Field Guide To 'Dear %%Name%%' Personalization

A marketer recently asked for advice about how to handle salutations and personalization for a consumer brand's email program. I hear this question often from clients and other marketers because, as with many aspects of email marketing, there is no straightforward best practice.
Because it's a common question, I created a guide to help email marketers determine the best approaches for their brands and situations. What works for a hip consumer product brand with a highly engaged and loyal customer base might not for a discount-centric big-box retailer that sends one to two messages daily to its entire database.
The questions below will help you map out a strategy that will work for your email program:
1. How much data do you have, and how reliable is it?You need clean data and a high percentage of apparently real names in your "First Name/Last Name" fields to make personalized salutations look authentic. If you find a lot of blanks or obviously phony names like "Mickey Mouse," "No Spam" or obscenities, you need a protocol to switch them out for a neutral greeting like "Dear Subscriber."
2. Does your brand essence lead recipients to expect personalized greetings?Name personalization aligns with what your brand is known for and the relationship it has with customers and the public. A friendly or unique brand that cultivates a specific kind of customer or is famous for delivering personalized experiences would be a prime candidate for personalized greetings, while a mass-market brand with no distinct voice should tread carefully.
One approach is to use name personalization for people with whom you have a deeper relationship than an email subscription: paying customers, registered account holders, club/loyalty program members, white-paper and webinar registrants and others.
3. Does the message itself include personalized content?The type of message you're sending may be the most important factor in the personalization equation. A personalized greeting serves little purpose and seems out of place in a broadcast message without other elements of personalized content.
But if the email incorporates product recommendations based on past purchases, browsing or preferences, recognizes birthday or purchase anniversaries or refers to something specific like a payment reminder or account status or recent purchase, adding name personalization makes sense.
4. Should you use the first name, a title plus last name or a general "Mr./Mrs.” Or Sir/Madam" greeting?Forget the “Mr./Mrs./Miss” or "Sir/Madam" approach. There's no better way to let your customers know you don't know them, especially if you get it wrong -- like the 50% of my mail addressed to “Mrs. Loren McDonald.”
"Dear [first name] [last name]" is a tough call. Generally, personalizing by first name is the best option. Exceptions include communications about insurance policies, investment accounts and other formal messages, where using just a first name feels too informal for the message content.
That leaves using just the first name. First, make sure you have a high percentage of first names in your database. Second, create a process to replace fake names, swear words or blanks by inserting a generic term such as “Subscriber.” Finally, test this approach with several proof accounts to ensure that your personalization works correctly. The worst personalization of all is receiving a “Dear ________” salutation.
5. What about gender?Stay away from anything gender-related, unless you have 100% user-supplied gender data, and you personalize message content by gender, which by itself can be dangerous. Never assume gender based on a first name. Once again, I am not Mrs. Loren McDonald.
If you sell fitness wearables designed for women, it might make sense to address customers by gender and serve up woman-oriented content. But otherwise, what is the point and value for the customer?
Please share in the comments below your own name personalization tips, or lessons learned from failed approaches.
Until next time, take it up a notch.
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