Call Me by My Name: Marketing Implications of Email Personalization
It’s well known that humans respond to personalization. But, as consumers do we respond more when our name is used when we are being sold to, and if so, why? Specifically, are we more likely to react positively to marketing emails that include our name in it? It turns out that we do indeed, as revealed by an interesting new study to be published in the INFORMS journal Marketing Science (authored by Navdeep Sahni, Christian Wheeler (both from Stanford) and Pradeep Chintagunta (Univ of Chicago)).
The researchers were specifically interested in understanding whether including a consumer’s name in the subject line of an email had a positive effect – in terms of the number of emails opened as well as subsequent conversion into sales leads. They ran a classic A/B test where everything was controlled to be the same except the inclusion of the consumer’s name in the subject line. This one tweak was sufficient to increase the probability of opening the email by 20%, which then translated to a 31% increase in sales leads and a 17% reduction in those who wanted to unsubscribe.
What is interesting here is the nature of the manipulated content. It is non-informative about the product and its benefits, yet still has a significant impact on the consumer’s behavior. This would seem to imply that the effect should be generalizable to other products and contexts as well. To test this they ran two more studies where the products differed as well as the relationship of the consumers to the particular companies. The results were consistent with the first study, establishing the generalizability of the results. “Aspects of the advertising message that are seemingly unrelated to the product can affect how consumers process the message, and significantly change outcomes,” said lead author Navdeep Sahni.
There is then the question of why this occurs. While there are competing theories the best one (message elaboration) seems to be that once their attention is drawn using their name, consumers process the information more carefully. This, of course, has a potential downside in that if the message is not relevant to the consumer then the more careful processing could translate into fewer sales leads and more people unsubscribing.
A rather clever 2x2 design was used to tease out this effect – the recipient’s name was included in the body of the email (or not) and a relevant piece of information in the form of a product discount was included in the email (or not). By including the name in the body of the email, the chances of the recipient processing the message increases. By including the discount the relevance of the message itself becomes higher (or not). So if the psychological mechanism at play is message elaboration, then the condition where attention is drawn and a relevant message is presented should provide the most leads – and that is precisely what they find.
Additional (regression) analysis showed how the pieces fit together. Seeing the name increases the likelihood of the message being read and processed, and increases the chance of a positive outcome – if the message is compelling. By itself, the personalization still has an effect but not as much as it otherwise could with a relevant message.
This research does not tell us what happens when more and more marketers start using email personalization. Will consumers get desensitized to the effect? What if the domain is sensitive? Would consumers get offended resulting in a backlash? The answers are not available in this research as the datasets examined here do not fall into these categories.
But, for now, we can say that email marketers could benefit from including the recipient’s name, and can enhance the effect by having a relevant message in the body of the email.