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Are we all becoming too familiar?

April 25, 2013

In a recent Guardian article, Katherine Whitehorn argued strongly that first names should be just for friends and that she didn’t want everyone from Starbucks to cold callers addressing her by her first name. The article stimulated hundreds of comments and talking points on news shows and got me thinking about whether we as email marketers could be accused of being over-familiar with our customers.
Judging by the comments on the article, a preference for the greater formality of the past doesn’t seem to be particularly age related. Some older people are happy to be known by their first name, some younger people would prefer to be Mr/Mrs/Ms. A key observation was that it’s always polite to ask someone what they want to be called and act accordingly. That makes sense – yet it’s a rare sign up form that asks customers for a preference.
Most email campaigns these days go out using the first name, probably in most cases by default.  After all, when was the last time you had a discussion on the topic in the office?  But not all firms are letting the trend for informality go unchallenged. I spotted an email the other day from the web hosting firm 1&1 addressed to title and last name. Somehow, the greater formality seemed to add a certain authority to the email. 
Are there any other alternatives? You could do without a salutation altogether.  Or you could try sticking to the plain facts - leading copywriter Bob Bly starts emails with ‘Dear direct response letter subscriber’. You could also consider making a link with your business name. Film makers Future Artists write to ‘Dear Future Artist.‘ Clearly, that won’t work for everyone.
This informality in emails is probably a result of the fact that email has always been a relatively informal sales channel and seen as less formal than, for example, a letter.  However it’s something well worth testing - and the situation will almost certainly vary depending on your offer, the completeness of your list and your target market. Subject lines that include the name  - ‘Great offers for you JANE’  are probably taking it too far and put your email at greater risk of being seen as spammy. 
One last thought: what about how we end our emails?  If we’re on first name terms, should the email be signed with just a first name?  Food for thought....

Posted by Jenni Malley
Topical email

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