You’re not personalizing, you’re just mail merging

Personalization is a bit of a buzzword in marketing, the idea being that we talk differently to different users. In practice, for many of the marketers that I receive emails from, this personalization is nothing more than the over use of my first name.

There is a reason why this happens and I’ve included an excerpt from Shoestring Hustle below that explains why the technique is so prevalent. Incidentally, I include the pic of Dean Graziosi because it made me giggle when I received that in an email, not to illustrate poor personalization. I’ll return to that photo down the page.

I commonly hear people sharing the fact that emails that include the recipient’s name in the subject line get much higher open rates.

Sometimes marketers refer to this as personalisation, but it’s not, it’s just mail merge. We used to do it back in the 90s with Microsoft Word, Access and a fax machine, and we didn’t think were being that smart. True personalisation is when you tailor the content you supply to a contact based on what you know of their past behavior.

Whenever I’ve tried searching for more information about names in subject lines, intermittently over the last few years, I’ve never been able to find masses of data supporting this claim.

In many cases I’ve found articles that are reporting this are basing their premise on data released in a post by Experian in 2014. Their original post was no longer available last time I checked, perhaps unsurprisingly as it was already five years out of date at that time. That doesn’t stop other articles still showing up online repeating the claim on the basis of that old data.

This table is a recreation of that data from February 2014.

Overall for all industries, Experian found that including the recipient’s name in the subject line increased the open rate by 26% against emails without the name in the subject line.

Note though that the results are very variable across different industries. Speaking as a publisher, that figure of just a 1% increase for publishers is particularly interesting. Obviously 1% more opens is better than nothing, but it doesn’t really match the common claim that using a name will achieve much higher open rates.

Things look a bit better for ecommerce store owners who will come under Consumer products & services. Still a long way below the average, but six times better than publishers.

Just for clarification, if you sell informational products, such as ebooks, training courses or a membership, you’re also a publisher.

Interestingly, I also managed to find Experian data for the first quarter of 2015, recreated below.

The publishers’ figure is looking even worse. On this data, if I, as a publisher, include the recipient’s name in the subject line, it won’t make any difference to open rates. Also of interest is the fairly large swings in some of the other industries.

What happened to Consumer products and services? From 6% to over 40% was a massive change compared to the other sectors. The Catalogers sector disappeared, so perhaps that was combined into Consumer products.

Anyway, comparing the two tables, in the course of a year, publishers’ open rates when using a name in the subject line dropped 1%. If we extrapolate that forward, by the time of writing in early 2020, publishers could be seeing open rates 5% lower when using the recipient’s name in the subject line.

So should publishers immediately stop using names in subject lines?

No, that -5% figure is a very sketchy premise based on old data.

Fortunately, I was able to find some more modern data on the subject from GetResponse, a popular email and marketing automation service. They have shared data for the first half of 2019 ( which reported that emails with recipient names in the subject line have open rates of about 0.5% more than emails with a non-personalized subject line. I also read another contemporary article that described the practice as being spammy (which is how I’ve felt for a few years).

Neither ringing endorsements for personalized subject lines. Speaking anecdotally, I think I am starting to see marketers I follow using this approach less often, so it may now be falling from favor.

On the strength of GetResponse’s data, it is conceivable that publishers and/or some other industries could actually be depressing open rates by blindly following the advice of using recipient names in subject lines.

Of course that’s pure conjecture. The simple truth is I really don’t know how personalized subject lines will affect yours or anyone else’s open rates.

All I can say is that if anyone tells you it will significantly increase your open rates, ask them for the evidence.

If that’s not forthcoming, the only way you’ll really know whether it’s right for your list is to A/B test.

Oh, before we move on, did I mention I find this whole first name thing a bit spammy. Thought so. So for the last few years, I usually don’t enter my real name in opt in forms. That’s why many of the marketing emails I receive are probably a bit odd compared to those you get.

Personally, I do think we need to question the moral compass of any marketer keen to work with Satan Prince of Darkness. And literally as I write this, I’ve just seen a notification for an email flash on screen that started with that oft favored traditional salutation, “Hi Twat Face”.

If you’re the type to regularly suffer from buyer’s remorse, you may want to use this approach too. Trust me, they really have to nail their sales pitch after kicking off by calling me Asshole or Turd Breath.

As you’ve obviously guessed, I also signed up to Dean Graziosi and Tony Robins’ list for Knowledge Broker Blueprint using a made up name. I think it’s a fair assumption they don’t make a habit of emailing rude photos to strangers.

I’m not going to pretend to be any kind of expert on personalization, but from a personal viewpoint, those types of customized images seem more relevant to me. They can add a little impact to an email that may draw someone in who’d have headed back to the inbox otherwise, particularly if they’ve not see the technique before.

You can try it yourself using NiftyImages – they’re currently still giving new accounts 10,000 free image views. If you’d be interested in a WordPress plugin that made such images for you, send me a message through the contact page. It’s some way down my to maybe do list at the moment.

True personalization however, should be about more than crow barring someone’s name into an email. It’s about changing the messages you send to people based on the interactions they’ve had with you.

Every time a contact submits a form to you, you should be tagging them. The same if they’ve read specific blog posts or have completed a training or challenge you’ve released. Most email automation systems make this a trivial exercise. If yours doesn’t, that may be a good reason to look at alternatives.

Someone who can teach you much more than me about email automation is André Chaperon. He’s got a free short training at That’s about some general email marketing approaches, but you’ll see when personalization is focused on, it’s in terms of ensuring content is relevant to the recipients.

If you can’t follow that training now, bookmark it and stick a reminder in your Google or Outlook calendar to go through it when you have got some time. It should be essential reading for you.

Leave a Reply