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Commentary & Analysis

Are You Sending Personalization that Isn’t Personal?

This morning, I received a personalized email that was anything but personal. While this was an email, the mistake could easily have ended up in print, and it offers object lessons for all of us. Before we send out anything data-driven, let’s make sure it reads as if it was written by a human being.

By Heidi Tolliver-Walker
Published: June 5, 2018

This morning, I received a personalized email that was anything but personal. While this was an email, the mistakes were at the messaging and the database level, so they just as easily could have ended up in print. Who knows? Maybe they did.

The email used my name and company name in the body of the message, but instead of making me feel as if the sender knew me, it read like the seminal effort of a company doing personalized email for the first time. While the company actually may be great at what it does, the lack of professionalism in the messaging cast an overall shade of doubt. If it had been a landscaping company, it might not have mattered. But the company offers a marketing product.

Here’s what I received:

Hello Heidi,

Should be “Hello, Heidi.” Comma after the salutation.

Just called, but rather than leave a voicemail I thought an email might work better for your busy schedule.

So we have the colloquial “Just called,” followed by the formal “email might work better for your busy schedule.” Nobody talks that way, and I actually winced when I read that.

The reason for my call, and email, is to ask if you are already familiar [company’s product], and if Heidi Tolliver Walker Digital Printing Reports currently has any systems in place to take advantage of [product category].

In addition to the punctuation error, it looks as if my name and company name had ended up in the company name field. Was this a singular error? Or a systemic blooper? Had the database ever been scrubbed for issues like that? Alternatively, why they didn’t go with simpler wording like “whether you have any systems in place,” which reads much more naturally? More uses of my company name don’t translate into “more personal.”

Would you be interested in a quick call to discuss your current challenges and goals for using customer feedback at Heidi Tolliver Walker Digital Printing Reports?

That’s painful even the second time around.

I wonder if the person whose name is at the bottom of the email had ever run a test email or seen proofs of how these communications read to the person receiving them? Or whether he was simply trusting the marcom department and had never actually read what was going out with his name on it?

This leaves us with questions for our own companies. Are you sending out personalized email? Either for self-promotion or for your clients? If so...

  1. Is the database cleaned up of duplicates, outdated information, and other bugaboos like having the recipient’s name in the company name field?
  2. Have you run test emails with a variety of scenarios and read back over them to make sure that, once dropped in, the personalized elements don’t read awkwardly?
  3. Have you set up defaults for all fields so that, if a field is empty, the text still reads naturally?
  4. Does the person writing the body of the email have the professional skills to do so?
  5. Have you had the email proofed by a second set of qualified eyes to catch typos, wrong words (form vs. from), and punctuation errors that even the best writers can miss?

Whether it’s print or digital, using data isn’t what makes something personal. It’s a human being behind the data. It still takes a person to create relevant, relatable messaging. This is something we all need to keep in mind.

Heidi Tolliver-Walker Heidi is an industry analyst specializing in digital, one-to-one, personalized URL, and Web-to-print applications. Her Marketer’s Primer Series, availalbe through Digital Printing Reports, includes “Digital Printing: Transforming Business and Marketing Models,” 1:1 (Personalized) Printing: Boosting Profits Through Relevance,” “Personalized URLs: Beyond the Hype,” and “Web-to-Print: Transforming Document Management and Marketing.”



By Gina Danner on Jun 05, 2018

You are right on all fronts Heidi.

Biggest issue with data is that there is a lot of it. AKA -- "Big Data" and most marketers don't have the resources to deal with it.

Next is that most organizations start with the accounting data and think that it translates to marketing data.

So we think that CRM will solve all of our problems. CRM is a great tool, except that by its nature results in inconsistent data entry and data management. Sales people aren't great at being consistent with data entry, updates and such. It's challenging enough to get them to do the entries that allow for marketing automation to support their sales efforts. Don't even get me started.

So now it comes to "marketing review" for those elements that you mentioned and many more. To be effective, it almost makes sense to keep a "marketing" data set that matches to the CRM data. This "marketing" data set could be tied by unique identifier between the two. For each mailing or email that goes out, the CRM data is matched against the Marketing Data Set and disparities are reviewed - then either set gets updated for accuracy moving forward.

The marketing data set allows for those "intelligent" choices to create truly personalized information. For example: I have a handful of contacts in NextPage's system whose name ends in "s" so any mark of possession such as "Gina's Garden" must be carefully thought through. "Marlys's Garden" is not proper. Or someone whose formal name is William, but he knows that I know him as Billy. I want the address to read William, but the salutation better say Dear Billy.

Next we must make appropriate gender representations. Kelly may be male or female.

And, of course the list goes on. The business / marketing rules must be defined and if they can be defined at the strategic objective level then a marketing strategist can properly guide the work. Unfortunately, the marketing roles and skill sets are significant and too many organizations don't value these little items until the CEO's best friend gets a piece that doesn't make any sense.

Strategy is key and every piece of marketing communication should be treated carefully. Just because it's an email and it doesn't really cost us anything isn't a good reason to skip the steps of strategy, proofreading, and data proofing step.


By Eddy Hagen on Jun 06, 2018

I also got an interesting one earlier this week: an e-mail from IKEA, promoting a 15% discount on their PAX series of wardrobes. Sounds nice, but I had bought a complete new PAX wardrobe only 4 weeks ago…

So what should have been a nice promotion, eventually turned out to be a rather painful experience for me.

And it makes me wonder: if even IKEA, with all its resources, can't do personalization right, who can?
(hint to data management service providers: even big companies may require your expertise)


By Nick Loeser on Aug 13, 2018

The moment I bought my Nissan I started getting direct mail and email promoting new offers, vehicles and incentives. Like similar "I just bought this" experiences, it's possible this isn't a big data fail, but rather a strategy. Maybe they're counting on your friends asking you about your new purchase and you sharing the promotion you just received.


By Heidi Tolliver-Walker on Aug 13, 2018

Interesting. But if that were the case, wouldn't they be more likely to say, "We hope you love your new [product]. Share with your friends!" Or ". . . refer your friends and get a 10% discount on a future purchase!" Anyone else have experience with this? Please weigh in!


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