{!firstname}, Think Before You Personalize

If you’ve been subscribing to email marketing campaigns for any length of time, you’ve probably experienced personalization several times.

How much of it impresses you? How much of it makes the email feel “personal?”

Yeah… me too.

Lately, I’m wondering whether as email marketers, we’ve allowed ourselves to get lazy with personalization, and whether we can do better.

I can hear some of you thinking, “But personalization gets more opens and clicks!”

But Does It?

I’ve heard numerous marketers say it does. And it’s entirely possible – if not likely – that at least some of them regularly test this and continue to find it to be true.

But when’s the last time you tested it?

I’ll be honest here and say I haven’t tested it in quite a while – partly because other tests are more interesting or exciting (like testing what happens when you add social networking links to your emails).

Besides… Is The Click All That Matters?

A recent pair of articles has me thinking about what it means, in practical terms, to take a long-term approach to email.

I’m subscribed, as I’m sure you are, to many email lists. Many of the campaigns I receive have subject lines like:

  • Justin, Do You Have a Minute?
  • Exclusive Savings for Justin
  • Justin – Good news and bad news 🙁
  • Hi Justin
  • JUSTIN, Save 30% For Two Days Only!

Now, let’s face it: a lot of these emails would get the average person to open them. I opened them.

But does that mean they’re a good idea? What do you think of someone when they send you an email with those subjects?

  • Justin, Do You Have a Minute? – I did. And I just spent it on your email. Was it worth it?
  • Exclusive Savings for Justin – Is it for all people with my name? Is this National Justin Day? Why not just say “Exclusive Saving for You?”Personalization here, while it might get more opens, makes no sense when you read it.
  • Justin – Good news and bad news 🙁 – Good/bad news for whom? This one isn’t the worst I’ve seen, but if the news isn’t really good or bad from the subscribers’ point of view, then you’re taking a very “me-centric” approach to your relationship with subscribers. Not good.
  • Hi Justin – this screams “I’m spam!”There’s technically nothing deceiving about saying Hi to someone in the subject line, but… it just feels wrong. It feels like a subject line that a long-lost friend or relative would use to reopen communication with you after disappearing for years.

    Wouldn’t you be mad to get an email with that subject, open it, and find it was an email campaign?

  • JUSTIN, Save 30% For Two Days Only! – Quick personalization tip: Don’t put my name in ALL CAPS, even if that’s how it is in your database.This is why in AWeber, you can use the “fix” version of several variables (example: {!firstname_fix}) to correct any incorrect capitalization.

How much more likely are you going to be to unsubscribe if you get an email with a subject like these? How much more likely to click “Spam?” How much less likely to open other emails later, or recommend that company to someone else?

Isn’t There More To A Truly “Personal” Email Than A Name?

Personalization isn’t a bad thing in and of itself. But when it gets misused for the sake of an extra open or click, it becomes a bad thing. It also becomes less effective over time. And it allows us to think that we’re creating “personal” emails just by merging a name into the message.

A truly personal email addresses the subscriber’s needs, desires, fears, preferences and other aspects of their personality.

Truly personal emails look at things like:

  • Which emails an individual subscriber has opened and clicked through from in the past
  • Where on your site s/he visits
  • How s/he originally found you and what inspired him/her to sign up to your list
  • And a lot more things that aren’t coming to mind at the moment

A lot of this isn’t typically considered personalization – it falls more under discussions of segmentation and targeting. But I think it’s worth considering that relevance and personalization are somewhat interchangeable when we think about it from the subscriber’s perspective, and not our own. A relevant email is personal, and a personal email is relevant.

Making truly personal emails isn’t easy. And I don’t profess to be the example to follow; I’m going to be re-examining a lot of the emails I send here at AWeber as a result of this discussion.

Care to do the same?

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77 Comments

  1. Jon

    3/2/2009 12:12 pm

    Carl, thanks for those stats. The click-through almost doubling is quite significant. I think what we forget as internet marketers is that our clients usually are NOT internet marketers.

    Most of my readers refer to my emails as "that letter you sent to me" — so personalization seems to work well for my audience too.

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  3. Penny G

    3/22/2009 2:47 pm

    Ha! Ha! Ha! If this catches on it will foil ALL my fun! I love to sign up for email info that I am interested in using fun and fictional 1st names! I am currently known as "silly sal" and "goofy gerty" and son on! I first started using this technique to see who, if anyone was passing on my email info – I never actually had that happen – and it just became an interesting thing to do!

    Sincerely yours,
    silly sal!

  4. Will

    3/24/2009 7:52 am

    Think about this…

    How many times do you email your friends/family and include their name in the subject line? How many times do you email your friends/family and begin the email with ‘Hi John’? When speaking with your friends/family one-on-one, how many times do you address them by their first name?

    If you’re anything like me then the answer to all those questions above will be… NEVER!

    You all need to think long and hard about the relationship you are trying to develop with your subscribers. I, for one, want to develop a personal/one-on-one relationship with each one of my subscribers. I’m not going to achieve that by using their first name in the subject line and opening each email with ‘Hi John’, etc.

    This may have been very effective years ago when no one else was doing it. These days when I read emails with personalised fields, they make me feel like just another number on a list. No one who REALLY knew me would call me by my first name like that.

    For those of you that disagree and have tested personalization and have found that it gets more of your emails read, I suggest you run your tests for much longer. If you use personalization every once in a while it can be effective – but as soon as you start to use it day in and day out, I guarantee that you will start to notice a less responsive list after just a few months.

    Marketing is really so simple. It’s made even easier for a small number of us because the vast majority of marketers out there try to be clever and jump on every band wagon that passes them by. Forget about what everyone else is doing and ask yourself this one simple question… "Is this how I would talk to a friend?"

  5. Ash Waechter

    3/24/2009 8:18 am

    Will, you do not like hearing (or seeing in this case) your own name? I do not care what the statistics say; people love to see and hear their own name no matter how contrived it may seem. Just ask Ed McMahon who offered you, Will, a million dollar sweepstakes.

    Will, I do agree with your comment about the subject line, but I almost always use my friends’ name in the salutation (i.e. Hey John, usually just John,)

    Also, I find it incredible rude not to use someone’s name in an e-mail. I am guilty of it but only about 5% of the e-mails I send out. This includes e-mails to friends and family.

  6. Karin H.

    3/24/2009 8:27 am

    LOL, well I do address my friends in every email starting with

    Hi John or Mary.

    Starting an email to friends without this simple and respectful salutation is in my eyes rather rude. And yes, I do mention their name when I talk one-on-one with friends or family. same reason.

    I like to treat our prospects, clients and subscribers with the same caring attitude. So they receive personalised email messages from us.

    And you know what’s really great about this: when they reply to one of those messages they start with
    Hi Karin

    Now, how’s that for relationship building? Achieved by {firstname} both in subject and first sentence of email

    So, each its own – you cannot say one way or the other is the correct way. We all will decide for ourselves on what works best for our business and our subscribers.

  7. Will

    3/24/2009 8:55 am

    Ash,

    It may be that we use email for different purposes. My friends and I use email to communicate quickly and easily with one other. For that reason I don’t think I could tell you the last time we have started an email with "Hi, John" or even just "John". For us, email is a quick, convenient, and casual way of interacting with one other. I don’t think that is rude, we use it so frequently that those formalities are not needed or expected.

    Karin,

    I think that there is a difference between how certain age groups use this type of communication. Younger people these days, like myself, don’t worry about all the formalities. I know my parents though would probably address their friends by a first name but only because they are emailing each other so infrequently. But I don’t agree that including a persons first name really means you care about that person anymore or anyless. I care about my friends and family.

  8. Karin H.

    3/24/2009 9:22 am

    Will, I won’t dare to suggest you don’t care!

    But contrary to your experience, and I’m sure it is due to the type of contacts we attract, but even younger people (20 – 30) on our lists do start their reply with Hi Karin.

    So that shows us again that every business – doing things right – targets, gets and addresses those prospects, clients and subscribers they seek as preferred clients.

    I do worry about formalities, that’s the way I’ve grown up and been taught by my parents, teachers, mentors etc. There is simply no one correct or incorrect way, we can only learn from each other’s experiences and see how that fits into your own preferences in how you like to do business.

  9. Dr. Myatt

    3/24/2009 9:53 am

    I’m betting that the "best answer" is different in various target markets. For example, when you "personalize" to a group of marketers, they all know about the personalization feature and don’t get the same "gee he sent this just to me" warm fuzzy that others might.

    I’m in the health field and when I use personalization, I get responses back from folks indicating that they thought I really sent a note just to them. It’s marvelous!

    Guess the true bottom line s always test, test, test.

  10. Nicky Jameson

    3/24/2009 8:53 pm

    @ Will – You seem to be intent on telling people what they should or should not do… it’s up to each person to do what they feel works for their audience and what they feel comfortable with. What works for you isn’t necessarily right for someone else and threads like this encourage sharing what everyone else is doing, not ignoring it.

    I for one address my friends and family by their first names when I email them or write to them (with the exception of certain members as I don’t call my parents by their first name and never have done). And I usually use Hi or hello. Obviously if one is going back and forth in a conversation or texting or similar, using the salutation isn’t necessary. But as a marketer I am not writing to my family or friends – so it’s not quite the same thing. When it comes down to it I am writing to people with whom I want to build relationship and do business with.

    When I write my newsletters I actually do care about the people I am writing to. I am not writing to a number I am writing to a person who has indicated they want to hear from me. When the reply to me they start with Hi Nicky…

    I like and prefer people emailing me to use my first name… and my open rates have indicated that those on my list like me using theirs. I believe formalities matter to my target market and those I want to reach. Even though they may seem "old school." And I believe it’s just polite that, if you know someone’s name it costs little to use it.

  11. Marco

    3/25/2009 1:42 am

    The old rules of direct marketing state:

    – when you write to prospect, don’t use personalization.

    You haven’t been tongue in cheek yet, so it’s just polite.

    – when you write to clients, use personalization

    In my opinion, name in the subject is still strong because normal people don’t understand there is something like AWeber: if there is the name in the subject this is an email someone sent to me.

    The problem with personalization is that someone (like me) put a phony name when doing the optin (I put the name of the product so I remember which list is which) personalization goes south. Even worse is when someone put nothing in the name (never put name mandatory) and the emails go like "Hello , here is…".

  12. Jim Dixon

    3/25/2009 6:37 am

    When homogenized, the sum of the experiences of all you fine readers adds up to one thing: anything you do ALL the time is bound to be wrong at least SOME of the time. Different markets, different demographics, different purposes–common sense alone dictates that an identical approach in each case can’t possibly be correct! Life experience alone provides all the "testing data" you need for that assessment!

  13. Karin H.

    3/25/2009 8:46 am

    "The problem with personalization is that someone (like me) put a phony name when doing the optin (I put the name of the product so I remember which list is which) personalization goes south."

    Make sure your ‘promise’ doesn’t need ‘tricks’ like this, would be my answer. If you are truly interested in what’s on ‘offer’ I believe I would remember which ‘list’ is which.

    Jim: hence testing for the best – or in other words least wrong least of the times – method for every individual business using AWeber 😉

  14. Elaine Heirigs

    3/25/2009 4:48 pm

    Interesting article. I just stumbled it.

    As a marketer, I always get mad a my husband who types everything in all caps. Although, the only good thing about him typing in all caps is when we get junk mail I can say, "see this is because of you." 😉

    As for me, I never open a personalized subject line if I don’t recognized the From name or email address.

  15. Will

    3/25/2009 11:47 pm

    Nicky,

    Don’t JUST concentrate on your open rates, they don’t mean a whole lot at the end of the day. Open rates are only really useful for telling you one thing – which subject line is performing better than others.

    Sure, emails with a personalized subject line will more than likely attract a higher open rate because they stick out a lot more in between all the other emails people receive, however this doesn’t mean that the people who open those emails actually read them or take any action.

    I’ve done it countless times when I’m sifting through my email and see my name and automatically just click on the email, but then I quickly realize it isn’t from a friend and delete it without reading.

    Unless you track how many people opening the emails, how many of those people are then clicking on your link, and how many of those people then turn into a sale or action, then you can’t really say you have tested it to be true…

  16. Ash Waechter

    3/26/2009 8:58 am

    "I?ve done it countless times when I?m sifting through my email and see my name and automatically just click on the email, but then I quickly realize it isn?t from a friend and delete it without reading."

    Will,

    You make a good point here. I find myself doing that a lot, especially when I get e-mails from Indian Web Developers named "Ian Smith" who want to sell me their services.

  17. Nicky Jameson

    3/26/2009 11:06 pm

    Will, I don’t recall saying I JUST relied on email open rates or that I wasn’t tracking anything else.

    For the record I tend to look at who the email is from as well as seeing my name before I open it. I take an action if the content interests me. But that’s me. Like I said, everything is a matter of experimentation and no two groups are the same. You do what works for you and others will do what works for them.

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  19. David Lindsay

    1/17/2010 3:24 pm

    Isn’t the subject line the equivalent of the address on an item of direct mail that arrives through the physical front door? I might not open every letter that has my name on it but I am less likely to open one that doesn’t have my name on it.

  20. Lee

    1/24/2010 5:55 pm

    Justin, I would agree with two things after reading your article and the ton of great comments.

    (A) The only way to truly know is to test.
    (B) As many readers have suggested, the vast majority of subscribers typically will open something personalized to them more often than not. With the caveat being every niche is different.

    Lastly, we have come full circle with personalization in internet marketing. It was in, then it was so 1999, and the only constant has been ‘Trust’. If your subscribers trust you and love the content you produce, they will always open your emails because they are looking forward to receiving them.

  21. Gregg Murray

    3/3/2010 12:05 pm

    Carl – Thanks for running the test.

    Despite all the comments, it appears your test makes it obvious to include {!firstname_fix}. Even if not in the subject line, then at least as the salutation.

    I just use:

    {!firstname_fix}:

    Content starts here…

    My question is, I wonder how many potential subscribers we’re leaving on the page that don’t fill out the form because we’re asking for “First Name” as well as “Email Address?” Seems there could be an increase in subscribers if they only had to fill in their email address. It seems some of the biggest bloggers only ask for email address.

    http://www.copyblogger.com/
    http://www.chrisbrogan.com/
    http://www.chrisg.com/

    Anyone have any thoughts or see any stats on this?

  22. Justin Premick

    3/3/2010 2:49 pm

    Gregg,

    I look at it as a question of expectations – do subscribers expect to get a "personal" message from the people you mention? Or do they expect to get an update (presumably sent to numerous other subscribers) when those people’s blogs have new content?

    For the record, as of 3/3/2010 Chris Brogan *does* ask for name (and some other info like company, phone number, URL) when you sign up for his newsletter (which is different from signing up to his blog via email).

  23. Dennis O Marshall

    6/22/2010 4:58 am

    I read one of my friend’s emails today, and I knew he used AWeber to personalize it but he had something in there that said, "I know you pass by the BMW lot and wish you had that car, right Dennis?"

    For a minute I forgot it was AWeber. I congratulated him because I use AWeber and I was completely punk’d. LOL.

    I love it though. Thanks for such a great site.

  24. Pete RumbaLL

    4/2/2011 3:33 pm

    Any emails that I get WITHOUT being personalised go straight into the Spam Box unopened usually. Of the others, they all get opened, with about 30% acted upon.

  25. Hezi

    12/14/2011 8:00 am

    Great Post Justin ,

    I was always using personalization , but now I will thing twice
    I guess I need to learn more at this aweber help site …Lol

    Big big Tx

    Hezi

  26. Steph

    7/8/2012 6:03 pm

    Apparently “Hi Justin” just reeks spam.

    My Email from AWeber regarding personalising emails started off……

    Hi Steph !

  27. Harold Hansen

    8/26/2014 2:40 am

    I’d put anything to personalize, but nothing that looks like spam, ever!