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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