email marketing best practices relational databases

Relate With Relational Databases for Email Marketing Best Practices

Below is an email marketing best practices blog we published in the Email Experience Council’s blog. The content is critical enough that we are republishing it here as well.

In email marketing, relevance continues to drive success. No matter what happens in the marketing space or technology space, successful email starts with relevance.

But true relevance means being relevant to every subscriber, and that’s a tall order! With 5,000 or 50,000 or even 500,000 names in your database, how can you be relevant to all of them, all of the time?

By tapping into your data sources. You have the data needed—or can gather it. Then put it to use to be relevant. That data can shape your communications with each subscriber, making relevant one-to-one communications possible. And that means you’re going to have database infrastructure needs that you may not have set up today: a relational database or data mart.

Relational databases are necessary when you have one-to-many type relationships, which most email marketing is. The days of one message to many recipients are over. To be relevant when you’re communicating as one company or brand to many subscribers, you must get different types of data into one common view so you can segment and target those communications. That’s what a relational database can allow you to do.

A relational database is useful for the segmentation and targeting required to be relevant. You want database segmentation and targeting because smaller, more targeted email lists consistently perform better in terms of opens, click-throughs and conversions. Using a relational database, you should be able to search and select based on date ranges, values and value ranges. This enables you to send the right message at the right time to the right audience.

Unless you have an extremely small database with not many fields, you simply can’t manage this with a regular database. For example, if you have a flat database file with one record per person, but for each person you have three actions to keep track of, you have to have three records for each person. In a relational database, you can have a table with one record per person, tied to another table containing the actions. Without this, you’d have to merge that data and each instance would have a unique record. One subscriber record could easily turn into many, and you wouldn’t necessarily know the relationships between them.

If you decide a relational database is the way to go, make sure your ESP is part of your conversation from the get go. There are some pieces you’ll need from them to make it all work. You’ll want to know what kind of data management tools the ESP offers, and if they support relational databases. You’ll also want to know if they can create a data mart or offer integration to a data mart solution, if that makes more sense for you.

You’ll also want to ask your ESP about subscriber keys. How do you—if you have different lists and you different databases—keep track of subscribers? How do you know that the person in database A is same as person in database B? There needs to be one field for that person that ties it all together. That’s what we call a subscriber key.

A subscriber key is a field that contains a value to uniquely identify each subscriber in your system. It enables you to associate different values to that one subscriber. It’s the “key” to making separate relational databases work. If you’re going to use a relational database, make sure your ESP supports a subscriber key other than email address for uniquely identifying a record.

Relevance continues to drive success in email marketing, and it’s ever more important as our emails vie with social media, growing inbox clutter and shorter attention spans. A relational database can improve your relevance…and ROI.

Need help? Turn to ClickMail.

Published On: May 3rd, 2011Categories: Email marketing best practicesTags:

About the Author: Sharon

Sharon Ernst from is on a mission to improve the business and marketing writing skills of today’s workforce with her blog, newsletter and online classes. Her newest class on intermediate email copywriting covers 19 tips and techniques non-copywriters can put to use right away for better results. The class has real-life examples and before/after comparisons to make the lessons stick. Find her class at When she’s not busy helping employees, managers and marketers master their writing skills, she and her husband are busy raising pigs, cows, chickens and vegetables on their 20-acre farm.

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