Name calling boosts opens, but it’s also a little creepy
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.
But the idea that companies know so much about them can creep recipients out. 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? Before sending an email to your email list, consider these pros and cons of personalized subject lines.
YES, personalize subject lines.
Some 94% of businesses believe personalization is critical to their success, according to a recent Econsultancy survey. Shouldn’t it help with email, too?
Wrong, say the authors of several major studies of email subject line effectiveness. Research into billions of email subject lines shows that personalization:
- Increases transaction rates and revenue per email by 600% (Experian).
- Boosts open rates by up to 54% (Statista).
- Improves click-through rates by up to 41% (Experian).
- Reduces recipient frustration. Some 74% of online consumers get frustrated with brands whose online content seems impersonal and irrelevant (Janrain).
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 a great subject line would grab attention and drive opens and click throughs.
But despite these benefits, 70% of brands fail to personalize their email messages (Statista).
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, real-life personalized subject lines:
- Reduced email opens by nearly 21%, click-throughs by 17% and click-to-open rates by 32% (Adestra). The retail segment got hit hardest by personalization in this analysis.
- Significantly cut click through and open rates (MailerMailer).
- Lowered open rates in legal services communications (MailChimp). 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.
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, according to the Nielsen Norman Group:
- 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 (MarketingProfs).
Why not become one them?
Localize subject lines.
While adding the recipient’s name to the subject line may sometimes email engagement, MailChimp found, adding localization, such as including a city name, helps.
The best-performing emails include subject lines personalized with the recipient’s name and an added value point, such as location, according to a study of 200 million emails by Eloqua.
Customized personalization doubled open rates compared to name-only personalization, the study found. And adding a name and one other detail multiplied success by 10 times compared to no personalization.
If you do personalize …
Still plan to personalize your subject line? These tips from the researchers will hep:
- Avoid ALL CAPS. Recipients are especially sensitive to seeing their name in all caps, according to the Nielsen Norman Group, especially when the rest of the subject line is in sentence or title case. So capitalize the first letter of the recipient’s name only.
- Don’t place the recipients’ name in the first word in the subject line. That buries the most meaningful or unique detail — and that’s most likely to generate opens.
- Don’t discombobulate the recipient. If you personalize the subject line, personalize the rest of the message too.
- Consider other personalize data points. You might try birthdays, subscribers, followers and so forth.
Learn more digital marketing tips
- How to write clever email subject lines: Because catchy email subject lines work. (Just ask Warby Parker. And somebody tell the writers of the Black Friday promotional emails.)
- Learn secrets for successful “from” lines: Because email addresses does matter.
- Think Inside the Inbox: Learn other ways to get higher open rates.
- Get Clicked, Read, Shared: Improve your blog post, content marketing and social media writing.
- Reach Readers on the Small Screen: Write to be read on mobile devices.
- Email preview text-writing best practices: Sell your email in this extension of your subject line.
- Think Like a Reader: Write better calls to action when you understand your audience.
“What are some best practices in writing email subject lines?” MailChimp, Oct. 29, 2013
Amanda Batista, “5 Ways to Personalize Emails and Enhance Open Rates,” Modern Marketing Blog, April 17, 2013
Janelle Estes, “Email Subject Lines: 5 Tips to Attract Readers,” Nielsen Norman Group, May 4, 2014
Justine Jordan, “How to Write the Perfect Subject Line,” Litmus, Dec. 5, 2012
Parry Malm, “152 killer keywords for email subject lines (and 137 crappy ones),” eConsultancy, July 2, 2013
MarketingCharts staff, “In B2B Email Subject Lines, Some Keywords Work Better Than Others,” MarketingCharts, Nov. 14, 2012
David Moth, “10 things to avoid using in your email subject lines,” Econsultancy, Nov. 19, 2013
 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,” Janrain, July 31, 2013
 “Email Marketing Stats: Are You Still Doing Small Stuff?” Fetch Profits, June 21, 2017