmentation that leads to true personalization.

When this happens, you become a true First-Person Marketer who is ready to tackle all of the challenges coming our way as digital marketing evolves.