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You’ve Been Lied to About Personalized Email Marketing

Ben Sack

Take a look at any article about email optimization and you’ll find the same suggestion: personalize your emails to the recipient.

It seems like a no-brainer. Spotify playlists, Starbucks drinks, monogrammed hand towels...people love it when content is personalized. Why should emails be any different?

But here’s the truth: email personalization, the way it’s currently used, is often unnecessary and can actually be a turnoff for potential buyers.

Let me explain. See, there’s a difference between personalization and personalization.

When it comes to email personalization, a lot of misunderstanding comes from the fact that for a few giants in the field, it’s a home-run strategy. Netflix, Amazon, Google, Spotify — it wouldn’t be hyperbole to say that effective personalization is the main reason they’re so successful.

Wayfair Personalized Email

Take a look at this email I got from Wayfair. They took my shopping habits and browsing history and sent me a collection of “curated” (read: algorithmically generated) items that I totally wouldn’t mind putting in my apartment.

This strategy works great for Wayfair. They personalize 71% of their emails and get top marks on marketing effectiveness as a result. To be clear, this is the kind of personalization that the so-called gurus are talking about when they put it on a list of email best practices.

But this kind of personalizationthe kind that lets Netflix recommend shows you’ll binge for eight hours a day or Target to guess when you’re pregnant requires a trove of user data. While you probably worked super hard for the data in your CRM, chances are it isn’t close to enough to make true automated personalization work.

There are (almost*) no shortcuts to email personalization.

If you don’t have access to mountains of data, how do you make email personalization work? Many marketers have turned to shortcuts, and the shortcuts themselves — through the cannibalistic kit-kat factory of digital marketing blogs — have started to be thought of as best practices.

I’m totally not a robot, [FIRST NAME]!

You’re probably intimately familiar with one of these shortcuts. It’s when marketers use contact information tokens to make it seem like they’re talking directly to you, when in fact your contact information is just being inserted automatically.

There’s no shortage of statistics out there claiming that emails with first name tokens in the subject line and email body increase opens and conversions. But, as is the case with most digital marketing statistics, we weren’t able to find a reliable source for a single one.

So let’s fall back on common sense. If an email uses fancy HTML design, or is sent immediately following a behavior trigger, or comes “from” some big-wig like the CEO, it becomes immediately clear that it is not, in fact, a personalized email.

Look at this:

Personalized email

No one would look at this email and think that some lovely person over at American Express was typing it up just for them.

Aside from the fact that it’s clearly a template, there’s the matter of my name: I don’t go by Benjamin, and using my full first and last name comes off as creepy.

Which brings up a good point: Unless your CRM hygiene is impossibly good, there’s a strong chance some significant portion of your recipients will receive emails addressed to a name they don’t use, or their first initial, or their name in all caps, or data from a different field altogether. That’s how you end up sending messages addressed to “Daughter killed in car crash or Current Business."

Don’t worry. You can still personalize your emails.

Here’s the thing about email personalization: we’re all chasing the golden goose when there’s a bunch of normal, perfectly useful geese just hanging out over at the pond.

In less whimsical terms, it’s true that automated email personalization at scale requires absurd amounts of data and sophisticated execution mechanisms, but non-automated personalization just requires one thing: a person.

For lists of thousands, there’s always standard HTML emails which can be endlessly optimized by other means. But for companies with smaller lists and larger deal sizes, even a few seconds of actual personal attention can make a huge difference.

The whole email doesn’t need to be written from scratch every time. Adding a single line about your last conversation with a lead, links to content you (genuinely) think they might like, or even a short webcam video can make your messaging so much more effective.

Take this with a big grain of salt (see earlier comments about digital marketing statistics), but Vidyard customers report 4x-10x increases in click-through rates using personalized video messages.

*The one shortcut to email personalization

Now, if you’ve got your heart set on sending personalized emails but can’t afford to get a real person involved, there is one simple shortcut: just make it look like an email from a real person.

Real people send rich text emails — no buttons, pictures, or fancy layouts. They use in-line links and they sign their name at the bottom.

When done right, an automated email that’s made to look like a personal email can fool even the sharpest recipients into thinking you’re doing things special just for them. This strategy can be helpful when looking to re-engage a huge subset of cold users and is a go-to for the end of long-term nurture sequences.


Unless you’ve got the big-data resources of personalization experts like Amazon or Netflix, automated email personalization isn’t necessarily a winning strategy. Simply adding contact info tokens to a subject line or email body doesn’t count as personalization, and won’t necessarily improve KPIs.

When it comes to marketing email personalization, the best strategy for small-to-midsize businesses is relying on real people — or at least creating templates that look like they came from real people.

Let’s clean up your email marketing strategy. Schedule a quick call to find out what it will take.


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