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  • November 21, 2006

Using subscribers’ names in subject lines: Executive Summary

Using subscribers’ names in the subject lines of emails is a very rare practice among major retailers, probably because it introduces several potential complications and limitations without much opportunity for upside.

Since late June, we’ve tracked nearly 3,000 emails and only 26 of those emails included the subscriber’s name in the subject line. Those 26 emails came from just five of the 97 retailers that we’ve been tracking, with 20 of those coming from Northern Tool, which uses subscribers’ names in the subject lines of nearly all of its emails. The other four retailers that have done this are Dell (3), Abebooks (1), ShopNBC (1) and Overstock (1).

The first complication is that this practice requires the retailer to collect the subscriber’s name during their sign-up process. In our Retail Email Subscription Benchmark Study, we found that 31% of retailers require the subscriber’s name. Another 9% make the subscriber’s name optional.

The practice also invites potential troubles when linking the subject line to the name of the subscriber in your database. This apparently happened with the one email like this that Overstock sent. The Oct. 11 email’s subject line appeared as “XXFIRST_NAMEXX, shop our CLEARANCE EVENT.” Interestingly, Overstock didn’t require or even request our name when we signed up for their newsletter.

Including subscribers’ names in the subject line also limits the syntax of your subject lines, or at least it should. If you’re going to address the subscriber, what follows the name should sound like an address or command of some sort. It sounds awkward if you just append the person’s name to the beginning of just any old subject line. Strangely, this is what Northern Tool does a lot of the time. For instance, its Nov. 17 email had the subject line “Chad, Unique + Hard To Find Gift Ideas.” Some other odd-sounding subject lines were “Chad, Power. Anytime. Anywhere.”, “Chad, Email Exclusive - Free Shipping Extended” and “Chad, Gift Card With Purchase.”

On the other hand, Dell and Abebooks do a good job of using the subscriber’s name in a statement of address. For instance, a Sept. 22 email from Dell had the subject line “Chad, get 14% off the award-winning Inspiron E1505! Great for home entertainment!” and a July 13 said “Chad, get up to 35% off Select Systems!” And Abebooks’ Aug. 28 email said “Chad, Your August Avid Reader is Here.”

Using names in subject lines can also create awkwardness when that email is forwarded to a friend, as we found while doing our Send to a Friend Benchmark Study. The forwarded email looks to be addressing the wrong person, which can make it look like spam.

Given all these limitations and potential complications, it’s no surprise that the practice is so rare. But for retailers like Northern Tool, perhaps they find that the personalization gives them a boost in open rates that makes the trouble all worthwhile.

But what makes even less sense to us is including the subscriber’s email address in the subject line. Costco is the only retailer that we track that has done this, ending many of its subject lines with our email address. For instance, an Oct. 22 email said “Spruce up Your Home for the Holidays, retailemail.blogspot@gmail.com.” Whereas using a subscriber’s name in the subject line proves that you know their name, using their email address in the subject line proves nothing.

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