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5 ways email marketing personalisation can go horribly wrong

Want to make someone feel special?

Image credit: Walt Disney Pictures


Show them that you’ve been listening to them, and that you understand and care about their needs.

In email marketing, this can be a tricky business. Many brands have mailing lists so massive that keeping email content relevant for everyone has been exceedingly difficult.

But things are changing.

AI and machine learning technologies now allow brands to sift through their massive piles of consumer data, identify key personal, demographic and purchase behaviour information, and segment their mailing lists accordingly. As brands continue to delve deeper and deeper into this process, true email marketing personalisation is becoming a very real possibility.

For brands, this presents an unprecedented micro-targeted marketing opportunity. For consumers, it offers benefits as well, in the form of marketing emails they actually want to receive (instead of the batch-and-blast marketing emails of the past).

It really is win-win.

Image credit: NBC


Unless brands mess it up.
If a company isn’t careful, their email marketing personalisation campaigns can (and do) go horribly wrong.

Here’s how…

5 ways email marketing personalisation can go horribly wrong

1) Wrong recipient name

Image credit: NBC


First name personalisation is probably the most basic form of email marketing personalisation, and it’s been around for awhile. This doesn’t mean that brands get it right all the time.  

Everyone with an email account has probably received at least one “Hi, <FIRST_NAME>” email. This usually occurs when a sender neglects to check their shortcodes before hitting the send button.

Tut, tut, tut.

This kind of fail has many variations. Some of our other favourites include “Hi FIRST_NAME LAST_NAME’ or “Hello {First_Last}”.  

Salutations in email subject lines or body copy that don’t get first name personalisation right make the sender look sloppy at best and completely incompetent at worst. Chances are, the recipient won’t read the email at all. Or, worse yet, your email will be flagged as spam and the recipient will unsubscribe from your list.

2) Leveraging visitor-specific information incorrectly


Many businesses leverage information from IP addresses, company profiles, and past purchase information to fill in various gaps of their “personalised” email templates. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the information inserted into the template will be correct or relevant to the recipient.

Senders and brands which misread the data or don’t account for the many variables involved in the available data can come off looking quite foolish and wasting everyone’s valuable time.

This can happen if a recipient joins a mailing list while doing some travelling, or buying a gift for someone they have nothing in common with. Treating that subscriber to personalised promotional emails in for a far-flung location they may never visit again, or offering them products their second cousin likes defeats the entire purpose of utilising personalisation in the first place!


3) Mixing up genders


In addition to collecting names and emails from subscribers, companies will often ask for additional information such as age and gender.

What might seem like an innocent request can turn into something truly embarrassing.  

Such would be the case if a company has an error in their system and the gender assignments get swapped (IF gender = M THEN Mrs). The resulting email would be addressed to ‘Mrs Henry Smyth’.  And although the wife of Mr Henry Smyth could exist, such a blatant error looks unprofessional.

Also, be sure that you provide the correct title for women – Miss, Ms or Mrs – and the option to change it if a woman changes her marital status after becoming a subscriber.

Perhaps the biggest faux pas is a customer who leaves the gender field blank but the system automatically assigns a gender when the data is missing. That can get awkward quite quickly, such as if a woman signs up to health store mailing list and then gets bombarded with sales on hair loss treatments or industrial strength nose hair trimmers because the system defaults to male.


It is worth noting that it is 2017, and gender can be a sensitive issue. However, If you insist on giving your subscribers a title of Mr, Miss, Ms or Mrs then at least make sure you make it a “required field” wherever possible.

4) Lacklustre or just plain wrong event reminders 


It’s not uncommon these days to receive “Happy Birthday” emails from companies you’ve shared your birthday date with. But those that are clearly cookie-cutter or aren’t offering anything special can be quite a letdown.  

For example, receiving free shipping on a large order (even though you’ve been a loyal consumer – and big spender – for years) is disappointing. A 30% off coupon would have been much more appreciated!  

Or, if it’s a brand that’s relatively cheap (like McDonald’s), receiving a $1 off coupon that you have to print out to redeem is almost a joke in this day of scannable coupon codes.

For particularly high emotional events in life, such as weddings and pregnancies, be sure to have a double confirmation system. This can be done by cross-checking with social media platforms such as Facebook to ensure that customers are have truly gotten married or had a baby and are not just daydreaming.  

Case and point: ask any teenage girl about their Pinterest boards and chances are that one of them will be dedicated to their future wedding. Even if they’ve followed a sales funnel and signed up for a local jeweller’s email list or a bridal shop, this doesn’t necessarily mean they are ready to buy anything any time soon.

On the flip side, sending anniversary reminders or congratulation emails could go horribly wrong.

5) Mistaking interest for ‘intent to buy’

Image credit: 20th Century Fox


You have a problem and you’ve found a website that has some great solutions. You’ve subscribed to their free eBook. You’ve even signed up for a free Webinar next month. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re ready to become a paying member and invest several hundred dollars in an online course in food photography, how to become more organised in your life or what it takes to start your own online business.    

But some companies jump the gun and make the mistake of thinking that an early stage inquiry is a soon-to-be buyer. So, they immediately bombard them with scammy sales pitches rather than developing the trusting brand-subscriber email marketing relationships which actually drive sales.

Marketing personalisation is a powerful tool, but it needs to be utilised in the right way, and at the right time. Learning how to put personalisation to work for your brand takes time and diligence. Invest both, lest you too fall victim to its many pitfalls!

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Trevor Beers, Senior Language Technician, Phrasee

Phrasee pheatures: Trevor Beers

Our very own Senior Language Technician, Trevor Beers, shares advice for those looking to join the tech industry, and insights into life at Phrasee.

Discover how applying actual AI to language can deliver big results!