Did you know that certain popular buzzwords can actually hurt your deliverability when used in your email subject line? No, we’re not talking about so-called ‘spam trigger words’, although those are still a thing despite what some may say. And did you know that personalization in your email subject line (and even in your opening salutation) can also hurt your deliverability?

Again, we’re not talking here about those spam trigger words that some spam filters do in fact still check for (although IP reputation and domain reputation have generally eclipsed those in order of importance, but not done away with them entirely). What we’re talking about here is how human beings, i.e. the recipients of your email, the people o your mailing list, viscerally respond to seeing these words in the subject of your email.

It turns out what personalization in an email subject line actually turns people off. What’s more, we’ve known that, and been telling people that, for more than ten years, and yet email marketers persist, indeed insist, on sending email with personalized subject lines.

Back in 2012, Professor Sunil Wattal with the Temple University Fox School of Business led and publisehd a study that provied that email recipients do not appreciate it when email advertisements (i.e. email marketing) is personalized. The research study, which used data from real-world transactions from a firm, showed that 95% of customers had negative responses to an email advertisement that greeted them by name! And this was no small study, it was based on a data set of over 10 million email advertisements sent by the subject site.

How did the 95% demonstrate their displeasure? Negative responses typically manifested in the recipient unsubscribing from the email, although of course deleting it unopened or even hitting “this is spam” happens too.

The abstract of the published paper explains that “consumers respond negatively when firms are explicit in their use of personally identifiable information (i.e., a personalized greeting).”

If you weren’t aware of this research, you may be wondering why you haven’t heard of it before now? Business News Daily actually published an article about it, which is no longer on the site, but through the magic of Archive.org we bring it to you now:

The Most Hated Kind of Spam

By: Chad Brooks, BusinessNewsDaily Contributor – 12 Jun 2012

While no one likes to open their inbox and find a bunch of unsolicited spam, there’s one type of email ad in particular that tends to really irk people. Personalized email advertisements are especially annoying to consumers, a new study finds.

The research, led by Temple University Fox School of Business professor Sunil Wattal, revealed personalized emails are far more likely to repel customers than to endear them.

Using data from a firm’s real-world transactions, the study shows 95 percent of customers responded negatively when an email ad greeted them by name.

Shoppers who were unfamiliar with the business were very likely to click off or unsubscribe from emails that carry personalized greetings, according to the study. Even those who did know the business responded negatively to such ads.

While customers may have appreciated a personal touch in the past, the study shows the advent of the Internet has changed those feelings.

“Given the high level of cybersecurity concerns about phishing, identity theft and credit card fraud, many consumers would be wary of emails, particularly those with personal greetings,” Wattal and his co-authors wrote in the study.

The research did uncover one way businesses are successfully using a personalized touch online. Wattal found that product personalization, in which customers are directed to products that their past purchasing patterns suggest they will like, triggered positive responses in 98 percent of customers.

The researchers used their findings to craft four key strategies for improving email marketing:

  • Don’t assume that a customer’s acceptance of the terms and conditions of a privacy policy is a license to openly use their personal information for marketing purposes.
  • Do not send personalized greetings to new customers.
  • Send emails to established customers more frequently than to new ones. A large number of emails may drive a new customer away, but may prompt an established customer to purchase.
  • Build a relationship with new customers by only emailing them ads for products they are predicted to like.

Co-authored by Carnegie Mellon professors Rahul Telang, Tridas Mukhopadhyay and Peter Boatwright, the study “What’s in a ‘Name’? Impact of Use of Customer Information in E-mail Advertisements” appears online in the journal Information Systems Research.

We’ve also covered the negative impact that personalization can have on your open rates and deliverability in our articles 3 Ways that Email Personalization in Subject Lines May Hurt Your Email Deliverability and How do People Respond to You Personalizing Email Subject Lines? Survey says….

And it’s not just personalization that can get you into hot water, or garner you a tepid response, or a cold shoulder (how many temperature-related cliches can we use here?) from your subscribers. Certain words in your subject line can turn off more of the people on your mailing lists than you may realize. Here are just a few offenders (these words are also in the Spam Assassin spam filter’s rule set, so it’s not just your human end users that may react poorly to them):

Act Now!
Your Family
Your Own
Buy or Buying (when used as the first word in the subject line)
..and many more.

The reason that people may react negatively to these words and others in a subject line isn’t because they automatically think that it’s spam (in fact they probably don’t, especially if they recognize you as the sender) but because those words alert them, even if only subconsciously, to the fact that your email is an advertisement. It’s email trying to get them to part with their hard-earned money.

For all of this, we recommend that before a marketing email leaves your computer, you set it aside for a little while, then come back to it and read it as if it had landed in your inbox. What does that subject line convey to you? Then ask a neutral person or two to read it and get their take. If it’s got their name in the subject line, odds are good that what it conveys is “give us money”.

And who wants to open that?

Subject Line Mistakes That May Be Sending Your Email to the Junk Folder

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