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Debunking Email Personalization Myths: Part 1 of 2

Email personalization can help you create engaging marketing that wins hearts and minds. Join Act-On and Litmus as we debunk common personalization myths!
Article Outline

The email inbox is a deeply personal space. In 2009, HBR compared it to an underwear drawer — “We all have one and are all embarrassed by both its organization and contents.”

Now, fast forward 15 years: every email tends to be a personal space. My email from Brand A can look totally different from yours — we each see different subject lines, headers, images, or content themes.

Personalization has become the norm in B2C email marketing. And B2B teams are increasingly segmenting and personalizing content for different buyer personas and customer journeys. 

Yet, certain myths around email personalization persist — outdated truths, overreactions, or just flat-out misconceptions. But any myth that prevents marketing teams from personalizing email can damage opens, engagement, and revenue.

So in collaboration with Litmus, we’re busting up some myths in this two-part series on email personalization. Once you’re done here, hop over to the Litmus blog for part two

Watch the video for more on the email personalization myths we discuss in the blog.

Myth 1: People are creeped out by email personalization

Remember when Target made headlines for knowing a teenage girl was pregnant before her parents did? That viral story dates way back to 2012 — when the general public was beginning to realize how companies were collecting and using their data. Understandably, people were shocked and outraged. It was the truest example of personalization gone wrong. 

Times have changed. These days, leaving an item in your shopping cart in the hopes of triggering an abandoned-cart discount offer is a smart money-saving tip, not a sign of intrusive marketing.  

According to McKinsey, 71% of consumers expect companies to deliver personalized interactions. And 69% of customers appreciate personalization, if it’s based on data they’ve explicitly shared. 

B2B buyers bring this mindset to work. Personalized messages now signal relevance — when the company behind an email knows who their recipients are and what they care about, it’s a good thing. This bears out in our own email testing: using the recipient’s first name and the company’s name in the subject line drove an average 83% improvement in click-to-open rates

Personalization is no longer creepy — it’s table stakes.

Myth 2: Email personalization = first name (and that’s it) 

Shallow personalization is easy to spot. We’ve all received the equivalent of a “Hi Matt,” (or the embarrassing “Hi [FirstName]”) opener on an email that otherwise contained zero personalized messages. It falls flat, every time.

Inserting a first name is the default option for teams who are just trying to check a box — but email personalization can and should go much deeper. 

By segmenting your audience and customizing your content, you can personalize email to deliver meaningful relevance:

  • Tailor the subject line or headline to their department
  • Create differentiated messages for different job titles, referencing distinct pain points for individual contributors, managers, or executives
  • Link to case studies from other companies in their industry
  • Dynamically recommend content similar to what they’ve browsed or clicked on before
  • Map your content to the customer journey — use nurture sequences designed to gradually send more in-depth information as they click, download, or otherwise interact with your content 

This helps your emails meet your contacts where they are, with content they actually care about. 

[FirstName] will thank you. 

Myth 3: Email personalization is difficult to implement

On the other hand: just because deep personalization is possible doesn’t mean it’s an all-or-nothing proposition. You can drive a lot of value without an enormous amount of effort. 

Teams ready to go beyond “Hi FirstName” can start small and strategically, such as:

  1. Curate a targeted list of prospects based on two or three criteria — maybe an important title within a high-value industry.
  2. Create one customized campaign with personalized subject lines, messaging, and suggested content. Just one campaign — you can do it.
  3. Measure how your personalized campaign’s success rates compare to your baseline to see what’s working and what’s not. 
  4. Once you learn what’s successful, duplicate the process for your highest-value segments. 

Everyone else can stay in the “generic” bucket until you make your way down the priority list. You’ll learn as you go, while driving meaningful results.

You can also start by personalizing content based on how people enter your database. This was our approach when we revamped our own nurture sequences in 2023. Our campaign clickthrough rate soared from 1.32% to 17.93%

Finally, technology makes this work much easier. Most marketing automation platforms (like Act-On) have segmentation capabilities, while email marketing tools like Litmus Personalize provide easy ways to automate dynamic content. GenAI can also be helpful — give your email to a writing tool like ChatGPT or Jasper, and ask it to tailor different versions for specific personas. 

Myth 4: Privacy regulations make email personalization impossible

Digital marketing has, thankfully, come a long way since the days of inadvertent pregnancy announcements. Consumer privacy protections, from GDPR to Apple’s Mail Privacy Protection, now restrict how brands can monitor, gather, buy, or sell consumer data. They’ve also inspired a lot of doom-and-gloom headlines about the end of third-party cookies

But email personalization is alive and well, thanks to zero-party data and first-party data. This is data your prospects explicitly share (like form fills or survey responses), or that you collect on your own channels (like webpage visits or content downloads). And it’s incredibly useful for email personalization. 

For example:

  • A lead fills out a form to download our ebook on marketing analytics, giving their company name and title
  • We share additional content tailored to their role 
  • They eventually click on and read our buying guide for marketing analytics platforms 
  • We use lead scoring to track their buying journey — and automatically hand them over to sales

This is email personalization, powered by reputable zero- and first-party data. 

One caveat here: make sure you have white-hat, double opt-in signup processes in place. This ensures your recipients actually want to hear from you, and prevents inactive subscribers who never open your emails — potentially harming your overall email deliverability

Myth 5: Personalization is limited to copy alone

Back to our earlier “FirstName” myth. Since copy is the most frequent form of personalization, many people think it’s the only way to customize content. But messaging is only the tip of the personalization iceberg. 

You can also tailor email experiences with: 

  • Colors — In ABM campaigns, reflect the brand’s visual identity back with customized color palettes
  • Images — Populate distinct header images for industries, locations, or other segments
  • Send time — Customize each recipient’s send time based on their last open (Act-On’s adaptive send feature takes care of this for you)
  • Interest signals — Provide social proof by displaying live click totals, showing subscribers what products or content are driving the most engagement
  • Countdown timers — Include a live countdown to a webinar or event to create urgency
  • Dynamic live polls — Include a poll with in-email results that update as users respond to the poll

With the right tools and strategies in place, the sky’s the limit when it comes to email personalization. 

But what about…

Embarrassing errors? Measuring results? And driving actual ROI? 

For more myth-busting mayhem, we’ve pulled in our pals at Litmus (some of the smartest email marketers we know). They’re tackling five more personalization myths on their blog — go check it out right now.

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