Jeanne Jennings

Partner, CohereOne

The Creepy Side of Email and Big Data

The Creepy Side of Email and Big Data

"Personalization is touted in email circles as a positive. I tell clients all the time that including a recipient's first name and other personal details in a message has been shown to increase engagement. But there are times when personalization can be creepy."

Personalization is touted in email circles as a positive. I tell clients all the time that including a recipient's first name and other personal details in a message has been shown to increase engagement. But there are times when personalization can be creepy.

Take a look at the screenshot below (I cut out the middle of the mail to make it fit) - it's an email I received a few days ago from Macy's. Does anything jump out at you?macysJenningsJan2

If you didn't catch it, take a look at the subject line of the email - and then look at my name in the byline of this article. Now did you catch it?  

I bet you did. The key here is “Sakalosky” - it appears after my first name in the subject line of the email and it is, in fact, my maiden name. But I haven't been “Jeanne Sakalosky” since February 29, 1992, when I got married. Even when I got divorced in 2010, I kept my married name. So it's been more than 20 years since I've answered to “Jeanne Sakalosky.”

Few people would know, off the top of their heads, that Jeanne Jennings and Jeanne Sakalosky are the same person - certainly fewer than five hundred people in the world; likely less than 100 with the time that has passed.

So how did Macy's know?

Big data is a topic of ongoing discussion in email circles - and one of the biggest of the big data companies is Acxiom. Last year they launched  to allow people to check the personal data Acxiom held on them. I checked it out last year and checked it again today - my maiden name doesn't appear in my file (note to Acxiom: please don't add it as a result of reading this post!).

So, email geek that I am, how Macy's got my maiden name has been keeping my mind occupied. And I think I know the answer - but it doesn't make me feel all warm and fuzzy inside, like personalization is supposed to. It feels pretty creepy.

I do remember signing up for email from Macy's - I did it as part of a purchase earlier this week. But I know that I did not provide my maiden name. I would have remembered that - if for no other reason than I would have had to spell it for them to get it right (which they did).

When I got married I dropped my original middle name (“Marie”) and moved my maiden name into the void. This is what appears on my amended social security card - “Jeanne Sakalosky Jennings”. But I always just use the middle initial, never my full maiden name - I am “Jeanne S. Jennings,” not “Jeanne Sakalosky Jennings.”

I paid for my purchase with my bank account debit card. My current debit card does not have my maiden name on it. But the previous debit card, which I got when I separated from my husband in 2009 and which expired in the summer of 2013, said “Jeanne Sakalosky Jennings.” I'm guessing this is because I showed my social security card when I opened my solo account.  

I was actually a bit relieved when my maiden name didn't appear on the new debit card I received last summer. It didn't happen often, but I took a bit of ribbing from both friends and strangers when they saw my unusual middle/maiden name on my debit card.

So I think the short answer to how Macy's got my maiden name is that my bank provided it to them. That's all I can think of. Since I used the debit card to pay and I then provided my email address, they must have pulled names from my bank account to personalize the email they've send me.

Which, in this case, is creepy.

So I know what you're thinking. This is an anomaly - in most cases pulling the name from the bank account used to pay for the purchase and tying it to the email provided wouldn't be creepy. I agree. But what's your threshold?

If it's not creepy 51% of the time - but it is creepy 49% of the time, is it worth it? What about 75%/25%? How about 90%/10%? 95%/5%?

We all have our own thresholds. I'm an 80% solution girl myself, most of the time. But I would be lying to you if I didn't say this bothered me, as much as I know about all of this. Having my name of 20+ years ago suddenly appear in an email subject line is creepy.

So what can you do as an email marketer? Think. Think about how you're getting your data - and of what your recipients might think of your personalization once they see it. Will it delight and engage them? Or might it creep them out and concern them?

I've always believed that the best way to get data to personalize your email campaigns is to ask. Ask the recipient what his or her first name is. Ask anything else you might want to use to personalize your campaigns.

Feel free to use observed behavior to customize the content you deliver - but if you're pulling in personal data, just ask. You'll either receive something that won't creep out the recipient when you use it - or the recipient will decline to respond, which tells you that they don't want their email from you personalized in that manner.    

Until next time,


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Last Thursday, people sat down with family and friends to celebrate Thanksgiving and eat their hearts out. Whether the tradition is to eat turkey, tofurkey, or chinese takeout, one things is for certain, most of the people who are busily enjoying a large meal on Thursday are ready to shop on Black Friday and Cyber Monday.  In early October, National Retail Federation released their forecasted numbers for 2016. While the 2015 holiday season didn’t perform as well as estimated, increasing 3.2% over the previous year, they’re forecasting in-store sales to increase 3.6% to $655.8 billion. Moreover, NRF is forecasting non-store (online sales) to increase a whopping 7-10% to as much as $117 billion.

At this point, retailers are in full swing, running promotions, stocking up for Black Friday and Cyber Monday, and organizing their team to execute flawlessly. What retailers may be forgetting is how to handle this influx of customers after the holiday season is done and gone. With more consumers turning to online shopping as the quickest and easiest way to get their holiday shopping done, retailers can enjoy more visibility online and more opportunities to turn browsing shoppers into loyal customers. However; retailers need a game plan quarterbacked by two key strategies in order to succeed: retention and predictive marketing.

Retention marketing, also known as lifecycle marketing, helps retailers speak to consumers wherever they may be in the buying lifecycle, from an onsite visitor to a one-time customer, to a high value, loyal customer. The 2016 Retention Marketing Report states that retailers have embraced the idea of retention marketing, with a 55% increase in retailers budgeting 30% or more to marketing to existing customers. The main channel for retention marketing, is, of course, email marketing. Interestingly, we found that retailers who are winning in the retail space and seeing a competitive edge are employing predictive data on top of their retention marketing strategies.

In fact, in the 2016 Predictive Marketing Report, we found that, anecdotally, retailers who have invested in predictive marketing are seeing increases across the board from sales, to engagement, and even inventory management. These findings jive with what we’re seeing in the industry. A recent Forrester Report states “predictive marketers are 2.9x more likely to report revenue growth rates higher than the industry average.” Additionally, Salesforce Marketing Cloud found that 79% of top-performing marketing teams are using predictive intelligence to inform their marketing communication and strategy.

So how does all of this fit together? The first step to get started with retention marketing or to add predictive marketing is getting access to your data in an actionable way. Having access to product, purchase, and customer data in your email marketing platform allows you to start slicing and dicing your customer list by key features, such as, last order date, products purchased, geographic location (for in-store promotions), etc. This enables retailers to ensure they’re not sending Harry, who lives in Montana, promotions for women’s bathing suits in the middle of winter or Joan, who lives in Florida, promotions for a brand new snow shovel.  Once retailers have set up foundational retention marketing campaigns - first purchase series, abandoned shopping cart campaigns, browse abandonment campaigns, and a best customer series - it’s time to sprinkle in predictive data and create predictive campaigns.

Predictive marketing can take form in a few different ways in the world of email marketing.  If you’re just getting started, I recommend starting with the low hanging fruit. One of the easiest steps you can take is enabling dynamic product recommendations for your existing email campaigns. Dynamic product recommendations are populated based on buying trends of the individual person and the trends seen in the retailer’s aggregate customer base. This one addition creates a more personalized experience for each customer. 

Once dynamic product recommendations are added, it’s time to move on to using predictive data - predicted replenishment date (for consumable products), predicted gender, predicted order date for a predictive win-back campaign, etc  - to trigger and build out campaigns.. Depending on your industry, certain campaigns and promotions may work better than others.


  1. com, an IR1000 retailer (#617), a web-only retailer of coffee, tea, and related products, created a replenishment campaign based on predicted replenishment date. This campaign, pictured on the right, triggers based on each customer’s buying cadence. This campaign’s revenue per email (RPE) is $0.73. Note: The industry average is $0.11.

Similarly,, also an IR1000 retailer (#550), a bead and jewelry-supply online retailer, created a replenishment campaign based on predicted replenishment date and has seen a 161% increase in opens from this particular campaign.

In both instances, the retailers are leveraging dynamic product recommendations in their emails, as well as relying on the predicted replenishment date to trigger the campaign. 


For US based stores, we’re able to predict with a 99% confidence rate the gender of each customer in your database. This data can be extremely useful when you’re creating your promotional calendar. While the promotion might be the same, the copy and products your pushing may vary based on gender. Additionally, you can employ this information to create suppression lists, so Harry will no longer get promotional campaigns for women’s swimsuits. This not only helps create a more curated and personalized experience for your customers, but cut down on unsubscribes and spam reports.


Predicted order date can be used in a number of ways, but primarily we tend to focus on creating a predicted win-back campaign. A static win-back campaign uses a set number of days past the purchase date as their trigger date, generally retailers will look at their average latency period to help determine the timeframe; however, this approach leaves room for error. For any customer who has purchased 3 or more times, retailers can employ predicted order date to create a predictive win-back campaign. This campaign is triggered based on the predicted order date for each customer.

SurfStitch, Australia’s number one surf and lifestyle brand, created a predicted win-back campaign. Running both a static for 1-2 time buyers, and predictive campaign for 3+ buyers, SurfStitch has seen a 72% decrease in churning customers.  To top it off, SurfStitch capitalized on their existing copy and creative when creating

Pennington & Bailes, Windsor Circle’s green pants provider, also created a predictive win-back series. They have seen a 62% lift in opens and a 137% lift in clicks from their predictive win-back series when compared to their static win-back campaign.

Retailers are just beginning to scratch the surface of what predictive marketing can do. As consumers demand a seamless experience across devices, regardless of whether they shop in-stores or online, it’s imperative that retailers create the curated, personalized experience consumers are looking for. To learn more about predictive marketing, download the 2016 Predictive Marketing Report and make sure to keep your customers after the holiday rush.

The just-concluded Presidential election was – in a word – interesting.

As a marketer, it was fascinating watching two diametrically opposed candidates take each other on. This was not a test where one candidate was just slightly different than the other – it was a case where the candidates could not have been more opposite.

 While you may not be thrilled with the results, there were three key things that all marketers - and especially email marketers - can take away from the drama to make each and every one of their programs be more successful.

Digital marketing leaders continue to promise consumers a true 1:1 personalized interaction. We have all said it, preached it, and many of us have it tattooed somewhere. Right Message. Right Time. Oh, Right Channel. Recently. Right Person.

Simple: load up the data, drag and drop, press magic button, personalization.

We already know that email can form the hub of your digital marketing program, with the email address housing all of your information about each customer in your database. Now, I want you to think how email testing can also drive your multichannel testing program to gain insights across your entire customer database.

“Why is my mail being blocked if I still get spam?”

It’s almost an inevitable question when handling delivery issues. I understand why I get it so often. People look in their inbox and see this mail is clearly spam and it’s in the inbox. But they look at the mail they send that they know isn’t spam and it ends up in the bulk folder. It’s logical to ask why legitimate marketers have to follow all these complicated and arbitrary rules to reach the inbox when spammers reach the inbox and they don’t follow any of the rules. 

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