Category Archives: direct mail

The Failings of Faux Personalization

By Jim Morris

Image courtesy of Vectorportal

One of the great challenges for any small business is how to obtain and retain connections with current and prospective customers. One approach that many businesses turn to is some form of direct mail, whether it’s old school snail direct mail, or email.

Nothing wrong with that. BUT, I suggest that you tread carefully into the minefield of “personalization.” Direct Mail zealots are big fans of the device called personalization, where, at a minimum, the letter, card or email addresses the recipient by his/her first or last name. Personalization can go far beyond that, however.

Printing technology has long enabled you to construct your message to contain “fields” that can be filled in with information specific to the person you are mailing or emailing to. This information might be about how long the person has been a customer, or about some recent purchase—any information that the advertiser can get their hands on, that they think might encourage the customer to perceive that the advertiser “knows” or “understands” them, or at least is paying some attention to them.

Advertiser Beware

This may sound like a tempting tactic, but please beware. To illustrate the problem, let me cite two examples of personalized mail and email, one for my wife, one for me, which we received recently.

Exhibit A: I got an email from David Stevenson, “Off-page SEO Executive” (whatever that is) for Search Laboratory Limited. This email went out to who knows how many bloggers out there. This is what David said:

Hi Jim,

My name is David Stevenson and, on behalf of my client, Vistaprint, I have been carrying out some online marketing and research while finding blogs relevant to marketing and brands.

I came across your blog during my research and found it informative, interesting and extremely useful with the various tips, and really enjoyed the “There’s joy in repetition, sometimes” post.

After extensive research I have written a number of articles about improving branding and marketing for companies on and offline. And I have a post on the benefits of using personalized products to generate new clients and keep existing ones, which I think could go nicely on your blog.

I would be more than happy to provide you with this.

Please let me know what you think.

Kind regards,
David Stevenson
Off-Page SEO Executive
Search Laboratory Ltd – Global Search Marketing

So, what’s wrong with this picture? It’s the part about having found my blog “informative, interesting, and extremely useful with the various tips, and really enjoyed “There’s joy in repetition, sometimes.”

This is the key to the personalization of this email. It is not-so-cunningly designed to make me think that this guy really did look at my blog, and really did find it “informative, interesting and extremely useful.” Citing the specific title of one of my blog entries is supposed to be the nail in the coffin of credibility. Surely, this guy must have really read my blog if he’s singling out one of my posts for specific praise, right?

Yeah, I’m not buying it. This is just one more in an endless parade of cynical direct mail ploys. I’m sure his company has the technology to find business blogs and select the title of some/any old post to plug into that “field” within the email format. As for “informative, interesting, and useful, with the various tips”, that could have been written by an astrologer, it is so cleverly designed to appear to describe my blog, while, in fact, it would sound flatteringly descriptive of pretty much every business blog in the world. And by the way, David, I don’t have “various tips” on my blog. Nice try, though.

By the time I finished reading this email, I was so put off by the deceitfulness of it that I wouldn’t give this guy my business, even if he were offering something I was interested in.

Exhibit B: Let me share with you the copy from a greeting card my wife received from Bon-Ton Stores, a group of department store chains, of which Carson’s is our local brand. We have been customers of this store for a long time. The greeting card contained a discount coupon, and the copy inside reads like this:


We are pleased to present you with this unique offer, created exclusively for our Elite Your Rewards members. It’s our way of saying thank you for your loyal patronage in 2011.

On behalf of all of us at The Bon-Ton Stores I wish you a happy and healthy holiday season.

Bud Bergen
The Bon-Ton Stores

So, what’s the problem? It’s the address label, which reads “Geri Morris or Current Resident”. They got my wife’s name right, but, by adding “or Current Resident”, they rendered the card and its sentiment 100 percent insincere, disingenuous, crass, manipulative, phony.

How can a company be this stupid? To go to so much trouble to try to stroke a particular group of loyal customers, and then negate it by contradicting the personalization with that “or Current Resident” thing. Wow.

Of course, if you’re a giant credit card company or insurance company or the like, and you send out a mailing to millions, or tens of millions, of people, you may be willing to take the risk of alienating some percentage of recipients with your disingenuity, under the assumption that the personalization will be effective more often than it will backfire.

But, for a small business, it’s a touchier situation. If you put off or piss off a customer or a prospect, the blowback can be much more damaging.

The Personalization Ploy

I work on the theory that people are reasonably smart and certainly “marketing-savvy”, and that they can see through the personalization ploy. I figure most people are like me, in that they’d rather be communicated to in an honest and forthright manner. Don’t try to trick me into thinking you know or care about me. I get the deal. You want to sell me something. You think I might be interested in buying it. Just tell me why I should give you my money. No fake sweet talk. No bogus sucking up. Talk to me nicely and with respect and I’m far more likely to consider what you have to say and what you have to sell. I actually feel that taking the “faux personalization” route can border on unethical. At a minimum, it’s “merely” deceitful. Either way, why would I want to do business with such a person or such a brand?

I only recommend personalization when your business is small enough that you actually DO know all your customers, and can genuinely customize the message to speak personally to each customer.

I’m sure direct mail zealots can cite all kinds of impressive stats showing how much more effective a personalized letter or card or email can be. I caution you to view such numbers with healthy suspicion. Think first about what kind of brand you want to be. Is part of your brand’s character to be genuine and honest? Or cynical and manipulative? If you want real customers, be real with them.

Jim Morris is an advertising and tagline specialist. You can find him on the web at

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