Getting Personal Online

My fellow Brits are rather sensitive about titles and how to address each other. In British society, proper etiquette is still prevalent and is considered important, though perhaps less so than during my childhood. It is there, I am assured, for everyone’s benefit – to help avoid embarrassment in any social situation. E-mails in Britain almost always start with “Dear” … “Dear Jo.” “Dear Sir.” “Dear Account Holder.”

And many of my friends in Britain tell me they are surprised when e-mails to them are addressed only with their first name … “Mike.” “Jo.” “Ruth.” “It seems so abrupt and impersonal!” my good friend Jonathan, an Oxford University graduate with a “Received Pronunciation” English accent (see It’s Good to Know, below) and impeccable diction, commented recently. “Are good manners extinct?” If you’re running an online newsletter, you either do or will have subscribers in other countries.

Even if you don’t, the question of how to address your readers comes up. More important, does it matter? Are there any data to support the benefits (or negative effects) of personalization over using a more general tone? The method adopted by a number of e-letters like Investment U ( and Health Sciences Institute ( is a good one. They start with “Dear Reader,” an approach that offers a balance between generic information and individual personalization.

For many years, Gary A. Scott ( has started his newsletter – and even his direct-mail letters – with “Dear International Friend.” This definitely sets a warm and friendly tone for his audience. Alistair Cooke, one of my favorite writers and broadcasters, started his “Letter From America” radio program (which aired from 1946 until Cooke’s retirement in February 2004) simply with “Good Evening” – and the tone of his broadcast could never be said to be anything but personal.

A number of online marketers go one step further and use individual personalization. Matt Furey, Sean D’Souza, and the late Corey Rudl all have used individual personalization in one form or another in their subject lines or e-mail messages. And this is not hard to do. When you collect someone’s e-mail address, simply ask for their first name and last name. Even better: “If you would like us to use your first name in our e-mails to you (example, ‘Dear Mary’), please enter it here.”

The general “rule” with personalization is that it must be both sincere and accurate. But does personalization make a difference? Possibly – and in subtle, “organic” ways that can take a while to notice. In Michael Masterson’s book Automatic Wealth, he talks of “Incremental Degradation.” He uses the example of a soda that had, say, 32 flavorings that were part of its formula. Removing just one of those flavoring ingredients may not make a noticeable difference in the taste.

Another flavoring ingredient gone … no difference. But if you keep on doing this, at some point you will have removed so much of the original “whole that was more than the sum of the parts” that the soda is now completely different. Soda sales plummet … and nobody can understand why. The opposite may also be true. Michael refers to this as “Incremental Augmentation” – progressive improvement over time.

Starting your e-letter with “Dear Reader” may be one small thing you can do to develop a relationship with your subscribers. And, over time, the beneficial effects of doing little things like this may be more noticeable than if you didn’t do them. The beauty of the Internet is that you can test these things at next to zero cost. If you have an e-letter already, try splitting your list and sending one segment the regular e-letter and one with some form of personalization – even something as simple as starting it with “Dear Reader.”

Track how this affects not only your online sales but also the longevity of your subscribers (how long they stay on your list) and attrition (the rate at which they unsubscribe from your list). . And while you’re at it, here’s another interesting thing to test. Some of the major ISPs – Hotmail/MSN included – intimated to me recently that some form of personalization (“Dear …”) could actually aid with the deliverability of your e-mails, as this helps assuage some of their spam filter rules. Just remember to test only one thing at a time.

[Ed. Note: David Cross is Senior Internet Consultant to Agora Publishing. He will be discussing more about how to use e-mail and the Web to test your marketing ideas and campaigns at ETR’s Second Agora Model Internet Marketing Conference this August 25-28 in Baltimore.]