Personalized Subject Lines: Beneficial or Bad?

Why can’t we agree on the best way to handle subject lines? Probably because what works for one sender and one kind of message doesn’t always work in other situations. Personalized subject lines are a classic example.

The idea behind personalized subject lines, way back when e-mail software become sophisticated enough to merge the name data field into the subject line, was that people would be more likely to notice an e-mail with their name in the subject, which should lead to higher open rates.

Then, as always, the spammers latched onto that tactic and polluted its use for mainstream marketers. Spammers used personalization to attempt to trick readers into opening messages, making them wary of any message with a name in the subject. Delivery experts debate whether the personalized subject line has any utility anymore, and research into it — will people open e-mails more readily or click the “report spam” button on them? — isn’t conclusive.

Personalized subject lines do have a place in the e-mail world, but only if they have a logical use. Personalization when poorly done (“Another Great Deal for $’YourNameHere’$”) looks spammy and unprofessional.

Subject Lines 101

Personalization aside, a good subject line answers three critical questions in 50 to 55 characters (or more, depending on which study you believe):

  1. Who is this message from? Ideally, your “from” or sender line answers this question, but your brand name should also be included in the subject line to increase recognition. Depending on which e-mail program they see their messages in, the subject line might be all they see.
  2. What’s in it for me? What is your offer? Why should it compel me to open and learn more about it? Set expectations about what is inside clearly and succinctly.
  3. What should I do with it? This is the key question your recipients are asking themselves. Is it spam? Could it have a virus? Is it urgent? Should I open it and read it? Leave it until later? Delete it without opening? Click the spam button on it?

Personalization: Con

Note that none of those questions ask, “Does the sender know my name?” That’s my biggest gripe with personalization: It adds no value to the subject line’s main goals. Worse, it can take away some of the precious real estate you have to work with in the line itself.

Personalization: Pro

Why, then, would you bother to put someone’s name in a subject line? Easy: Names catch the reader’s attention, no doubt about that. That’s not enough to justify using personalization without a clear strategy, but it means the idea is worth exploring.

After all, a person’s name is his own brand. Seeing a brand name that we connect with draws our attention. Using the recipient’s name in the subject line can help you break through the clutter.

Now, the question becomes this: How do you focus that attention you just got, to answer the user’s questions and drive the action you want.

When Personalization Works

Personalization does have a big caveat: You need a reliable method of collecting data (typically, first name required at opt-in along with the e-mail address). If your data is inaccurate or unreliable, your failure will make it clear to readers that you really don’t know who they are. That’s worse than no personalization.

Having said that, let’s look at how to make personalization work. The real key is determining whom the message is about. Once you know that, you’ll know which name goes in the subject line.

In consumer e-mail: Here, it’s mostly all about the marketer, especially if it’s a broadcast e-mail, not a message triggered by something the recipient did, like buying something or referring to a previous purchase.

The subject line should include the brand’s name, not the recipient. Using the person’s name in the subject line, when the message isn’t about him or her, feels cheap and even spammy: “Stefan, Free Shipping, last chance, all orders!”

Consumer messages that lend themselves better to subject-line personalization are birthday greetings, reminders, surveys, and similar messages: “A Special Birthday Wish for Stefan from Brand Name Company.”

That connection makes sense, tells me what’s inside, who it’s from, and who the message is about. I’d also expect to find some kind of incentive because birthdays come with gifts.

In business e-mail: Turn this idea around. Assuming you have a business connection with the recipient, placing your name in the subject line, instead of the recipient’s, will drive action. Often, when I’m sending one-to-one messages, I’ll put my own name in the subject line instead of the recipient’s, to help that person make the connection between the brand and person that I’m trying to achieve.

Example: Personalization Tactics from Stefan (an actual subject line I used to reach out to an industry friend who inspired this column).

Then, you can add the person’s name in the snippet or preheader line, usually the first line of copy in the e-mail body.

If you truly want to test first name personalization, think long and hard about who is talking to whom, and personalize the way you would speak.

Until next time, keep on deliverin’!

Related reading