Subject Line Customization: Too Much Like Spam?

By Head of Marketing - Tue, Sep 16-->


picture 53 Subject Line Customization: Too Much Like Spam? Yesterday, I received an email from that merged the name of the town I live in into the subject line.  I’ll admit, it got my attention, as it was the first email I can recall seeing with this type of customization.  But it didn’t necessarily catch my attention in a good way - I thought it came off as way too spam-like and it reminded me of a few years ago when it became the craze to merge the first name of a recipient into the subject line of a message.

This message immediately reminded me of an edition of the TargetX Email Minute from a few years back where they recommended this practice as a way to increase your open rates: 

picture 54 Subject Line Customization: Too Much Like Spam?

Now, I don’t have every edition of the Email Minute at instant memory recall, but this one stuck out for me because it was the first time I could recall hearing of the practice.  I tested it a few times with my own messages and actually found that it hurt my open rates so I stopped using it and never really thought too much of it again.  

Fast forward a few years and what was once a standard “best practice” is now used almost exclusively by spammers.  One look at my spam folder tells me all I need to know about what kind of connotation it derives: 

picture 55 Subject Line Customization: Too Much Like Spam?


Go ahead, open your spam folder.  Did you find the same thing?  Why is personalizing a subject line with the place I live any different than my first name? Convinced yet?  If not, there is empirical evidence to show that email customization can really freak people out if its done gratuitously and without adding value to the message.  

The moral of the story? You walk a fine line when you do customization in email - it can either add value for the user or it can really freak them out.  I would argue that subject line customization is rarely effective.  Sure it may get the user to open a message, but that’s not your only goal with the subject line.  It does not exist in a vacuum from the rest of the message - you not only want to get the user to open it but also take  a call-to-action. The MoveOn email got me to open it, but only because of the “WTF?” factor.  I was so distracted by the subject line I’m not sure I even read the message.  A much more effective alternative would  have been “How YOU can help elect Obama“.  Yes, it’s generic, but the word “you” has an impact that is much more positive and puts me in a more receptive mindset to receiving the rest of their message.

13 Responses to “Subject Line Customization: Too Much Like Spam?”

  1. Says:

    I totally agree that using someone’s first name in an email subject is trying to interject a false intimacy into the “conversation.” It’s like a telemarketer knowing your name. When you get the call, or the email, something just doesn’t click. (pun half-intended)

    But I do think that creative personalization can help increase the perceived value of the email, even at the subject line.

    A few years ago, I sent a broadcast email to a large group of alumni, and instead of using their first name or class year in the subject, I did a calculation in Excel and built variable of how many years they’ve been out of college. I included that unique piece of data in the subject line, and it was very effective in terms of open rates (vs. related emails) and clickthroughs.

    It’s subtle, less direct than a first name, and didn’t infringe on the recipient’s “personal space.”

  2. Says:

    Completely agree. What once worked, is not ineffective. It’s such a moving target.

    Personalizing the content works, but that doesn’t help with open rates. But also personalizing the subject line with items other than the name, is also very effective - highlight the targeted nature of the email message.

  3. Says:

    great information to pass along!!

  4. Says:

    Don’t you think spammers are A/B testing this kind of stuff? They’re doing it because it works.

  5. Says:

    Brad, as a former spammer I can emphatically say that A/B testing is not remotely top of mind…

  6. Says:

    I was hesitant to comment here because I didn’t want to turn this into a big vendor love-fest (hi brian, hi toby)…but for what it’s worth..

    It works because it’s deceptive. However, if your content doesn’t deliver, it won’t matter. I think EmailLags made a good point in a recent blog post of theirs:

    “Segment/Personalize: Personalizing subject lines does not mean putting someone’s first name in the subject line, followed by generic information such as, “Loren, Your Personalized May Newsletter.” If you are segmenting your list in any way, then each segment should likely receive appropriate and different subject lines. Even if you aren’t creating separate versions of your email, if you have relevant information on segments of your subscribers, tailoring the subject line to their interests should improve open and click-through rates.”

  7. Says:

    Sorry, that wasn’t a swipe at EmailLabs (Lags), just a typo. Here’s their full post:

  8. Says:

    Hi Dan

    To you point, what does a successful subject line mean? I don’t consider it to be successful if the person opens the email. I open hundreds of emails every day that I don’t read…it means nothings. I don’t view the individual components of the message as separate from one another - the subject line is just one component of a larger picture. If the user opens the message but doesn’t take the call to action, then the entire message has failed.

  9. Says:

    You’re absolutely right, Head of Marketing . And that was the point I was trying to get across…the subject line is just one piece of the puzzle. As you stated, if the recipient opens the email, but doesn’t take action…the message failed.

  10. Says:

    thanks for this in depth view about this matter.
    subject line should only contain subject! its good to hav a catchy one for reader’s attention.
    & u r right. nowadays i receive so many spam mails with my first name in the subject line.

  11. Says:

    Until today I had not received spam with my first name in it. Lots of emails from marketing lists I’m on include my first name, but no spam. That’s probably because until recently the name part of most of my email addresses has been mbaker. Almost invariably I send any email with mbaker in the subject straight to the spam folder unopened.

    So I think you must be right, putting a respondents first name in the email subject must be dangerous to the health of the email.

  12. Says:

    I got spam (Lots of them) usually from my own email.. Those spammer using my own “fake” email to spam me.


  1. Dr Baker Comments » Blog Archive » On the dangers of personalising email subject lines --> says:

    [...] In Subject Line Customization: Too Much Like Spam? Head of Marketing points out that she and many others are likely to send any email with their first name in the subject line stright to their spam folder unopened, or at least not open it. [...]