Email Personalization: How to Get it Wrong (and Tips for Doing it Right)

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Email Marketing

Using personalization in your email campaigns is a great way to jump-start long-term relationships with your customers. Every message you send can make people feel like you really know them. If you do it right, each email will feel like a valuable message, not an annoying interruption.

There’s a reason your inbox is filled with messages that call you by name and ask you how the weather is in your city: personalization works. In fact, according to Econsultancy, 74% of marketers say targeted personalization increases customer engagement. Personalized emails also generate up to six times the revenue per email than do non-personalized emails, according to Experian’s Email Market Study.

But what does it take to find the right level of email personalization? And how can you go beyond saying “Hello FIRSTNAME” to make a message so personal, it feels like you actually know them? (In a good way, not a stalker-type way). Let’s take a look at some examples of what not to do when it comes to personalization, and get tips for developing personalized, relevant email messages that connect with customers and prospects.

Start with the basics

How many times have you received a poorly conceived or badly executed attempt at personalization? Usually substandard personalization creates a lackluster experience for recipients, but sometimes it can really get them angry – and with good reason.

Here are some examples from the average email inbox:

  • Dear__ , (You don’t even know my name, and you’re calling me “dear”?)
  • Hello, Misspelled Name! (Is this spam? Or am I bad at filling out forms?)
  • Dear Mrs. LastName: (Mrs. LastName was my mother. I’m Ms. LastName.)

These are the basics of personalization, and they’re small details that add up to a big difference in the appearance of your email campaigns.

Consider the case of British Telecom. Years ago, they sent a promotion for a calling card to their customers, and several of the mailings ended up with “Dear Rich Bastard” as the greeting. Someone had replaced the default salutation as a joke, and it ended up actually going out the door. (It’s surprisingly easy for placeholder text to make it into prime time. Just search for “headline goes here” and see how many results you get – some of them in major publications.) So if you decide to create an email with personalization, first make sure you’ve got the correct data to populate it. (And don’t joke around with placeholder text!)

Here’s an example of personalization at work as well as dynamic content tailored to two segments (CEOs and CMOs).

If some of the records in your database don’t have information in a field, think twice before using personalization with that field. If nothing else, be sure to use a default value like “valued customer.” Or make sure the marketing automation solution you’re using provides a way to handle the fact that personalization data is missing by removing the surrounding text and punctuation or replacing it with a generic greeting.

Misspelled names are harder to spot if your customer provided the data to you incorrectly in the first place. One way is to send a confirmation email out when they subscribe to your emails, repeating their information back to them asking if everything is correct (and providing a link to make changes).

Another way to ensure you’re addressing people correctly is to include a “salutation” field in your list. You can gather this information through an online form or preference center or through your sales and customer service teams. It’s an extra step, but it’s a good way to build trust in your recipients (and keep your messages from looking like spam). It also prevents you from using the wrong honorific (like Mrs. instead of Ms.) and potentially annoying your audience. In addition, it solves the problem of addressing someone by anything other than their preferred gender pronoun.

With a preference center, you can collect the names or nicknames your contacts preferred to be called by as well. If you’re sending an email to someone named Maximilian who actually goes by Max (or Miles or Junior) and you address them by the long form of their name, it will sound stilted and forced.

These small steps go a long way towards making personalization actually seem personal. And as you can see, there are several safeguards to put in place in order to do it right.

Tips for better email personalization:

  • If you use placeholder text, make sure it’s something you’d be fine having your recipients actually receive.
  • Make sure your list contains all the data you want to use for personalization.
  • If the data is in ALL CAPS, change it to Sentence Case before including it in your campaigns.
  • Make sure your marketing automation solution can adapt the email if the data is missing from the field by removing surrounding text and replacing it with a generic message.
  • Send confirmation emails asking your contacts if their information is correct.
  • Use a preference center to capture information like preferred prefix and name.

A solid personalization strategy is essential for prospect engagement, conversion, and long-term trust. It’s also foundational to more advanced techniques that can increase the impact of your email campaigns, like:

  • List segmentation to more tightly target your audiences  and match messages with the most receptive recipients.
  • Drip campaigns that send a series of scheduled emails over time based on criteria such as demographics, behaviors, and lead scores.
  • Nurture campaigns that educate prospects and leads as they move through the buyer’s journey.
  • Trigger campaigns that immediately launch in response to a specific action taken by a prospect or customer.
  • Dynamic content to tailor each email to each recipient by automatically customizing specific parts of your email such as text, images or offers.

When it comes to email value and message relevance, personalization can take you from “Go away,” to “Come on in!” As long as you do it right.

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