Three tricks to make sure your email personalization efforts are all treats

Email personalization is one of the best ways to make sure your email marketing campaign is enjoyable for its readers and profitable for you. However, this technique can backfire if not used with care. Here’s a quick guide on what email personalization is, why it matters, what happens when it goes wrong (dun dun dun), and three actionable steps you can take to make sure your email personalization performs like you want.  

What’s email personalization and why does it matter? 

Email personalization is the act of sending an email customized for its recipient. As opposed to sending one massive “email blast” to everyone on your list, email personalization is the act of making sure that the emails you send are written with your unique customer(s) in mind. 

Email personalization works for marketers because it gives consumers a sense of intimacy. Think of it this way: you receive a hand-written letter in the mail from a dear friend, full of inside jokes and written cues that your friend has been thinking about you. A day later, you receive a form letter in the mail from a politician to whom you donated five election cycles ago. The politician’s form letter is printed on generic copy paper.  

Which letter would mean more to you? Which one would you enjoy reading more? 

For most of us, we’d enjoy reading the hand-written letter from our old friend far more than reading a random solicitation from someone to whom we donated $5 years ago when their Senate seat was still up for grabs. The first letter demonstrates a knowledge of who we are and what we care about on a personal level. The second letter demonstrates that this senator hasn’t realized we’re no longer invested in their political career, but has managed to hold onto our mailing address whether we like it or not.  

An email that’s tailored to the recipient evokes the sort of happy feeling that a kind note from someone with whom you want to keep in touch creates. It’s a warm and fuzzy experience, because everyone likes human connection. 

The thing about email is that it works a lot like postal mail in terms of communication. Either way, marketers are putting words in front of the faces of the consumers they want to persuade. Whether the words are read off a phone, a desktop, a tablet, or a piece of paper, they’re still words. It’s still a story being told through a shared language; there’s still a message being communicated through words, not pictures.  

Don’t just believe me, though! The data backs up the idea that people like personalized emails better. According to these statistics published in a July 2019 report by Campaign Monitor, personalized emails are doing better for their senders than generic email blasts. 

  • Emails with personalized subject lines have open rates 26% higher than their non-personalized peers. 
  • Personalized emails result in transaction rates 6x greater than emails that aren’t personalized.
  • Personalized CTAs convert 202% more often than generic CTAs.  
  • 90% of United States consumers find personalization “very” or “somewhat” appealing.  

Clearly, personalization works – as long as you’re using email personalization in the right way. 


Here’s the bad news: poorly personalized emails probably won’t help your marketing efforts. 

Unfortunately, email personalization doesn’t automatically lead to marketing successEmail personalization takes effort, consideration of your customers’ needs and wants, and strategic thinking.  

Let’s go back to the comparison between a hand-written letter from a dear friend and the mass-printed message from the politician to whom you haven’t donated in years. What if the hand-written letter from the friend was addressed to someone else? What if your friend spelled your name wrong, or if the inside jokes they wrote about were in fact completely irrelevant and unfunny to you, or if the letter was intended for someone else entirely but accidentally ended up in your mailbox?  


Any of that would make for an uncomfortable reading experience. In fact, you’d probably prefer the letter from the politician.  


Email personalization gone wrong has the exact same effect. Here’s a picture of an email I received a few months ago. Identifying details have been crossed out to protect guilty email marketers.  

This isn’t how non-profit email marketing should work. The first major issue pops up in the very first line – it’s addressed to “[First Name]”, not “Mariana”. Even if this non-profit didn’t have my first name stored, a simple “Hello!” would have performed better. “[First Name]” lets me know that the fundraiser isn’t actually writing to me, but to a giant database of people. It’s the complete opposite of emotional intimacy.


The second issue is my lack of engagement with the email sender. I haven’t interacted with this non-profit since sometime between 2010 and 2013. In fact, I’m not sure who the president was the last time I visited this non-profit’s website.


The fact that this non-profit is still emailing me when it’s fairly apparent I’m not engaged with their mission at this point shows this organization doesn’t care about what MY interests are, despite the fact that they’re in my inbox. A better email would have attempted to re-engage my interest or to gain my support back.


Immediately asking for a donation assumes I’m still invested, even though all evidence points to the contrary.


I don’t have any statistics for you on what happens when personalization goes wrong, but I’d love to see some if any readers have experimented with intentionally awful email personalization. However, you can safely assume it’s nothing you would wish upon your marketing department. This is the sort of experiment that email marketers don’t like to run because they know at least one side of their A-B test will result in lost sales, irked customers, and unsubscribes. It’s not a risk anyone is interested in taking.


Never fear! The good news is that you can prevent your email personalization from going wrong.

Don’t worry! You can personalize your emails without fear. As long as you’re careful, considerate, and smart about what you’re trying to accomplish by using email personalization and how you go about it, your personalized emails will help your marketing efforts.

Drumroll, please: three concrete steps you can take to make sure your email personalization goes swimmingly.



Prevention Method #1: Make Sure Your Subscriber Information Is Correct (And Properly Formatted!)

Before you send out any email campaign featuring personalization, remember that emails can only be personalized when you have enough relevant personal information about your subscribers in the first place. Make sure everything in your records is correct and properly formatted!


Here’s an example. Let’s say you’ve collected a list of three people interested in subscribing to your newsletter. You have their information in a .csv file and are about to upload it into your Mailchimp account so these new people can become members of your audience.

This information is unorganized. This is not the sort of data that will support a carefully considered email marketing strategy.


Let’s start with formatting. You’re going to want everyone’s first and last name to be properly formatted in sentence case. If you were to send Spongebob an email with using the first name you have on record for him in the subject line, the subject line could read “sPoNgEbOb, you’ve earned a discount!” That looks odd.


Consistency is key in marketing. You’re going to want to follow traditional grammar and spelling conventions most of the time.


Here’s how you handle the issue of data that seems unusable on first glance. The =PROPER formula in Excel transforms entries into pieces of information you can insert into emails.


Pick the column where you want your newly properly formatted first names to go. In the formula line, type =PROPER(whichever cell holds the first “first name” entry). Then, drag the green square that appears in the lower right corner of the cell you’ve chosen to start this new column of legible first names down as many rows as you have individual entries.


Here’s a picture of what that looks like:

There’s the information you’ve collected in the format you need!

However, there’s a little more to be done. Princess Carolyn’s job title is outdated – it says her job title is “agent” when, in fact, it’s actually “manager.” This is where going through your audience entry by entry makes sense. Look through the lists you’re uploading and the entries you already have in your audience. Check for obvious inaccuracies, misspellings, and inconsistencies.

It’s okay to email a subscriber asking for clarification! It’s much better than sending your subscribers emails that absolutely fail to interest them because these emails are based on inaccurate assumptions about who your subscribers are.

Prevention Method #2: Add Your Template Tags Carefully

Template tags are snippets of text that pull information about your subscribers from your database into the content of the email itself.

Mailchimp calls these merge tags. Klaviyo refers to them as template tags. Salesforce Pardot labels them variable tags. While separate ESPs refer to what is essentially the same technology by different names, these snippets perform nearly the exact same task in each program.

For the sake of this article, we’ll call the technology being discussed “template tags.”

Here’s an example of template tags / merge tags used correctly in Mailchimp. This screenshot is from a template I created for a client:

And here’s how those tags look when rendered in a preview email:

That brings us to the first rule of adding template tags: “always use IF/THEN syntax.”


There may come a time when you have absolutely no information for a particular subscriber in one field. If you want to use that field to personalize an email campaign, your email copy is going to look terribly awkward for the subscribers without fully complete profiles. In fact, this is exactly how the unfortunate phrase “Hello, !” comes about in marketing emails featuring poorly executed personalization.


However, if you use IF/THEN syntax while adding your merge tags, you’re allowing for the possibility that your database might not have all of the data for all of the people. Having that large a dataset without errors is a very high standard to uphold. This is even more true when much of your customer data is self-reported by people who may not be as invested in the accuracy of your database as you are!


The second rule of adding template tags is straightforward. It’s “type your template tags correctly.”


Here’s what adding a template tag / variable in MailerLite correctly looks like. On the left, we have a box in which we enter text. On the right, you can see how that text will appear when it becomes part of your email template.

To insert a variable (MailerLite’s version of template tags), click on the button circled in red. After you click, the following box will pop up:
Once you’ve used this menu to personalize your email, this is what your email should look like when actually sent.
You’ll notice that what was once an odd-looking series of characters has transformed itself into my first name, spelled correctly and capitalized appropriately. What would have happened, however, if we hadn’t added in the variable using that menu? What if we had typed it in ourselves and had made an error? Using Klaviyo, here’s what typing in the template tag / variable yourself without using the menu might look like (were you to suffer a typo or two):
But that’s just in the editor! If we preview the email’s appearance once it hits inboxes, things get worse.

The moral here is to use template tags / merge tags / variables very carefully. When you add these tags to your email, make sure they’re spelled correctly and input carefully. Making sure your template tags are entered correctly is best accomplished using your ESP’s drag-and-drop menu, which will do the work for you. If you can’t go that route, double check for typos.

Prevention Method #3: Use Common Sense.

The final method of preventing email personalization gone wrong is the easiest. Use your common sense.

For example, let’s say you have a customer’s birthday on file. It might make sense to send them a special, once-a-year discount on their birthday. That’s a great example of personalization done correctly: by sending your customer an email that focuses on a fact unique to that customer (their birthday), you as an email marketer are personalizing their email experience.

Here’s something that might not work so well. Again, you have a customer’s birthday on file. You send them a special discount on their birthday. The next day, you send them another email that says “…and in 364 days, we’ll send you another discount!” The day after that, you send them a third email: “…and in 363 days, we’ll send you another discount!” You continue to do this every day of the year, even after this customer stops engaging with your emails.

That’s an example of personalization gone wrong. Sure, you can use the birthday data you have on your customer to personalize their emails for an entire year. But is this relevant, wanted, or useful? It’s not.

When personalizing emails, use common sense and ask yourself if using a piece of information to tailor an email experience makes sense at that moment. If it doesn’t, that type of personalization probably won’t help your marketing efforts and is best left another email.

Spooky Summary

Email personalization is an important tool for any email marketer. Even so, this tactic can hurt your marketing efforts when executed without caution. Make sure your email personalization is doing what you want it to do as it should before you press send. Otherwise, you may end up with annoyed customers, confused prospects, and ghostly CTRS.

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