'Dear [Insert First Name Here]'

I've received over 500 emails so far this year in which the subject line included my first name. "Morgan, Book Now & Save on Top Travel Deals" "Morgan - Congratulations! Your Nomination to Cambridge Who's Who!" "Morgan, Get Dad a 58" Samsung Widescreen."

Congratulations, you have a whiz-bang email tool with mail merge functionality. But it's no longer novel. The wow-factor has officially subsided for anything you could do on a Commodore 64.

When I see an email with my name in the subject line, my first thought is not "Phew! These guys know my name!" No, it's become a red flag for spam.

 In fairness, it used to work. When I analyzed the use of name personalization in subject lines six years ago, there was a slight uptick in open rates for subject lines that contained a name personalization string. I looked again three years ago and there was no difference in open or click rates when name was included in the subject line. "Dear [First Name]," at the top of form letters had no impact on click-through or conversion rates. If I cared enough to look today, I suspect the results would be worse.

But why bother? First, there is the potential for mistakes. Some people, like me, make up names when forced to provide an email address. I did this with one company I suspected of having questionable privacy practices. Each email I receive from them starts, "Hi, GetSpammed!" reminding me I didn't trust them in the first place.

Of course, you can scrub the database for questionable names or profanity, but then there are still the issues pointed out by Loren McDonald in My Name is Loren. BTW, I'm A 'He', and you still need a default when you don't have the name on file. Has "Dear Valued Customer" ever made anyone feel like a valued customer?

Stop using my name in subject lines. Don't include my name at the top of your form letter. Neither have a meaningful impact. Yes, appropriate personalization can increase engagement, but relevance is the key. Personalization only matters if it helps me as a customer. Consider these quality examples:

1.     Account Information: Mint.com sends me weekly emails with updates on all my financial accounts. While my name never appears in the company's email, it is still the most personal and relevant email I receive each week.

Many companies take advantage of this opportunity to personalize messages. Airlines and hotels send the status of my loyalty program accounts. Best Buy sends notifications about awards I have earned as a frequent shopper.

2.     Location-Based: It's not hard to figure out where I live. Look at my transaction history and figure out which store I shop. Worst case? Ask. Subscribers are comfortable providing their zip code during registration.

There are many opportunities for location-based personalization. Golfsmith provides information on events at my local store. Scotts Miracle-Gro features lawn tips tailored to my local climate.

Still, most retailers don't include local store information. Instead, they go the "safe route" by including links to a store locator. Be bold. Include local information in the body of the email like Papa John's and Charles Schwab, who include local numbers so I can take immediate action.

3.     Interest-Based: If I search for appliances, send me information on appliances. If I've downloaded a whitepaper on ecommerce security, send me information on ecommerce security. You've likely heard these examples before. The bottom line is that tailoring content based on the interests I've exhibited on your site is top-notch personalization that demonstrates class.

4.     Triggered Messages: There are two main categories of triggered messages. First, there are messages that are triggered based on some activity I have recently performed. I abandon a shopping cart. I buy a camera without needed accessories. After I'd downloaded Dropbox,  I got a short a series of emails on how to use the software. These messages are inherently personalized since they are based on something I just did.

Second, there are date-based triggers. This may be a birthday email, anniversary email, or a holiday email reminding me of something I purchased last year. In any case, these messages are tailored to me -- making them personal. And for those at risk of suffering mail-merge withdrawal, this is where using your customers' name makes some sense.

Just do your QA, so my card doesn't read, "Happy Birthday, GetSpammed!"

Disclosure: Best Buy, Papa John's and Scotts Miracle-Gro are ExactTarget clients.

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9 comments about "'Dear [Insert First Name Here]' ".
  1. Mark Donatelli from Acxiom Corporation , May 26, 2010 at 10:58 a.m.

    Awesome post - these personalization ideas go beyond email and ring true for Direct Marketing as a whole!

  2. Lara Baker from AAA Arizona , May 26, 2010 at 11:16 a.m.

    Travelocity emails me several times a week and addresses me as "Xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx." Brilliant, I tell you.

  3. Iris Salsman from I. Salsman PR, LLC , May 26, 2010 at 11:36 a.m.

    Excellent suggestions. Nothing kills a potential relationship faster than misuse or overuse of a name.

  4. Morgan Stewart from Trendline Interactive , May 26, 2010 at 11:46 a.m.

    @Lara - that's awesome!

  5. Jennifer Finger from KeenReader Inc. , May 26, 2010 at 6:08 p.m.

    I agree - I hate receiving E-mail (or for that matter, any kind of advertising) with my name in the subject line or being personally addressed. I automatically think that it's spam, and it almost always is.

  6. Vicki Monti from Kisseo.com , May 27, 2010 at 6:24 a.m.

    I've never understood why people think it's a good idea to include the person's name in an email. Who falls for that? Even 6 years ago it's not like I thought someone was sitting there typing my name out explicitly before sending the email, making the email more relevant and thus opening it.

    And there's no excuse for having bad data in the database. While you can't think of every possible fake name, it's nothing an intern couldn't tackle. Boring? Yes. But better than sending "Happy Birthday SpamFace" emails.

  7. Kurt Johansen from Johansen International , May 27, 2010 at 6:45 a.m.

    An interesting post Morgan but I think you are missing the point with Email Marketing and First Names. The majority of businesses which make up the market place are small to medium enterprises. There loyal customer base, whom they may know personally, expects an email with their first name to be used. In Australia small businesses represent 70% of the business transactions. So when the local motor mechanic sends out an email to his 1000 people, many of whom he knows personally they would be peeved not to have their first name mentioned. Email marketing is about 1. The List 2. The Relationship with the List and 3. The Offer. All three must be congruent. So I disagree with your comments in so much as there must be a lack of relationship with clients if the first name doesn't matter. Email Marketing is not about 'blasting' names out to the masses like many corporations do. It's about carefully constructed, strategic messages which resonate with your clients. So keep the First Name if you are a small to medium business, send out email messages which your customers love to receive and to heck with the large corporations, don't follow them, they don't know their customers personally like you. Kurt Johansen - Australia's Email Marketing Strategist. http://www.kurtjohansen.com

  8. Brian Jaffe from Nationwide , June 2, 2010 at 12:24 p.m.

    Morgan, I'm on the personalization fence (as far as the salutation and subject line go). Without personalization you run into the "does the company not even know their own customer?", and with it you get triteness and banality. So lose/lose or win/win (or other permutations)? For now, we are sticking with personalization. But with personalization comes great responsiblity (is your spidey sense tingling?). Don't call me Dear Brian M. Jaffe, and certainly don't do it in all caps (you'd be surprised how much enterprise data is stored in caps). And if I happened to have registered using an initial as a first name, please don't address me as Dear M. And if you're tempted to use a title, best be dang sure you know if I am a Mr/Ms. Our enterprise email platform (one you may be familiar with) allows for send-time scripting. We've written some fairly complex personalization algorithms to apply some equally complex personalization rules. But at the end of the day, the best personalization is relevancy. Because without it, you're just a polite spammer.

  9. Morgan Stewart from Trendline Interactive , June 3, 2010 at 10:43 p.m.

    @ Brian: Good point. If you insist on using my name, then use sophisticated rules and filtering to make sure you get it right. Especially since getting it wrong simply proves you don't know me--a steep price considering the upside is modest at best. EOD, it seems like a lot of effort and I'd rather invest that time in content. Even more since being slightly off on content (which is sure to happen from time to time) doesn't have the same negative repercussions.

    @Kurt: We'll have to agree to disagree. That said, maybe using first name has a different cultural significance in Australia--I’ll concede I am not an expert in that market. ?