JoTo PR uses large email marketing campaigns, upwards of 2 million emails per month, to promote clients, according to founder and president Karla Jo Helms. “We have noticed when we personalize subject lines, the open rate can increase as much as 25 percent,” she said. “When we personalize, we get more direct replies — even if they are not interested. Many times they feel we are speaking directly to them, which is what you want.”

JoTo PR’s experience should not surprise anyone in the industry. Statistics show that as targeted marketing increases conversion and engagement by 10 percent to 14 percent, personalization has become a defacto best standard for the space.

But while the marketing industry may be happy with the results of personalization, many consumers are not, especially when the personalization becomes too intrusive. Many marketers view this as a potential problem as well. Overly intrusive personalization can get a little creepy, Helms acknowledged. In the worst cases, she said, it is “being likened to a stalker.”

Marketers are a savvy bunch, though, and Helms is not alone in her observation. Generally, marketers do acknowledge that consumers do not like feeling as though they are being spied on or otherwise tracked online or off. The problem for many marketers becomes where to draw the line.

Related Article: Bridge the Data-Driven Personalization Gap With Customer Data Platforms

Fine Line Between Helpful and Creepy

Indeed, in some cases that line is very fine. Before she became the founder and CMO of Belmonte Marketing, Clair Belmonte use to work with financial organizations to create direct mail campaigns or cold emails to people who have never banked with that organization before. One thing she learned: “Having a bank know your personal information and having it address offers to you can feel uniquely accusatory or intrusive for people, especially if you are speaking about their associations with other financial organizations,” she said.

Her recommendation is to avoid using personalization if you haven’t contacted your list in over three months — as your targets may have forgotten they subscribed to your list — or if you are sending mass emails to a purchased list for the first time.

Another pro tip from an expert in the field is, don’t scare consumers by showing off exactly how much you know about the person. Imagine getting an email whose subject line reads like this: 'Hi, Erika. Let's discuss upgrading your enterprise phone system.' Now imagine getting an email with this subject line: 'Erika, let's talk phones for your 57-person office.' Both messages are personalized, noted Casey Houser, a content specialist at VirtualPBX who offered those examples. “The first one uses my contact's first name and reveals my marketing goal, which is to reach enterprises. That is a socially acceptable way to begin a conversation.” 

The second headline, on the other hand, skips the polite introduction, disregards the marketing goal, and could make the customer wonder, ‘Why 57? What else do they know about me and my office?’ “Although a company’s headcount shouldn't be difficult to find and is otherwise benign information, its use in this context comes across as intrusive because it doesn't meet the level of your relationship with the customer,” Houser said.

Learning Opportunities

This is a very important distinction that marketers need to make, said Robb Hecht, adjunct professor of marketing at Baruch College. “There's a difference between a marketer messaging a consumer they know is thinking about buying a new car” based on certain online actions by the consumer, he said. “It's a much different level, when a marketer might triangulate data that says to that same consumer that the advertiser knows they are looking for a car; that they have an estimate of what the consumer's income is and that they know how many family members they have.”

Drip campaigns based on website activity are a case in point, said Sarah Mooney, digital marketing manager at REMITR. “Letting your audience know you've been tracking their activity might tick them off,” she said. “Modern technology gives marketers like myself access to advanced analytics, however, some of it might be better left for the marketer's eyes only.”

Related Article: The Challenges of Delivering Personalized Customer Experiences

A Better Approach

More subtle approaches to personalization work just as well in terms of engagement and conversion. Erika Rykun, link building strategist at, said the company has tested the use of relevant jokes or weather comments and they have performed very well. Last year when the UK was dealing with a snowy and cold winter, the company made comments about the weather when sending emails to people from the UK. “The response rate improved,” she said. “Moreover, people were replying, ‘Yes, it's really cold here,’ meaning they've actually noticed our attempt for personalization and were open for discussion.”

Another approach is to personalize at the group level, said Kelly Jameson Werner, founder and director of Werner and Media. “We advise an approach to advertising that is personalized down to the demographic group and not necessarily the individual. Targeting things like race, geographic location, interests and political/professional affiliations will help you build out buckets of prospects that you can granularly target with your paid campaigns.” When done correctly, she said, the results will be the same if not more powerful than an individually personalized campaign.

Along these lines, Debbi Dougherty, head of B2B marketing at Rakuten Viber suggested focusing on metadata that helps a marketer get to know its target customer based on surface-level insights, such as general demographics and interests. “Then, work backwards to develop ads that balance personalization with privacy,” she said.

Cheer Up, the Line Is Always Moving

Marketers that may find some of these restrictions frustrating should take heart: For better or worse, the line between what is acceptable and what is not is always changing. Lauren Crain, digital marketer with HealthLabs, noted that until recently, showing recommendations based on what a customer purchased was seen as crossing the line with personalization. “Now that's simply smart marketing,” she said. “The line for where personalization gets to be overly invasive is there, but with more and more innovations, the line will continue to be pushed further back.”