You know about merge tags, they’re the little codes that help you make an email feel personal. Blogger Hal has a great article where he describes the annoyance and danger of email over-personalization in your newsletter, yet when judiciously applied in proper amounts, they are a very effective tool.

I’d like to make another suggestion to you as you decide exactly how to best employ email personalization: use them as you’d speak them, especially when it comes to subject lines.
Who’s Calling Out My Name from My Inbox
Let’s take a look at a snapshot of my inbox a few days back. I received two personalized emails from two very different companies. One I noticed immediately, one I ignored completely (at least for a while). Though they started out the same, they took two very different paths to my brain.

These emails arrived on the same day, one after the next. And though both companies personalized the subject line, I really only noticed the email from the café. So I have to ask myself why. Was it because I wasn’t in the market to rent a car? Well, I wasn’t exactly looking for a baby bundt cake, either.

Personal Subject Lines Work when Trusted

The subject line works in tandem with the identity of the sender. They’re right next to each other and are most likely judged together. When it came to the two emails above, I quickly paired the sender with the subject line. And one relationship is stronger than the other. One is friendlier than the other. One is more personal than the other – and it isn’t a rent-a-car company.

When I go to this mystery café, everyone is friendly. The atmosphere is homey. The people were very friendly when asking for email addresses. Honestly, they really don’t know my name but I wouldn’t be shocked if I walked in and they said it.

Personal Subject Lines Are Awkward when Perceived as Inappropriate

And that’s just my point. I haven’t rented a car in quite a while but I would be shocked if I walked up to the rental desk tomorrow and they called out my name. I don’t care if it’s their policy to use my first name at the counter, we just don’t do enough business together to warrant anything but that one fake moment.
Before You Personalize, Ask Yourself These Questions:

Does my recipient know me? This is important. If you wouldn’t call them by their first name when seeing them in the street, you can’t say yes until you ask yourself the next questions.

Does my recipient remember me? Maybe three years ago you had a great customer relationship with this person, but now it’s gone stale. If there’s a good chance that they’ll be scratching their head when looking at your company name in the inbox, leave their first name out of this.

Does my company business/culture/mood reflect a friendly atmosphere? This is where some types of companies just have a natural advantage. A restaurant, a pub, a neighborhood market can all get away with first name basis greetings all day long because you’d expect that in their stores. Financial institutions, large companies and online merchants have to work a little harder to establish this… except if you’re Zappo’s – they exude friendly.

Are the next words in my subject line more important than the recipient’s name? If so, you might want to rethink starting out with a name personalization in the subject line. Some readers see their first name, mentally tag the email as commercial, then promptly skip and move on.

Not Rules, Just Guidelines for Thought

Please understand that I’m certainly not discouraging you from using personalization in the subject line. We actually preach that strategy here as it’s a proven attention getter (learn more about it with our conditional formatting option). But spammers and email marketers with questionable (read: old, stale or borrowed) lists know this trick too. First name personalization works best if your relationship is personal. Stop and ask yourself if it’s truly appropriate to use it in each instance. You’ll get better results when you do.