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The single most important ingredient in email marketing

Never mind segmentation, automation, social media connectivity. Get the basics right. And the most crucial thing of all? 

First Name. Why? Three reasons:

  1. It very quickly tells you about list health
  2. It forces real time list cleansing
  3. It dramatically affects email engagement (both well and badly)

List Health

First name lays list health bare. The first thing we do with clients is query their first name field for:

  • Less than 3 letters. Some short names are genuine (hello Al, Di and Ed!) but worry about anyone called “F” or “St”
  • Numeric characters
  • Spaces
  • Symbols
  • Punctuation
  • Blanks
  • Titles (“Mr”, “Mrs”)

A good list will have zero or just a handful of issues. Badly managed lists can have fail rates of anything up to 30% (seriously!).

List Cleansing

Clearing up is hard work – but worth it. Often the answer is given by the email address or by the last name field (eg if you have “Mr” as first name you usually get “John Smith” as last name). Else you’ll need to mark the failed contacts as “no first name” so you don’t use their names in your emails.

Simply asking for clarification is a good idea – and shows your customer that you are paying attention. But there’s a catch:

You need to do it straight away.

There’s no point checking days after they have completed your form. Or after you’ve emailed them as “ABC Taxis” a few times. By that stage their interest has often gone and you’ll get very little – or no – response. It will waste your time.

Email Engagement

Should you use first name in subject lines? Campaign Monitor see it as the single most important “Power Word” – improving open rates by over 14%. MailChimp agree that it increases open rates. So you should do it, right?


It can also dramatically increase your spam and unsubscribe rate. It entirely depends on how tailored your content is. If you are confident recipients will find your content valuable, then it will work well.
BUT using first name as a “trick” to get your email opened but then offering generic content is going to backfire.

Constant Contact strongly discourages adding a contact’s first name in the subject line of your emails. Doing so may lead to an increase of spam complaints, as spammers are known for using personal data in the subject line of emails. – Constant Contact “Using my contact’s first name in the subject line”

At EmailBee we have a rule:

“Don’t fish with a first name!”

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