Make it personal

9 minute read

Personalisation makes an email campaign relevant and relevance increases engagement. Think about it. Of all the emails you receive, which do you delete, which do you read and which do you engage with? Relevance actually relies on anticipation, content and timing, but assuming it’s to the right person and at the right time, how do you make it the right message?


Of course, personalisation is not mandatory. Non-personalised but otherwise generally useful and interesting emails are sent and received every day. Here are some genuine emails I’ve received recently – see what you think.

Here’s a pre-marathon newsletter I received from the Virgin London Marathon team. It’s welcome (I’m an engaged opted-in subscriber), and anticipated (I regularly receive and look forward to their updates) and it’s timely (arriving a few weeks before the race). It’s also full of interesting information, with nice graphics and further links. So in all other respects it’s relevant – it’s just not personalised.

London Marathon

Here’s a service announcement from Sainsbury’s. Again, useful information, delivered in advance of a proposed change and generally effective. However, here’s the thing with personalisation.  Simple personalisation is so common that we only tend to notice it when there’s something not quite right. Including a general greeting like ‘Dear customer’ is a sure way of telling your audience that this is a generic message. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that – after all I’m not Sainsbury’s only customer and quite happy that other customers have also received this information, but having taken the step to add a greeting, a simple personalisation would have been a natural step. It could be worse but here’s nothing that says more (or perhaps less) about customer value than receiving an email with the greeting ‘Dear customer’. To be 100% fair – they send some very nice emails too.


When done well a simple personalised greeting is just a nice way to start an email. Even if the content itself is not personalised it adds just a sprinkle of feeling that this is a 1-1 communication. Other things can help to. Adopting a personal style of writing and adding a personalised signature can also enhance the feeling that although this may still be a generic message, the sender is still talking to you as an individual. They are small actions to take but when you compare emails which do this well with those which don’t the difference can be dramatic.  Here are 2 examples from Guide Dogs and Mini – simple but accurate first name personalisation, well written, interesting copy, nice graphics. There’s not much not to like.

guide dogs and mini

A personalised greeting is usually achieved through a simple profile drop – that is adding the required profile information as a variable into the body of the email. This means that you are not restricted to personalised greetings. In principle virtually any profile information that you collect about your subscribers can be dropped into an email in order to echo back and confirm specific personal details –  together with marketing automation it’s ideal for personalised confirmations and reminders.

Of course any form of personalisation needs to be done accurately – as mentioned above, it’s now so common we only tend to notice it when it goes astray. Here’s a nice example where I (apparently everybody) received a firstname personalised email addressed to ‘Hi Gary’. Assuming you realise the error you can then choose either to ignore (after all, 70% of recipients are likely not to have opened it anyway) or take steps rectify it. It’s a tough call. Emails have a short shelf life and your next (correct) one will be along soon anyway. Alternatively you can you turn misfortune to an opportunity. In this case the sender scored bonus points by immediately sending a witty follow up apologising for the oversight. I and probably others felt a stronger sense of connection than before – conveying a sense of being human and connecting as an individual is part of what makes great emails work in the first place. It’s strange but, B2B Marketing Expo, I love you even more now!

B2B marketing expo

Here’s another example showing how getting it wrong can be a little more subtle than just including inaccurate information.  I belong to a great health and fitness group (I’ll spare their blushes). Their emails are nicely put together and generally timely and informative, so a pre-summer invitation to join a ‘festival of tennis’ is great news. It’s accurately firstname personalised and although the profiling information regarding my sporting preferences is potentially available I’m fairly sure that all members received the same message. Why? Because of the subsequent invitation to enter the ladies doubles  tournament – again accurately personalised in terms of my name, but with content which somewhat misses the mark. Fault (tennis pun!).

David Lloyd

Back to the good stuff. As hinted at above, truly effective personalisation is much more than just dropping a name into an email campaign, but if name personalisation is your limit then here’s how to stand out.

HSBC take name personalisation to a nice level with a personalised subject line and greeting and high visibility personalised image. It’s a little formal but it is a bank so it’s suitable for the level of our relationship. It’s still basically a name drop personalisation technique but the obviously personalised graphic adds impact to the campaign and holds interest through a sense of ‘how did they do that?’ It doesn’t take much to work out that the content itself is still generic, but in a way it’s a nice example of HSBC marketers showing that personalisation for personalisation’s  sake is valid and effective – the effort involved surely indicates the likelihood that HSBC will have an underlying culture of personal customer service.


The ultimate in personalisation is not just to deliver welcome and timely information, but also to automatically adapt an otherwise generic campaign according to a subscriber’s specific situation. Whether it’s done directly (mainly by asking for it) or whether it’s captured indirectly (through behavioural observation or other inferred profiling methods) subscriber profiling is the first step.

The second step is to use this insight to directly increase the relevance of your delivered content. This can be done manually  (by segmenting your audience and sending different campaign variations to different groups) or automatically using a technique called Dynamic Content. In this technique campaign content is automatically adapted according to known profile characteristics – it’s the same base campaign but different subscribers see it differently depending on their individual characteristics. It can be simple/subtle like changing the colour of a background to displaying, hiding or re-ordering content in order to maximise it’s relevance and impact.

Here’s a nice example from Parkdean Holidays – following  this year’s wonderful holiday and my subsequent online browsing of next year’s destination my next scheduled Parkdean newsletter had all the usual sections but a remarkably targeted focus. I’d like to think they read my mind, but I know it’s behavioural profiling and dynamic content – done well.