Personalization works. Why don’t more marketers use it?

Sep 29, 2017

Wise Marketer Staff

Through a special arrangement, presented here for discussion is a summary of a current article from The Wise Marketer, a website and newsletter serving the global loyalty industry.

Consumers open e-mails with personalized subject lines at a 50 percent higher rate than those without, yet only two percent of e-mails employ personalization, according to findings from Yes Lifecycle Marketing. 

In the newly released report, “Subject Line Benchmarks: How Length and Personalization Impact Email Performance across Message Type and Industry,” more than seven billion e-mails were analyzed. According to the findings, personalized e-mails — like those including a recipient’s name or purchased/browsed items — drove higher open and click rates than their non-personalized counterparts. In fact, messages with personalized subject lines generated more than double the unique click rate and 58 percent higher click-to-open (CTO) rate than those without. However, nearly 98 percent of all e-mails sent in Q2 2017 did not use personalization in subject lines.

According to the report, 1.1 percent of all e-mails sent in Q2 2017 had first/last name personalization in their subject lines while 1.2 percent were personalized based on other factors, such as loyalty program status, browse behavior or purchase history. High e-mail engagement came from subject lines incorporated items from consumers’ abandoned carts or inserted loyalty program attributes like expiration dates, status achieved or number of points remaining until the next membership milestone.

Additional findings from the report include:

  • Non-personalized subject lines yielded open rates of just 14.1 percent compared to 21.2 percent for those personalized with name and 22.0 percent for those including another type of personalization.
  • Welcome campaigns were the most widely adopted type of trigger with 69 percent of marketers implementing them.
  • Over a quarter (27 percent) of marketers sent reactivation campaigns, the second most widely adopted type of trigger. For triggered messages such as abandoned cart, birthday and reviews/surveys, including a specific offer in the subject line drove better open rates and higher conversion rates.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What’s holding back more personalized e-mails? What tips would you have for retailers and brands looking to improve open rates with better e-mail subject lines?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"Success of personalized campaigns is high; execution becomes complicated and challenging."
"I counted this morning and — so far — I have received 37 “personalized” emails today. That might answer the question."
"The problem with personalization is that, when you get it wrong, it is social media meme material. It takes a lot of work to curate and position it..."

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15 Comments on "Personalization works. Why don’t more marketers use it?"

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Phil Masiello

In email marketing, a great subject line is the most important part of the email. It determines whether or not the email gets opened. Yet marketers spend the most time focused on the email itself.

I think the reason most marketers don’t personalize them is they are afraid to take the risk. The personalization needs to be combined with a compelling reason to open it. Not the same old “25 percent off coupon inside” stuff.

Every good email automation system today has the ability to test subject lines. Marketers need to test and take risks with the subject lines. Think about the statements that make you open up an email. People respond to humor and surprise. Use that to your advantage and test, test, test.

Shep Hyken

Personalization with the name may get the email open, but it is also important to personalize the message. It must be relevant to the customer. Or even with the name in the subject line, the customer may opt out of future emails.

So what’s holding back more personalized emails? Retailers taking the time to get the right information, in the right format, to be effective and accurate. It’s that simple.

Art Suriano

The article makes sense, and I don’t know why marketers often don’t realize that the subject line is the most important part of an email because if it is not read it doesn’t matter how great the ad or offer is.

In addition to personalization, there is a great need for improved creative that creates curiosity and desire to open the email. Today we are bombarded with so many ads, whether it’s emailing, online pop-ups, direct mail, television, radio and for those that still read — a newspaper. We tune out most ads with only a small percent that get our attention. When we do respond, it happens when we experience something creative, appealing and when possible personalized. I think today’s marketers have gotten away from creative and are focused too much on analytics. It’s a shame because many of them are missing opportunities for a lot more business.

Chris Petersen, PhD.

Maybe it’s because email is not “sexy” anymore. Maybe it’s because the devil is in the details of managing CRM to create personalized messages. Given the data on what produces better results, not personalizing email is big miss of one of the marketing fundamentals.

Email is the start of the journey to get people online to explore more. Email is the one thing, usually the first thing, that customers open everyday, so why wouldn’t you personalize with a name and message? The best part is that personalization in email is easy to track and it’s easy to measure results. Just ask Amazon, one of the world masters in personalization at every customer touch point. A lot of Amazon’s success resides in their investment in one of the most comprehensive CRMs, enabling personalization across all platforms and media, including the not-so-sexy email.

Camille P. Schuster, PhD.

Personalization not only takes time, effort and skill when creating the messages, but also someone needs to keep track of responses so they can be personalized. Success of personalized campaigns is high; execution becomes complicated and challenging.

Ralph Jacobson

This is actually a very simple challenge to solve … for the first time in my 40 years of retailing. I remember back in the ’80s as a store manager, wanting this kind of personalization capability. Not with email, of course, but you get the point. Now via the best technologies available globally, retailers can have true, real-time personalization for a very reasonable cost, and can be up an running quickly. Email marketing and other personalization efforts need to be spot-on with the individual’s (or individual group’s) immediate needs. Email subject lines must highlight not just the name (accurately, BTW), but also make a personal statement that shows you know your target. Software can do this for you.

Ryan Mathews

At the risk of being cynical let me suggest that consumers are smarter than marketers give them credit for and most probably realize that there’s nothing personal about most personalization. I agree with Phil, it’s the subject line that catches the eye. I counted this morning and — so far — I have received 37 “personalized” emails today. That might answer the question.

Sterling Hawkins

Truly personalized messages, offers and content perform exponentially better than even tiered targeting. And there have been three main pieces holding back broader use:

  1. Having the business backing to gain the required levels of data. Personalization doesn’t work if there isn’t enough meaningful data to work with;
  2. Having the right tools in place to understand the data and how it’s effectively personalized. There are countless database tools, personalization engines and AI available to retailers today;
  3. Having the integrations and executive support to use that data in going to market.

We’ve all known personalization has worked for years. It’s about time we start using it!

Rick Moss

I think we should find a better term than “personalization” which to most marketers renders an image of the customer’s (often misspelled) name in the subject line. The emails that are most likely to be opened are those that have a customer-specific purpose beyond just name acknowledgement, like letting them know their package will be a day late due to weather complications or that the vitamins they buy every two months are a lot cheaper at a higher quantity.

“Customer-purposeful” — it doesn’t exactly roll of the tongue, though. Suggestions welcome.

Mark Price
Mark Price
Chief Data Officer, CaringBridge
5 years 7 months ago

The greatest gap I have seen in my clients is a combination of skills, process and software. Let’s take it in reverse order. Most of the digital marketing automation software available on the market today is fully capable of executing personalized email marketing. However, the software may not be configured to do so, or may not be connected to the right data to build the personalization rules.

Second, many retailers have a slow, cumbersome approval process for products and offers, involving multiple revisions of products and pricing by buyers before emails can be sent. Personalization (multiple versions) simply multiplies the work and leads to other emails falling farther behind.

Finally, the marketing team finds themselves required to dramatically increase the complexity of their email campaigns, without additional staff or time for training to improve speed while maintaining accuracy. This is a slippery slope and leads to burnout and attrition inevitably.

Personalization, to succeed, must be introduced piece by piece rather than through a big switch.

Kenneth Leung

The problem with personalization is that, when you get it wrong, it is social media meme material. It takes a lot of work to curate and position it properly. I have gotten some cringy personalized offer from Amazon based on my browsing (due to fact that I was buying stuff for my girlfriend on Amazon Prime), but Amazon gives you easy ways to tag the items out and made it clear it is based on browsing patterns. Most other retailers don’t have the resources or discipline to do that well.

Craig Sundstrom

Although the claims may well be true — they certainly make sense — I’m a little reluctant to accept the specific percentages. I would have to think personalized e-mails are more likely to come from sites/organizations that already have an existing relationship, so there’s likely a selection bias. But as to the main point being made, why do so few make even the most minimal effort? Other than cost, I really can’t offer an easy yet plausible reason.

Sarah Nochimowski

I think that we need to define what personalization is. First / Last name is not personalization, this is just bringing some politeness to your messages. I believe personalization should go much further than that, and bring value that actually interests the recipients: specific offers, similar products, stats, etc. This is a real big data analysis that needs to be used.

Hilie Bloch

Effective personalized email campaigns are achieved by creating the right combination of three key elements: 1.) personalized subject lines, 2.) personalized product recommendations based on personal taste, need, price sensitivity and market trends and 3.) a triggering event.

If we send out emails with generic subject lines we probably won’t get the open rates we need even if the products we recommended are highly personalized. If we only personalize the subject line but the products that are being recommended are not personalized, we will lose the trust of our subscribers and they will stop opening the emails over time. Of course the third element — the triggering event — is a key factor in how many email our subscribers are actually getting. If we send too many emails, no matter how personalized, they will become redundant and will annoy subscribers.

Kurt Heinemann
5 years 7 months ago

The report speaks volumes to the importance of personalization in email marketing efforts.

Any marketer worth their salt wants to personalize, but many either don’t have the resources or are unaware of the available tools.

Deep personalization (to Sarah Nochimowski’s point about lacking a definition) comes down to having the following:

  • Accurate data collection on individuals;
  • An engine capable of extracting relevant insights from that data and, most importantly;
  • A real-time response platform that eliminates the manual intervention that digital marketers (to echo Mark Price) rarely have the time or resources to take on.

Underpinning all of this a point Sterling mentioned—getting personalization right across the customer journey often takes executive buy-in.

"Success of personalized campaigns is high; execution becomes complicated and challenging."
"I counted this morning and — so far — I have received 37 “personalized” emails today. That might answer the question."
"The problem with personalization is that, when you get it wrong, it is social media meme material. It takes a lot of work to curate and position it..."

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