When Personalised Emails Backfire

The richest man in UK direct marketing once told me he had never seen a case where putting a customer’s initials on a product did not pay off handsomely.

People certainly love their own names. Research shows their name and address are the things people look at longest in a mailing.

When the ability to personalise direct mail came in, people found responses doubled.

No principle is really new; so no wonder an email using a first name will often outperform one without.

So why wouldn’t you do it every time?

Because, as is so often the case, when marketers find something that works well they start to see it as a magic bullet. They turn off their brains and flog it to death.

Yet context is all.

Just think about it. I get dozens of emails every day addressed to me by name.

If I’ve signed up for these emails or I’ve bought from them before, that’s fine.

But they’re on thin ice if I’ve never heard of them. Especially if they then compound the problem. Here’s an example.

Typical lying email

A while ago I got an email that said:

“We know how busy you are and so when you take the time to join us at XXXXXX, it’s important that we’re delivering a show that’s as relevant and valuable to you as possible.

“That’s why, when you shared your challenges needs for the year ahead – we listened.”

It starts with a lie.

I have never, even for a second, given these clowns my opinions about anything. I have never shared my “challenges needs for the year ahead”, from which I suppose the word “and” is missing.

I get rubbish like this every day asking me about my needs for all kinds of rubbish.

Without even trying, the senders rile me. Does using my name help? No. It just makes it even more obvious they’d found me on a database somewhere, that they don’t know me at all and that they are lazy clots.

It reminds me of oafs I don’t know calling me “mate”. Infuriating.

If you’re going to address people by name, you must make your email not just seem personal but be personal.

(The phrase – which I’ve used countless times in direct mail – “You and I have never met, but …” – is worth remembering).

Frankly, personalisation may give you a high open rate. But it may actually get fewer readers to act. You just get people to open the email and then annoy them.

When not to personalise

There’s one very obvious time not to personalise.

It’s when you write to business people.

The reason is simple. People change jobs so often that many of the names on your list will be out of date by the time you email them. Unless you’re sure they are there, don’t bother.

Your email doesn’t reach them at all because the address no longer works. Or you might get the right person but they’re no longer in the right job.

In this case it’s much safer to avoid using names. Of course, this means you need to be sure your subject header and first sentence are as compelling as you can make them.

But then, that’s what you should be doing all along, whether you personalise or not.