I came across a controversial article that caught my attention the other day.  It was a statement. "People hate email that names them."

The intended focus of the article was to suggest to startups that they shouldn’t be starting their emails with Dear [Name] because a study by the Fox School of Business had apparently found that 95% of people responded negatively to emails that greeted them.

Once I tracked down the research the article was derived from, my interpretation of the work by Fox is that the real underlying point behind it is really this:

“If you just keep pushing sales emails to people without giving them any real value, then you’re going to turn them off.”

Well, no real surprise there.  I’m pretty sure we all get annoyed with this approach – particularly with companies with whom we have a new relationship with (or worse, no relationship at all).  This I would suggest is regardless of whether personalisation is used or not! Not a great technique if you're trying to run to promote engagement through your email marketing.

These are my suggestions on how to think about personalisation:

People I know well

Certainly on a long term relationship I'd recommend personalising where possible - and sometimes, dependent upon the type of communication I'd occasionally also look to use in the subject line to help cut through clutter.

People I don’t know so well

Short term relationship, or particularly on data you've rented, I'd err on the side of caution, as I feel it can certainly cause offense...'where the hell did you get my details?!'. 

But how do I know if it’s a good idea?

As with all things email, successful use of personalisation depends upon your audience and your type of communication, and the only thing that will determine how well it works is to test.  I've seen huge uplift in action or response rates in segments using personalisation compared to those which don't in the past, with negligible increase in complaints or unsubscribes. 

How do I get to know these people better?

I’d also consider that you can set the scene for how you refer to people in your communications at the point of signup - consider a box next to First/ Last Name of 'How would you like us to refer to you?'

For example, most of the time I’m happy with ‘Dave’ – call me Mr. Littlechild and I think it’s a Court Summons.  You may not all feel the same however.

This really goes hand in hand with ‘how often would you like to hear from us?’ and ‘what can we send you that will be of most interest?’

This helps to cement a personal relationship with the recipient at that point, allowing you to continue to address them in the manner they would like with the frequency they’d like to hear from you and what they’d like to receive.  Real relevance.

Is there a trust issue?

I used to advocate personalisation as a form of trust too. I have a pet hate and mistrust of generic personalisations. eg. Dear Customer (or worse, 'Friend' - which also carries a Spam Assassin weighting, so certainly steer clear). 

The reason being is that many phishing emails would in the past have been unable to personalise, therefore by incorporating something that demonstrated the sender knew the recipient went a way to helping to show the sender was genuine.

This example from eBay demonstrates this:

This may however have become slightly diluted in more recent times with some incidents last year of hacking/ data loss of several ESPs and also various websites themselves, but I still believe that overall it can have a positive affect.

If you’re going to use it, use it properly

Not using personalisation is, without question, way better than using it incorrectly.

Get irritated when someone gets your name wrong?  Yeah, me too.  Almost as bad is the "missing record in the data" syndrome, or using the wrong field entirely.  Dear [Zipcode] has never really had great effect with recipients.

How many times have you received Dear , or Dear D?  Most decent ESP’s now have a function to conditionally personalise if your data isn’t fully complete with names, so there isn’t really an excuse for this.

The example below is something else that made me giggle as it’s just plain silly:


Final thoughts

So by way of a 4 point summary in terms of whether to use or not to use:

  1. Ask your recipients when you initially engage (how/ when/ what)
  2. Test with your existing audience to see what works best for them and you with regard to personalisation.  Include with or without and perhaps subject line or not
  3. Make sure the personalisation works across all your database!
  4. Send relevant and valued content.  Always.

Editor's note: To help you develop your email marketing campaigns, Dave Littlechild will be running two courses, October 4 and December 6, with IAB and Econsultancy. Click here to see the full list of courses being offered in New York this fall.

Dave Littlechild

Published 10 July, 2012 by Dave Littlechild

Dave Littlechild is an email trainer and consultant from the UK, now residing on the other side of the pond where, amongst other things he is a contributor to Econsultancy.

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Comments (6)

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Johnathan Conlon

Johnathan Conlon, Email Marketing Manager at Royal Mail

It's the default values that make me shy away from personalisation. Dear Customer (not always correct - who doesnt have prospects in their data), Dear Reader (ugh!).. if anyone has the perfect default value I would love to hear it

about 6 years ago


Jack Jarvis

The original study is looking at personalisation on a very small part (name). Which fair enough will put some people off.

If there is a a risk of offending certain people with little gain from those who are not offended, then the personalisation strategy should surely just focus on relevant content.

about 6 years ago

Dave Littlechild

Dave Littlechild, Owner at DL ConsultingSmall Business Multi-user

Agreed Jonathan. Not sure there is a perfect default; also depends on industry and communication type. Stay away from 'Friend'. I still get these from companies and my only thought is "I sometimes read your emails..that's the only connection we have. We are certainly not, and never will be, Friends"!

Maybe we could do a future article on the whole data side for email, covering this and other issues around integrity in more depth.

about 6 years ago

Dave Littlechild

Dave Littlechild, Owner at DL ConsultingSmall Business Multi-user

You're right Jack. Relevant content (which, by its nature is essentially 'personalised' to the individual) is absolutely the paramount.

Gives me an idea to put together an article around 'Tips to truly personalise your content'; looking at how to develop a more 1 to 1 style communication program.

about 6 years ago


Allen MacCannell

Good sane post. I was going to personally write an article like this in response to that "study". Using someone's first name in a first business email might have once been a bad idea in Germany (10 years ago), but it's standard everywhere else now and it sure beats the alternatives.

The alternatives mostly indicate to the recipient that you probably don't know the first name which means you probably aren't specifically interested in doing business with that person, thus your email is likely to be seen as spam.

Then there is the need to know the gender of the recipient if you follow the Dear Mr Jones concept. Incorrectly writing the gender can get really offensive or make the sender look dumb and, frankly, if I know the first name, it's better to just go ahead and use that first name rather than guess the wrong gender.

On top of that, some Mrs. don't like to be called Ms but knowing the difference between Mrs and Miss for individual recipients requires far, far more familiarity with the subject than using their first name. =)

about 6 years ago


Tony Edey, . at RCL Cruises Ltd

Properly used I've seen mixed results from personalisation across DM and EM, but never negative results, only anything from negligible uplift to significant uplift.

Different businesses also need to consider how they use personalisation, one size does not fit all. e.g. Harrods would probably want to use "Dear Mr Smith" as it's more befitting of their brand, whereas "Hey John" might suit Red Bull.

"Dear valued customer" should have the maximum spam assassin setting :) Arghh I hate it!

about 6 years ago

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