Ask my wife – She's always right: Personalization in Subject Line

So this past week there was some internal discussion at Eloqua and on some of the industry lists asking the question, "Does having the company's brand name sending the email or the first name of recipient of the email in the subject line hurt or help opens". The discussions and "evidence" were ramped from all sides where some people showed improvement in email opens and other debated that doing such is a sign of spammers.

This of course had me wondering how the average user of email would view these ideas. So, time to ask the wife who is always right.

Here is her response (BTW, I am in the EU for a few weeks)


I'm sensing a trend.  You travel, then I get an assignment.  (Better get me a good souvenir!) 

Here's my response to today's question:  How do you feel about personalized email?  Stick with me for a minute…

When I first meet someone, I call them ma'am or sir.  I use phrases like "excuse me," and if I can't get their attention, I might venture as far as a gentle tap on the arm.  Calling someone by their first name is something that seems inherently personal to me, and I think it should be reserved for the building of a relationship, not just a passing encounter.  For example, I don't like when I go to a restaurant with someone and they call the waiter/waitress by their first name.  They're virtually strangers to one another, and it's only the name tag that gives their first name away.  It seems assuming and insincere, if a quick interaction during lunch at Chili's can be looked at like that.  (I know, I know.  You're totally shaking your head at me right now.  You know you do that, right?)  Well, I'd say that's how I look at personalized emails.  My name was picked from a list. The sender of the email doesn't know me.  They don't know my preferences, my family, my habits.  It feels like the sender is trying to fake a personal connection with me. It's not until we've established a relationship, either as a friend or colleague or customer, that I'd actually feel genuinely comfortable with someone calling me by my first name.  Now, I'm certain that I could come up with worse offenses than this, but you gave me a specific topic.  In keeping with that, here's the short answer.  I don't care for personalized emails, but it wouldn't top my "complaints about email" list.

That's it for now.

xoxo – wife

PS – My friends and family don't ever write my name in the subject line.  Marketers know that an email that contains my own name in the subject line is a red flag (junk mail alert!) to me, right? 


Now I haven't had much time to chat with my wife this week on this subject, but what I would like to point out to her is that many email lists or companies she's deals with probably do have preferences on her. Now the question is are they using them? Probably not as well as they should be or is it possible that she doesn't fill out the entire form or preferences?

As she pointed out, I do call people by the first name in restaurants or stores, I'm guilty, but if they are wearing that name tag then obviously they want me to say hey Dave vs. sir (which I hate when kids call me that these days). I also believe this is a difference in the person's wants as well. I, as many of you know me, am by NO means shy… My wife is a little more reserved. So maybe that alone is a determiner in whether it's a good thing or not to be personal RIGHT out of the gate.

My opinion? Using personalization in the subject line when properly done can't hurt you in delivery, but if your already using the FROM with branding maybe you don't need it in the SUBJECT line if your company brand is strong and known. If your a small brand or need some strength, then try out the subject line.

You should also consider the amount of subject line real-estate you have to give to this if you want to do it and DO NOT EVER use the email address in the subject line as a personalization if your DO NOT have the recipients first name. Spammers do that…

If your looking at answer the same question, try some A-B split testing. Try some emails with personalization in the SUBJECT and some without. See where your brand and customers stand when it comes to that. Then give them what they want.

I should go through my wife's Inbox when I get home just to see how many emails contain a personalization in the subject line.

Don't Just Send, Deliver!
Dennis Dayman

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3 Responses to “Ask my wife – She's always right: Personalization in Subject Line”

  1. Wife
    June 8, 2009 at 9:21 am #

    Don't worry, I checked for you. Of the more than 200 emails sitting in my inbox (Don't cringe. I don't know how that happens!), only 1 has my name in the subject line. The spam filter picked it up, though, so I not only see my name, but also a little "this could be spam" note. I'm sure I've received a handful of others, but they've already been deleted.

    You make some good points in your blog post. I'm willing to give you my opinion, as long as you know that it's just that – my opinion. I absolutely see what you're saying, too. Makes sense.

    Didn't think that we would ever resort to having our conversations over a blog post. What's the world coming to? :)

    xoxo – wife

  2. Allen MacCannell
    June 17, 2009 at 7:38 am #

    How romantic! I want such a relationship. ;-)

    A major problem in *not* personalizing an email broadcast is that most databases do not have a Mr. or Ms. or Mrs. or Dr. field and, even if there was such a field, it would probably be the most sparsely populated field of all.

    So IMHO the odds of grievously insulting someone is much, much higher if you try to be more formal and not having a greeting is, IMHO, lethal because it says you don't know whom you are writing to.

    Remember the comedy character Pat?

    I think most marketers would prefer to write "Dear Pat" and risk Pat getting mad at the personalization than say Dear Mr. Jones and have Miss Pat Jones get mad at an ostensibly worse offense.

    Although most people wouldn't actually bother complaining, in 15 years of emailing, I've only had one person complain about being addressed by the first name – and that was not regarding a business email but a letter to a newspaper editor. Then again, the vast majority of people on my mailing lists were people I or colleagues had met at trade shows.

    In previous positions I have tended to broadcast to about 200 people at one time with a 30 second interval between the actual sending of each email. I could then write about things that were local to the recipients.

    Not only did nobody ever directly show offense to this level of personalization but one business owner in Turkey actually told me he wanted to do business with an American who cared enough about getting his business that he would learn the difference between the Fenerbahce and Galatasaray soccer teams and write about them (you can get free meals in Istanbul by saying you are a fan of the right team – the trick is knowing the right team).

  3. Allen MacCannell
    June 17, 2009 at 7:48 am #

    Sorry, I just realized that you were talking *only* about the Subject line. You can delete the above comment.

    That is more hazardous, although it has oddly been appropriate a few times.

    I've found it is better to add the country or state in the subject line, especially if one is making a comment on a World Cup soccer win or something that localizes the content enough to not be considered spam.