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5 Steps to Improving Subscriber Data for More Personalized Emails


When I started at the Content Marketing Institute in 2012, I sat with founder Joe Pulizzi to discuss the 2013 marketing goals. Back then – and still today – everything revolved around email subscribers and event (Content Marketing World) attendees.

Ever ambitious, Joe’s goal was always “double it.” And yes, double them we did. From email subscribers to Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn followers, and more.

Fast-forward to fall 2015 when we were planning for 2016. We had over 150,000 subscribers. Wow! But really was it really a “wow”? At most points of subscriber entry, we purposely only asked for email addresses and maybe a first name. A long lead form could dissuade people from subscribing so we were satisfied with just having an email address. But learning more about our subscribers would allow us to truly customize messaging to them.

Learning more about our #email subscribers would allow us to customize messaging, says @cmcphillips. Share on X

Additionally, learning more about our subscribers also would help our Content Marketing World marketing because over 75% of CMWorld attendees are subscribed to one or more of CMI’s newsletters.

That year, working with Joe and Audience Development Manager John Hanson, we determined that a “complete profile” (translation: usable and actionable) would include:

  • First name
  • Last name
  • Email address
  • Company
  • Company size
  • Job function
  • Industry
  • Country

Of our 150,000 subscribers, we had that robust data for only 8% (12,000). Meaning we were doing a disservice to 138,000 subscribers because we couldn’t deliver the most valuable and relevant content for them.

Over the course of the next two years, our subscribers increased 40% (not double, but not a bad number), but, more importantly, complete profiles jumped from 8% to 48%.

What we did

1. Created a taxonomy

Creating a consistent taxonomy across CMI product offerings, such as the blog, webinars, CMWorld sessions, and Chief Content Officer subscriptions, allowed us to tie consumer data to the subscriber record. These include the following data points:

  • Email/blog post clicks – Date/topic/category of blog post read by subscriber
  • CMWorld session attendance – Topic/category/speaker of session attended by subscriber (acquired through badge scans at entrances)
  • Webinar attendance – Date/topic/category/speaker of webinar that subscriber registered for and/or participated in
Create a consistent taxonomy across subscriber data collection points, advises @cmcphillips. Share on X

With that data, we gain a holistic view of each subscriber to see whether he/she focuses on a certain discipline within content marketing, or if the individual is likely to only open emails on Thursdays. We can gauge the subscribers’ implied interest based on their habits.


Exploring the audience data as a whole tells us which speakers, authors, or topics resonate with the audience, which then can inform content planning for the blog and CMWorld.


2. Aligned the forms

Whether a CCO subscription, a Content Marketing World registration, a webinar sign-up, or something else, the registrant sees the same drop-down menus for industry, company size, country, job function, and more. Making the data collection uniform means the naming conventions in our CRM all match.

When your data collection is uniform, the naming conventions in your CRM will match too, says @cmcphillips. Share on X


3. Created more lead-gen opportunities

Because the original points of entry for many subscribers only require an email address, we expanded the ways for subscribers to give us more information. We increased our webinars from two times a month to three times a month, added some new gated e-books to the website, and added the CCO subscription form to more pages on the CMI website.

4. Worked on data matching

With an email address and possibly other data, we completed the subscriber profile using two methods:

  • Identity data management – If their name, company, and location were known, this software solution would help populate the missing data.
  • Manual labor – Though slow and tedious, a search of Google, LinkedIn, and other resources helped us fill in missing fields for many subscribers. This was a great way to learn more about our customers. Additionally, if the manual search determined the name, company, and location, then the identity data management software could do the rest.

5. Implemented progressive profiling

Repeat webinar attendees or e-book readers had been telling us the same information about themselves in every sign-up. John (our audience development manager) set up a progressive profiling model within our marketing automation system. Through progressive profiling, we asked different questions to discover new information from repeat customers such as the number of employees for the company and annual revenue. These progressive profiling opportunities make our database much more robust.

Don’t ask your audience the same questions over and over. Use progressive profiling, says @cmcphillips. Share on X


Why it helped our customers

CMI sends many emails to subscribers – emails featuring the day’s blog posts, emails containing a digest of the week’s blog posts, an original letter from Joe Pulizzi or Robert Rose, dedicated emails from partners, and CMI promotion for webinars, events, and programs. Roughly a quarter of our subscribers opt in for every single one of these emails.

By using the intelligence gleaned from this new data, the database can be segmented for more targeted emails.


To garner Content Marketing World attendees, our promotional emails are segmented to make the content more relevant to the recipient. These segments include:

  • Alumni vs. new attendees
  • U.S.-based subscribers vs. international subscribers
  • Cleveland-based subscribers (who live where CMWorld is held) vs. other U.S.-based subscribers
  • Within-driving-distance markets (Cleveland, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Columbus, etc.) vs. other U.S. markets
  • Enterprise vs. midsize vs. small business
Segment promotional #emails to make the #content more relevant to the recipient, says @cmcphillips. Share on X

Industry-specific emails

CMI also can segment based on industry data collected from a webinar or CCO subscription form, or retrieved from actions taken on our website. Thus, we can send a message to a subscriber that is specific to their interests like this:

Because you are in the finance industry, we’d like you to know about our Financial Content Marketing Industry Lab at Content Marketing World. And you also can learn from KeyBank, Merrill Lynch, and other financially related brands speaking during our main event.

This focused outreach enables CMI to increase the attendee yield because, for example, the attendee not only purchased the industry lab pass but added a main conference admission because the individual learned it would be beneficial to his or her specific needs.

Third-party emails

CMI partners, sponsors, and benefactors have an opportunity to purchase dedicated emails to subscribers. It used to be an all-audience-or-nothing offering. However, in many instances, a product or service wasn’t something the entire database would be interested in. Through our updated database and segmenting capabilities, we can now segment our emails to offer smaller, more relevant lists (e.g., technology marketers in California). That ability benefits the three entities involved:

  • Sponsors pay less for a targeted, highly desired audience.
  • CMI can charge a small premium on the CPM.
  • Subscribers receive more relevant offerings, and potentially fewer emails.

How it has helped CMI

Paraphrasing Chief Strategy Advisor Robert Rose, CMI wants to send the fewest number of emails to our subscribers to be as effective as possible. We want them to open CMI emails as if they were created just for them.

The proof is in the numbers. We’ve had:

  • Fewer email sends (cost savings for CMI, happier subscribers)
  • Increased open rates (happier marketing team, happier sponsors)
  • Increased clicks (one step closer to conversion)

In the end, our goal is to garner more email subscribers and more event attendees. By giving customers what they want, we’re able to build a stronger, more trusting relationship with them, so when they’re ready to invest they know that CMI and Content Marketing World knows their interests.

What about you? Do you take a “double-it” approach? Have you adjusted to emphasize quality more than quantity? Please share in the comments.

Want to be one of CMI’s valued subscribers – and experience the data connection process yourself? Subscribe to the daily emails or weekly digest.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute