How Interactive Emails Can Harvest Zero-Party Data, Drive Engagement

6/2/2021 Tim Thies

How Interactive Emails Can Harvest Zero-Party Data, Drive Engagement

Marketers are mighty familiar with the power of personalization — an absolute must for email campaigns. If you’re not catering to a consumer’s preferences, there’s a good chance the email is headed to the trash bin. 

Nonetheless, emails are still missing the mark. I’ve seen research indicating most (if not all) consumers have received mistargeted information. Maybe an offer didn’t show a brand really “knew” their customer. Or possibly an email’s messaging didn’t align with the website experience. Either way, errors like these communicate all the wrong things and potentially damage any earned trust. 

What might that damage look like? Consumers tend to unsubscribe, mark messages as junk or spam, or bypass your website — sometimes “ghosting” a brand altogether.

Personalization and privacy — a balancing act

To keep consumers satisfied, however, better personalization is essential. Yet it must be weighed against data privacy protection. Striking the right balance means sending targeted emails but also complying with privacy regulations (GDPR, CCPA, and CPRA). 

Leveraging and accessing consumer data is a tricky business. To address this conundrum, the relatively new concept of zero-party data is gaining traction. 

A term coined by Forrester Research, zero-party data is information that a customer intentionally and proactively shares with a brand. It can include: preference center data, purchase intentions, personal context, and how the individual wants a brand to recognize them. Marketers use the information to provide and deliver a better, more personalized experience. 

Particular needs, interests, preferences, or favorites, explicitly shared by the consumer, make quite a powerful data set. In fact, Forrester claims that this zero-party data is “the most valuable data opportunity of all.” 

How does it compare with other data? The differences are subtle but meaningful.

Zero-party data vs. first-party data

Since it is directly shared, zero-party data requires no guesswork by marketers. Consumers expect this information to be used for their benefit. 

In contrast, first-party data is accumulated somewhat surreptitiously by a brand. It requires some inference and analysis to be useful, and customers have little control over how it is used. Some might say it borders on creepy. Note the direct comparisons [source]:

Zero-party data   First-party data
Personal context data (e.g., preferences) Behavioral and transactional data
Self-reported by customers Quietly accumulated by brand
Forward-looking, predictive A historical record of events, like breadcrumbs
Meaning is explicit, no guesswork Meaning is inferred, requires guesswork
Customers expect it to used for their benefit Usage is unexpected (and sometimes creepy)
Customers update it to fine-tune their experience Customers have little visibility, choice, and control

Back in 2015, a global study was commissioned by Microsoft and revealed 99% of consumers will share personal info for rewards, but want brands to ask permission. Depending on the report (and the year) that number may fluctuate, but the takeaway remains consistent: giving consumers control of what they share gives them the power to customize their engagement. 

What are some of the means brands use to gather zero-party data? 

  • Customer email preference centers
  • Surveys
  • Quizzes
  • Loyalty programs
  • Product finders
  • Digital campaigns
  • Email address solicitation

Innovative and unique programs designed to capture zero-party data have begun to catch on with some high-profile brands. Creative marketers have initiated a variety of ways to engage consumers and absorb critical information concurrently. 

Vrbo provides a good example of this. The vacation rental site has offered eager travelers a “vacay finder.” Submit travel dates, desired style of vacation, and email address. In exchange for this information, Vrbo serves up catered vacation recommendations. 

This experience is not only effective, but entirely digitally driven. It drives consumers to landing pages or microsites, asking for an email address as part of the process. But what if marketers could intersect this heightened level of interactivity and zero-party data submission within an email? They can (and they should).

Engaging email experiences

Providing zero-party data has literally never been easier (or more fun for an email recipient). Consumers can activate product carousels, put items in carts, enter sweepstakes, all without ever leaving their inbox. 

Game playing, ordering free samples — these are examples of valuable micro experiences where recipients can quickly take action within an email itself. With minimal effort (using code snippets), interaction in an email keeps users from straying from the inbox and on your designed engagement path. 

The mini-events are incorporated into email using AMP, a familiar web component framework that creates user-first experiences. The same functionality that changed websites to make them quicker and more interactive can be applied to email. AMP for email allows for quick zero-party data collection.

Emails have the opportunity to be more personal than ever. Obtaining even just one data point about a consumer can refine targeted marketing efforts. Collecting zero-party data keeps content relevant and engaging — without compromising customer privacy or trust in your brand.


Tim Thies is the Sr. Business Development Manager for ‎RRD Marketing Solutions.

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