Personalisation - should we use our customers’ names?

When it comes to addressing online readers by name, one person's warm and reassuring is another's over-familiar and intrusive...

 Personalisation - should we use our customers’ names?

‘Over-familiarity has spread like the plague across the internet.’ That’s the opinion of Colm O’Regan who complains in a BBC article about what he sees as the excessive use of first names on social networks and in other internet communication

He doesn’t like the Facebook prompts to update his status (‘What’s going on, Colm?’) and he especially hates the message he gets when he logs back into a website: ‘Howdy Colm, welcome, back!’

Colm’s complaint has left Facebook users divided but how to address readers is something copywriters always have to think carefully about, particularly in email. 

Why use names?

There are strong arguments for using names – that it attracts readers’ attention and helps to build a relationship. This type of personalisation can also soften commands. ‘Jackie, register now’ sounds less peremptory and will often test better than ‘Register now’.

Context is also important. The use of a name in the subject line definitely adds power to this much-praised RNIB email

On the other hand, sometimes using a name doesn’t really add anything, for example: ‘Jackie Kingsley, 5 new properties for sale in N12’.

How personal is personal?

It’s worth bearing in mind that simply adding someone’s name to the start of an email isn’t really much of a personalisation if the rest of the email is a generic message sent to everyone.

Indeed, if you’re sending a standard message (and nothing wrong with these), it’s often more honest and compelling not to pretend otherwise, and maybe do away with the salutation altogether. Sending a very personal greeting can raise expectations that an email is somehow tailored to the recipient – only to disappoint them if it isn’t.

Studies also show that people take email very personally. This is a good thing till it goes wrong – if you call a Mr a Mrs, for instance, this will go down very badly. If your message was just generic anyway, maybe it wasn’t worth trying to get everyone’s name right, given the potential fallout if you get it wrong.

Tone of voice

Certainly, in email it’s important to make a clear decision about how you’re going to talk to your readers. An email that begins ‘Dear Mr. John Smith’ sounds terrible to me – and it’s a sign that the company is hedging its bets because it doesn’t know its customers well enough to get a feeling for how they’d like to be addressed.

In fact, how you address your customers depends very much on tone. Your company’s tone of voice should determine whether you call them by their first names, address them formally or indeed, call them anything at all.

But whatever you do, you’ve got to accept that not everyone is going to like it…