Don’t use their names unless you also customize content
Hey, we’d all love a place where everybody knows our name? We just don’t necessarily want that place to be our inboxes.
So should you personalize your subject lines with your recipients’ names? As with so much else in email subject-line science, the answer is, “that depends.”
Personalization boosts open rates by up to 54%.
— Retention Science, Statista, MailChimp, Experian, AWeber
Recipients like receiving information tailored to their interests. In fact, they use the word “spam” to describe marketing emails that they considered irrelevant, impersonal or overly frequent — even if they had subscribed.1
But the idea that companies know so much about them can creep recipients out. (See this and this.) And recipients get cranky about gratuitous “personalization” — i.e., using their names in the subject lines without tailoring content to their interests.
So what’s an email marketer to do?
YES, personalize subject lines.
Research into billions of email subject lines shows that personalization:
- Increases transaction rates and revenue per email by 600%, according to a 2013 Experian Email Marketing Study. 2
- Boosts open rates by upto 54% (Statista, 2014). 3
- Improves click-through rates by up to 41% (Experian, 2013). 4
- Reduces recipient frustration. Some 74% of online consumers get frustrated with brands whose online content seems impersonal and irrelevant, according to Janrain. 5
Plus, it’s never been easier to tag, segment, target and tailor email messages to recipients. And recipients have had a chance to learn that they can save time and get the most relevant information when brands tailor messages to their interests.
It just makes sense that calling out to your recipient by name in the subject line would grab attention and drive opens and click-throughs.
But despite these benefits, 70% of brands fail to personalize their email messages, according to a 2014 study by Statista. 6
Could they be on the right track?
NO, don’t personalize subject lines.
So, how effective are these Anns at getting me to open my emails?
Ann, can you help?
Ann, our offer still stands
Ann, you’re getting 25% off
Hi ANN, view your November Rewards now!
Ann, Welcome to the New Ambassador Program!
To be fair, personalization hasn’t fared perfectly in every subject line study in the history of mankind. In older analyses, personalized subject lines:
- Reduced email opens by nearly 21%, click-throughs by 17% and click-to-open rates by 32% (Adestra, 2013). The retail segment got hit hardest by personalization in this analysis.
- Significantly cut click-through and open rates (MailerMailer, 2012).
- Lowered open rates in legal services communications (MailChimp, 2013).7 However, it dramatically increased opens when pitching creative or government services.
“Personalisation — does it work in subject lines, and is it creepy?” asks Phrasee, a London-based email service provider.8
It mostly works. And it is a little creepy.
PROCEED WITH CAUTION when personalizing subject lines.
Before you personalize your next subject line, overcome these obstacles to personalization. Email recipients: 9
- Can be wary of personalized messages, especially marketing messages that weren’t written directly to them. To them, if feels like a sneaky — maybe even spammy — way to grab their attention.
- Are especially sensitive to seeing their name in all caps, especially when the rest of the subject line is in sentence or title case.
- See personalization without tailoring as name calling. When you personalize the subject line, you send the subtle message that you’ve personalized the message, too. Recipients find this approach misleading.
In most cases, you don’t need to use the recipient’s name in the subject line. Another meaningful or descriptive word might be a better use of the space.
But if you can overcome these obstacles, by all means, personalize your subject line.
So: Personalized subject lines — yes or no?
As I said: That depends — on your topic, your audience, the day of the week, the spring in your step, the smell in the air.
So why not find out? This research certainly makes the case for testing personalized subject lines on your own audience. Some 47% of marketers A/B test subject lines to optimize email performance, according to 2016 research by MarketingProfs.
Why not become one them?
 Kim Flaherty, Amy Schade, and Jakob Nielsen; Marketing Email and Newsletter Design to Increase Conversion and Loyalty, 6th Edition; Nielsen Norman Group, 2017
 Amy Gesenhues, “Study: Personalized Emails Deliver 6X Higher Transaction Rates, But 70% Of Brands Fail To Use Them,” MarketingLand, Feb. 6, 2014
 “Online Consumers Fed Up with Irrelevant Content on Favorite Websites, According to Janrain Study: National Survey Reveals Up to Two-Thirds of Adults Would Leave a Site if Shown Wrong Ad,” Janrain, July 31, 2013