E-Mail Sender Lines: Do’s and Don’ts

What’s in a name? A lot if you’re using it in an e-mail sender line.

Recent studies have shown over half of recipients use the sender line to decide whether to open and read an e-mail message. Use a sender line they recognize and trust, and you’ll get their attention; use one they don’t recognize or don’t trust, and you’ll be deleted with one click.

For most readers, this probably seems like common sense. But I’m continually surprised by how many organizations, large and small, fail to fully leverage their sender line to get their e-mail opened.

Case in point: the following sender lines from my own e-mail inbox. Can you identify the sending organizations?

  • Pension-Newsbreak
  • Press Office
  • GEMA
  • root
  • reply-229d8-2008-70fdae0014@nl.internet.com
  • Dylan Roark
  • Jeanne Jennings
  • Cornelia Carter-Sykes
  • Davis
  • Roxanne Christensen
  • Let’s make it a bit easier and try multiple choice. Here’s a list of the sender lines and the senders. Can you match them up?


    Sender Line Sender
    Pension-Newsbreak Broadcast Internet Source Inc.
    Press Office Thompson Publishing
    GEMA Pew Internet & American Life Project
    root Clipart.com
    reply-229d8-2008-70fdae0014@nl.internet.com Georgetown Entertainment & Media Alliance
    Dylan Roark HIS Inc.
    Jeanne Jennings WTOP Radio
    Cornelia Carter-Sykes InfoCommerce Group
    Davis U.S. Small Business Administration
    Roxanne Christensen N/A (it’s spam)

    The correct matches appear at the end of this column. How many did you get right? How many would you have gotten without the list of senders? Let’s walk through them one by one to talk about how they could be more recognizable.

    Matching Sender Lines With Their Senders

    The first sender line was Pension-Newsbreak, the sender was Thompson Publishing. While the title does reflect the e-mail topic, Thompson is missing a chance to brand the content as its own.

    The second on the list, Press Office, has a similar issue. Whose press office is this from? What organization does it represent? In reality, this is how the U.S. Small Business Administration, a group every small business owner has heard of, chooses to represent itself in sender lines. Why doesn’t it use the name its target audience identifies with?

    GEMA is the next sender line on the list. Based on the acronym, you were probably able to match that to the Georgetown Entertainment & Media Alliance in the multiple choice list. Did you know where it was before you saw the list of senders? I didn’t.

    Abbreviations are great so long as recipients know what they stand for. I not only live in Georgetown, I’m an alumni of the university. But this is the first I’ve heard of this organization. If it had used “Georgetown” in the sender address, it would have caught my attention. As GEMA, it was nearly deleted as spam since I didn’t recognize the acronym.

    Who knows the sender behind root? I, for one, didn’t. Turns out, it’s my local news radio station, WTOP. WTOP and root are the same number of letters, but one is so much more descriptive and meaningful. Why didn’t it go with its call letters?

    The next sender line is an actual sender address; it’s a string of letters and numbers with an “@” sign. If you knew Jupitermedia owns Clipart.com and internet.com, you might get it, assuming the address isn’t truncated (which it probably would be). But if you’re ClipArt.com, why make your e-mail subscribers work that hard?

    The next five sender lines are all people’s names. Can you identify:

  • The one from a worldwide business-to-business (B2B) publisher?
  • The one from the Pew Internet Project?
  • The one attached to a spam e-mail?
  • The one from an organization where people pay to be listed as news sources?
  • The one from an organization promoting an upcoming conference?
  • Using a person’s name in the sender line was once a best practice. Years ago (I’m showing my age here), a study was conducted that showed having a person’s name in the sender line resulted in a higher open rate than a company or department name. But spammers read this tip. Hence, the e-mail in my inbox from “Dylan Roark” was the most basic sort of spam. Much of the spam we receive appears to come from a real person, and much of the legitimate e-mail using this same tactic appears to be spam.

    By looking at this list, you may wonder which of these fine brand names I’ve licensed my name to as a sender line. The answer is “none.” This was a one-time e-mail I received from IHS, a large B2B publisher. I can only imagine the discussion went something like this: “We need to increase our open rates. To do that we need a more recognizable sender line. People recognize their own names, so let’s use each recipient’s name in the sender line!”

    Great idea, except for one thing: CAN-SPAM. A key element of this legislation states the sender line must accurately represent the sender. Since the recipients weren’t sending this e-mail to themselves, this appears to be in violation of the law.

    Even if your e-mail isn’t spam or a CAN-SPAM violation, is the name in the sender line well-known enough to be recognized?

    This is the question I ask of the Pew Internet & American Life Project and InfoCommerce Group, which sent updates from Cornelia Carter-Sykes and Roxanne Christensen, respectively. Who are they? I don’t know them, and if I’m not mistaken, there are or used to be other people’s names that appeared in these organizations’ sender lines. Between the lack of consistency and the lack of recognition, the chances of people knowing the source of these message is slim to none.

    When I said there was a spam sender line on the list, how many of you thought it was Davis? I don’t blame you. The one-word moniker, rivaling Madonna or Prince, just seems spammy. In this case it’s not. It belongs to Mitchell Davis of Broadcast Internet Source, publisher of “The Yearbook of Experts.” I pay a good bit of money to be listed in the publication (so I’m happy to hear from Davis), but I nearly dismissed this e-mail as spam. should be using his brand to let paying customers know the message is for them.

    Don’t Use a Real Person’s Name

    Aside from what we’ve already discussed, there are other reasons to steer clear of putting a real person’s name in the sender line.

    The goal of a sender line is recognition; you want the recipient to look at the sender line and know the e-mail is from you. As a result, you build goodwill and value into any name you use. Let’s say your sender lines feature an employee’s name. So long as that employee stays, you’re good. But let’s look at three different scenarios where this could backfire on your business or on the employee.

    Say the employee leaves your organization. It may be short term, such as a maternity leave, or for good. Either way, you have to stop using that name in your e-mail sender line. Even if you substitute the replacement’s name, you’ve lost the recognition and goodwill you built with the original name. Recipients who came to recognize “Tyler Thomas” as from your company many not immediately realize that same e-mail is now coming from “Ryan Bartholomew.” Open rates may suffer.

    But what if Tyler Thomas was sending your e-mail newsletter, then left to work for a competitor and now sends their e-mail newsletter? Suddenly, all the goodwill and recognition you worked to build transfers to the competition.

    Now let’s say you’re the employee whose name is used in the sender line of your company’s e-mail. What if there’s a misstep? The e-mail newsletter is mistakenly (or, heaven forbid, knowingly) sent to a list that didn’t opt in? You could find yourself vilified on the Net as a spammer. A search on your name could turn up as much, or more, negative information as it does positive. Would you like having that on your digital record? Do you think you’d have trouble getting another job in e-mail or online marketing?

    There are a few takeaways from this exercise:

  • Don’t make recipients guess your identity.
  • Use your most recognizable brand or product name in your subject line.
  • Don’t rely on a person’s name as a sender line, unless the person is:
    • 100 percent integrated, for the long term, with your product and your organization

    • Easily recognized by your target audience
  • For those keeping track, here are the correct matches:


    This Sender Line Goes With This Sender
    Pension-Newsbreak Thompson Publishing
    Press Office U.S. Small Business Administration
    GEMA Georgetown Entertainment & Media Alliance
    root WTOP Radio
    reply-229d8-2008-70fdae0014@nl.internet.com Clipart.com
    Dylan Roark N/A (it’s spam)
    Jeanne Jennings IHS Inc.
    Cornelia Carter-Sykes Pew Internet & American Life Project
    Davis Broadcast Internet Source Inc.
    Roxanne Christensen InfoCommerce Group

    (Return)

    Until next time,

    Jeanne

    Want more e-mail marketing information? ClickZ E-Mail Reference is an archive of all our e-mail columns, organized by topic.

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