What's In a Name?

One of the great promises of email marketing is to have a one-to-one dialogue with your customers and prospects. Unfortunately, not many email marketers in either the U.S. or Europe today are actually delivering on that promise – most email marketing is mass marketing, with the same message going to everyone. However, since technology makes it easy to insert a first name salutation, some marketers and publishers try to give the appearance of friendliness and a personal touch.

Generally, I caution against using personalized salutations in broadcast email marketing. There are several things to consider:

1. Consumers know that you don’t know them. Assuming too much familiarity too early in the relationship may have the reverse affect intended. Consumers may be off put by the forwardness, and tune out this message and all others to come. This is especially risky early in the relationship. Be careful with personalized salutations in welcome messages, as well. If the subscriber has only provided name and email address to sign up for email newsletters, then there is not much of a relationship there yet. Once you’ve earned the relationship (e.g.: after a purchase), then personalization may be more welcome. An order confirmation may be more personal, as you can genuinely thank the person for their business.

2. Match the tone to the relationship. There are some instances when personalization makes sense. If a new customer has just registered for a new service, then using both the first name and surname, “Dear Thomas Smith” may be a way to acknowledge that a form was filled out, but not get too intimate too quickly. Similarly, using the first name in a subject line or headline for a publisher can work if the content has been customized. For example, “Thomas, Your Custom News Alert is Ready.” In both of these situations, the subscriber knows you collected their name, and since you are delivering a custom service, the personalization works well.

3. Localise. Some cultures and audiences do not welcome personal salutations. For examples, Brits generally like to see their first name, but Germans do not, and Americans often find this practice spammy. Australians seem to love it. The French are more reserved unless there is a real relationship, built on transactions and several interactions. We’ve seen personalized event invitations do better in France than in Britain, but personalized discount offers work well in both Britain and the U.S.

4. Manage the technology. There are too many examples of “Dear Smith” or mis-spelled names or “Dear UNKNOWN.” Be sure you test your technology thoroughly. If there is even a small risk, I recommend avoiding it. Better safe than sorry.

There are painful penalties for not getting personalization right. Messages that appear spammy or spoofed, or even poorly formatted, are more likely to generate complaints to the ISPs like Hotmail, Orange, Yahoo! and T-Mobile. Those complaints depress your sender reputation and may result in all your messages being blocked as spam. You may also find your “Dear Sample” messages laughed about on blogs or Twitter. But most of all, you run the risk of poorly implemented or inauthentic personalization disappointing your customers and lowering your brand value.

If you use someone’s name, be sure your relationship is genuine – customers can tell when a machine calls them by their first name. More than just a salutation, however, think about how to adjust content so that it feels more custom to each recipient. Move content up and down your template for different audiences, featuring the products, promotions and articles that appeal to them most. That takes more effort, but it is true personalization, will be most welcome and most significantly improve your response and revenues.

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