It’s a commonly accepted truth that you will increase your email open rates if you include the recipient’s name in the subject line.
However, it’s not necessarily so!
You’ll find the claim all over the interwebs that email open rates increase if the subject line includes the recipient’s name. More often than not, you’ll likely be told that the open rate will increase by 26%.
There’s just two problems with that claim though.
First, it’s based on data from 2013. In the online world, something that went gangbusters last week could be a dodo today. The name in subject line data is more than eight years old.
Despite that, content marketers continue to recycle the claim even though the original source article on Experian’s site was unpublished years ago (a PDF report containing the data from 2013 is still available).
Here’s an article on Web Designer Depot that was first published in February 2022 and still repeats the 26% claim. That article links to a Hubspot article updated in November 2021 that also makes the 26% claim. Over the last five or more years, I’ve seen the 26% figure quoted all over the place.
Second, the 26% figure was only ever an average.
For publishers, the open rate was only increased by 1%. A quick heads up, if you sell informational products, such as ebooks, training courses or a membership, you’re a publisher.
For ecommerce stores, a 6% increase in opens is a healthier looking figure, but still a long way short of the 26% commonly cited.
Sure, small numbers add up, but for those two sectors, adding names to subject lines never looked like the slam dunk for open rates many still believe and/or claim it to be today.
What do others say?
I focused on the Experian report above, because the 26% figure has been so widely repeated down the years. As I indicated, the data is still being cited today, even though it’s only a few years away from its balls dropping.
There are other sources of information on the effectiveness of names in subject lines. If you’re interested, try googling “personalized email subject lines open rates” or similar.
Be careful to keep an eye open for when and where the data was sourced. Even if the author or site are well regarded, if there’s no source information provided, you might want to take it with a pinch of salt.
Here’s one article I found on Getresponse using data collected between July 2019 and June 2020. On average they found that personalization of the subject line increased open rates by just a gnat’s chuff more than 1%.
Remember that’s an average across all sectors, just like the 26% figure from Experian. So might it not be unreasonable to assume that some sectors actually get lower open rates when using names in subject lines?
I can’t answer that, but I think there is a possible reason why that could be the case.
Got a few hours to spare? Why not go do the rounds of local car sales showrooms?
I bet you encounter at least one sales person who, once they get your name, keeps repeating it in almost every sentence.
They’ll have read that using a customer’s name can help the customer feel valued, but, as with all good things, only in moderation.
When they overuse your name, it quickly feels forced and unnatural. Rather than drawing you to them as they feel like a friend, it repels you because it feels like they’re trying to manipulate you.
Now, I’m sure any marketer who uses names in subject lines will say that’s completely different to their approach. The name may appear in the subject line and then perhaps just once in the email itself. They’re being careful not to overuse it.
That ignores context though.
We don’t view email subject lines in isolation. My Gmail inbox displays lists of 100 subject lines at a time.
If every marketer is throwing my name into the subject line, it soon starts to feel like I’m being gang-banged by the sleazy staff of a used car showroom.
Which leads me to my wife’s opinion about the use of names in subject lines.
It’s not spammy
When I mentioned I was going to write this, Poppy was surprised by my premise that it’s a spammy approach.
She actually said that seeing her name in a subject line was more likely to make her open it.
I think I know why we feel so differently.
A few years ago she found being signed up to so many lists, being constantly bombarded with too good to miss offers that expire at midnight overwhelming.
So she did a big inbox clean. She’s now very deliberate about which lists she signs up to which means her inbox looks very different to mine.
My guess is that the approach works with her because it feels more natural. She might go several days between seeing email subject lines that use her name.
By contrast I could get half a dozen emails from just one marketer in a single day using my name in every single subject line, each of those emails surrounded by numerous others also using my name.
So what’s the answer?
There can’t possibly be a single answer.
People are are different and people’s inboxes are different.
The only way you can know if you’ve got a list of Uncle Chuckles or a list of Poppies is to test both approaches.
That’s not a new idea. I’ve heard this advised from all angles in relation to many aspects of running an online business.
It’s a pain to do though, so is it any surprise so few people actually do it?
It’s so much easier to see what everyone else is doing and assume they wouldn’t be doing if it didn’t work. Particularly when there are plenty of big name marketers still happily shoehorning recipient names into every subject line.
However, if they’re not testing either, who knows what the best practice really is?
If you’re really not prepared to test, perhaps you’d at least be better off drawing your inspiration from the most personalized emails you receive. That’s the great irony of names in subject lines being referred to as personalization.
It’s not personalization, it’s just the equivalent of mail merge in Microsoft Office. I can recall doing it in the ’90s with Excel and a fax machine. Not exactly cutting edge is it?
Truly personalized emails look very different.
Write like you’re emailing a friend
The most personalized emails any of us receive come from family and friends.
How often do your closest friends add your name to subject lines? I’ll bet many of them don’t even open with a salutation or your name.
On those occasions when they do use your name, they do so to underline something or reinforce their message.
Think back to your childhood. As a little kid, if I’d been naughty, Mother Chuckles would tell me to “go to your room now”, but if I’d been really naughty, it would be “Uncle Chuckles, go to your room now”.
Using another person’s name can be very powerful and evoke emotive responses, but only if it contrasts to the normal behavior.
Side tracking for a moment. I remember the first time I encountered my name in a subject line. It was a Neil Patel email and I think the line was “Uncle Chuckles, I need your help”. I read that and thought “phook me, Neil Patel needs my help”.
It was literally only after I finished reading the email that I remembered Excel, a fax machine and mail merge.
The simple truth is that with emails from friends, the personalization doesn’t come through using your name.
The personalization comes through the content
If you’re serious about personalization, and plenty of marketers believe you should be, then it may be time to learn your email marketing system deeply.
Most modern systems make it trivial to track your subscribers’ behavior at every touch point. That makes it possible to tightly target every message based on what contacts have read, purchased and engaged with previously. Of course that means a lot more work, but the potential returns may make it worth it.
As a counterpoint to that, it’s also worth considering that many people are much more concerned about their privacy online nowadays.
Using comprehensive tracking of behavior to personalize content on a micro level would seem at odds with that common sentiment.
Of course, what people say and do are often very different, so perhaps that’s not an argument against extreme personalization. If most people really were so concerned about their privacy, Google’s Chrome wouldn’t still be overwhelmingly the most popular web browser.
So if you want to pursue a course of personalization and you’re prepared to put in the work, the tools are there for you.
Just don’t kid yourself that wedging a first name placeholder into every subject line is anything of the sort.
One last thing about using recipients’ names
Among the various points in Experian’s 2013 email study, the following sentence could be easily overlooked.
Note: If you are concerned about data integrity (users entering inaccurate information), we suggest using personalization with data from sources, such as rewards programs, where a user is more likely to accurately enter his or her name.
I personally find it interesting that back in 2013, someone thought to raise this potential issue. I’m sure it’s a thought that’s never vexed the minds of most marketers following the recipients names approach, but it does leave their emails open to being manipulated in unexpected ways.
A few years ago I grew sick and tired of seeing my name shotgun blasted through my inbox day after day. That’s when I started making up a different name for every opt in form I subscribed through.
Yes it is childish.
And clearly immature (it can hardly be childish and mature).
Perhaps pathetic too in your eyes.
Still makes me laugh every day though.
It also comes with one unexpected benefit.
When someone kicks off their sales email with a line like “Hey Dumbass”, they really have to nail their copy to have any chance of making a sale.