The new mailing paradox: customization is bad

The new mailing paradox: customization is bad

A new study taking a look at mailing best practices reveals startling results: customizing a mailing may not be good after all, quite the opposite! It appears personalization would harm your campaigns by yielding lower reading rates, lower delivery rates and increased complaint rates. Let’s take a look at this paradox.

Setting the stage

This longitudinal study was conducted in 2008 and 2013 by Return Path, a global leader in the field of Mailing Intelligence. It initially aimed at comparing the evolution of practices in email marketing and covers over 60 brands including Disney, Expedia, Nike, Adidas…

The less information, the better

One of the main results shows that the information collected by marketers is now kept to a bare minimum. While over half the brands requested complete (postal) mailing information in 2008, a third of brands now only request an email address with a postal code or name. More interestingly, the more information is requested during the sign-up, the less effective the campaign is. Additionally, only 22% of those who collect additional information use it to customize their message, which hints on the uselessness of the process.

The adverse impact of customization

We live under the impression that customizing a mailing with a first name or a personal greeting line will necessarily have a positive impact. Wrong! Personalized campaigns appear to be much less effective than anonymous ones. Personalized emails are 4 times more likely to end up in the spam box of your readers. For those emails that make it to the inbox, they are less popular (i.e. less read) and less desired (i.e. higher complaint rate). This indicates that customizing email campaigns may just be a waste of time.

customization is bad

Source: Return Path, 2013. The Email Subscriber Experience, 2008-2013.

What can you do about it?

This study deals with tens of millions of emails and many brands. Yet, it may not reflect an absolute truth. After all, there are contradicting studies out there and your situation may be different. Nonetheless, it begs the question: what will be the impact of customizing your campaign?
You can always perform A/B testing to get absolute certainty. Send a customized email to half of your mailing list and an anonymous one to the other half. Which performs better?

It’s what’s on the inside.

It seems to be more about what’s inside the email. Even if the outside (subject/header) calls out your name, the content might hold no relevance to you. And that’s the key for the success of a campaign: content that is relevant to the target audience and instigates action.
Plus, it feels commonsensical that a recipient may perceive the mention of his name or location as an invasion of one’s privacy. Not hard to imagine how an email subject that reads “Mary, I have a surprise for you!” can come across a little spamy.


The key is really to send a legitimate message that the recipient expects. Far more important than personalizing a name field, be sure to produce quality content that is unique and targeted!

The survey is available for free download.

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