Relational vs. flat file systems

Do you know where your email marketing is headed? Ideally, it’s headed down the path of hyper-personalized, one-to-one marketing. But hyper-personalized is only going to happen if your ESP supports a relational database.

Relational vs. flat file systems

Although many marketers have recognized the benefits of relational databases for several years now, surprisingly few email service providers (ESPs) support them—although iPost does. If you’re planning to take your segmentation to a new level this year, or to increase the sophistication of your email marketing, you need to know how a relational database differs from the usual flat-file one—and how critical this might turn out to be when choosing your new Email Service Provider.

So… what’s the difference? If we use an analogy, you might say a flat file database is two-dimensional compared to a relational database which is three-dimensional. A flat file database is literally flat. A relational database is theoretically 3D. And this difference matters…a lot.

Flat file formats aren’t ideal for email marketers

A flat file database is limited in functionality. In a flat data file, you have to add a new field or overwrite the existing value every time you want to add new data. This expansion means you can only get a “low res” version of data surrounding a member (and by member, we mean customer, subscriber, etc.).

If one member is generating more “data” than another because they are more engaged with your brand and you’re able to collect a lot more information about preferences, buying patterns, interests, and so on, you’d have to add a field for each type of data you’re collecting, even if another 10 customers aren’t generating the same amount of information. And if those 10 other customers are generating different types of data, you’d have to add those fields for each of them too…until you’re adding all kinds of fields that are empty for all kinds of customers. Clunky and cumbersome? You bet! You’ve got the data, yes, but not in a usable form.

And if you go the route of overwriting the last order with the newest order information to support your efforts, you will have lost crucial information about that member making it very unlikely you could ever achieve the sought-after hyper-personalization. In addition, if you wanted to calculate past orders and use the flat file structure, you could have your IT team calculate this and send it to the ESP. Yes, I said rely on your IT team for any marketing change…therein lies the problem, as I am sure you understand.

Why Relational Databases Work Best For Email Marketing

A relational database lets you “relate” one piece of data to other pieces of data without having to add new fields. You simply have the data in different tables that can be integrated—and used. It’s kind of like “unlocking” the data. You can have a table with only one record per customer tied to another table that contains the actions, or even a bunch of different tables. These tables can be tied to other tables opening a universe of data. This is imperative if you want to produce great and lasting email results.

(Read more about the differences between flat file and relational databases here.)

Why relational databases lead to better email marketing

A relational database is how you do one-to-one email marketing—and more, because you can also tie together offline data as well as data captured from social media and other forms of cross-channel marketing when you’re using relational data—even sources such as web analytics, eCommerce, your CRM system, point-of-sale data and more. You can capture all of this data in the appropriate places and then tap into it for email marketing.

From an email perspective, therefore, a relational database gives you unlimited possibilities for segmenting and targeting. With a relational database, you can relate different types of information to a member, customer or subscriber, enabling advanced segmentation that can be advanced enough to be one-to-one.

For example, let’s say you have 8 data sets for one customer but 18 for another. Don’t you want to apply all 18 pieces of knowledge to your marketing to that particular customer, rather than be limited to the data that customer has “in common” with the other you only have limited data on?

This kind of targeting can even happen within a household. For example, a wife, husband, and child might all have an account with the same account number but a marketer might send the same message to everyone in the account and other times just to one person. Netflix is a good example of this. We have only one account with Netflix but we receive different emails based on our interests as individuals.

One-to-one Personalized Marketing

One-to-one marketing is how you’re going to one-up your competition, because it’s the relevant, targeted and timely messages enabled by relational data that lead to higher open rates, click-throughs and conversions. In fact, I’m not even sure how a marketer can truly achieve this kind of “individualized” marketing using a flat file format.

There is a way to do this with an ESP that doesn’t support relational databases and that’s to do it outside of the ESP then push the information to the ESP to be used. But that adds another layer of complexity (and work for you!) that doesn’t have to be there. As mentioned above, you need to rely upon your IT group to do this and easy changes and investigation of data and testing new segments typically are not easily accomplished in this paradigm.

iPost is an ESP to consider for Relational Database One-On-One Marketing

Even if you’re not at the point yet when you want to be having these kinds of conversations about a relational database and one-to-one marketing, knowing what your ESP does and does not support is the knowledge you need now so you can plan ahead.

But be wary, because sometimes ESPs will tell you that yes, they support relational databases when they don’t. They leverage a relational database in their architecture to run the application. However, there are only a handful of ESPs that allow you as the client to leverage this structure “in-account” and build a custom data structure. Even fewer make this information truly accessible and usable.

If your email is falling flat and you’re ready for more, choose the ESP that supports relational databases—for real.