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Do Your Donors Know You’re Talking to Them?

Published by Jeff Giddens

Donors receive your emails in the context of their entire inbox. They don’t receive only your email. As I’m writing this, my personal email inbox is flooded with Fantasy Football emails from my team. I know these people well, and I know that there’s a real person sending those emails. How do I know? These emails are personalized. Email personalization communicates that you are having a real and personal conversation with your recipient.

So when an organization sends me an email that doesn’t know who I am, it stands out in the context of my entire inbox.

Let’s look at a couple of experiments that demonstrate the power of email personalization in starting conversations, building relationships, and improving your email’s performance.

How email personalization affects open rate

Experiment #4307

This is another email from CaringBridge as a part of their Mother’s Day appeal. The sender, Sona, was relatively well-known to the audience. The email has a highly relevant subject line because of the upcoming holiday, and it uses an emoji.

Experiment 4307 - Email Personalization - Control

We tested this with a sender who was unknown to the audience, Camille Scheel, who was helped by the work of CaringBridge. The subject line employs personalization to overcome the lack of name recognition, and the preview text also includes personalization.

As you can see, CaringBridge has my name because they used it in the subject line and the preview text in the rest of the email.

When I see this email pop into my inbox, I immediately think, “I don’t know Camille.” I’ve never met her, but she seems to know me. That makes me more willing to open this email. It may have bridged the gap to overcome the lack of name recognition.

Experiment 4307 - Email Personalization - Treatment

The treatment produced a 137.2% increase in open-rate.


That amount of lift is quite impressive! This is very out of the ordinary when sending an email from an unknown person within an organization. We tend to think that we can build trust and grow open rates if our senders are consistent. But people may be more likely to engage with our emails if they believe that we actually know them.

How subject line tone affects email open rates

Experiment #4116

This is an email from Americans for Prosperity. The sender is a real person, Tim Phillips, not an organization. The subject line is so long that it doesn’t fit on the screen. The preview text shows the alternate text for images and the web version along with the first line of the email.This kind of preview text is typically a dead giveaway that this email didn’t actually come from a real person. It looks more like a marketing email that a piece of personal communication.

Experiment 4166 - Email Personalization -Control

We tested this with a treatment that used email personalization. We changed the subject line to make it more personal and create heightened interest. We also changed the preview text to show personalization. Overall, the treatment looked like something that a real person might send.

Experiment 4166 - Email Personalization - TreatmentThe treatment produced a 44.7% increase in open rate.


We believe that people give to people. And they also open emails from people. Our communications must be transformed so that the recipient believes they come from a person.

All of the elements of an email are connected. The primary elements – sender, subject line, and preview text – have the highest impact on open and click-through rates. This is because these elements are the first impression we give someone from our email.

Behavioral psychology calls this concept the Lizard Brain. People’s first impression of a communication can be the most powerful and the most impactful impression they have for the rest of the interaction and the communication. So even if someone does open an email that looks fishy, the likelihood of them clicking or converting afterwards is typically lower.

To achieve the level of personalization to help build trust and communicate that we know our email recipients, it does require more of us. It’s not uncommon for an organization’s email acquisition forms to not ask for first and last names. If this is the case for you, I urge you to go back up the process funnel and change the way you’re acquiring new names. Require a first and last name on your forms so that you can begin to communicate personally.

Creating more relationships with potential donors

6 Ways to Grow Your Email FileEmail personalization is crucial to establishing trust with your potential donors, but donor acquisition starts even higher up the funnel. And the number one sign of an organization’s ability to bring in online revenue is the size of their email file.

Learn how you can grow the size of your email file to start building relationships with potential donors by downloading this free eBook: 6 Ways to Grow Your Email File.

Published by Jeff Giddens

Jeff Giddens is President of NextAfter.