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Should You Personalize Mass E-mails?

2011 October 12

ResearchBlogging.orgIn an upcoming issue of Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, Maslowska, van den Putte and Smit[1] explore the value of personalizing mass e-mail newsletters.  They found that personalizing a newsletter caused an improved reaction to the content of that newsletter.

Research on personalization, to this point, has been mixed.  The majority of studies have found personalization to improve outcomes, but a few have found negative effects.  Hypothesized effects vary, but generally fall along the lines of persuasion; the article lists enhanced attention, memory, intentions and behaviors as potential outcomes.

The use of personalization itself is surprisingly simple.  In this study, the authors manipulated it by adding the recipient’s name in three places in the newsletter – a relatively low-effort change.  The authors randomly assigned Dutch undergraduates to one of two conditions: personalized or generic e-mails promoting the “University Sports Centre.”  The newsletter was then distributed; at the bottom of the newsletter, readers could follow an optional link to a survey, compensating participants with a raffle entry.  This resulted in 105 cases in the final dataset.

The study is not terribly clear as to response rates.  My suspicion is that it was sent to a much larger number of students, and only 109 responded (4 were already Sports Centre users and were discarded).  This probably doesn’t matter anyway, as the missingness was likely at random – I find it unlikely that the likelihood of responding to a newsletter survey to be entered into a raffle is correlated with the the effect personalization might have on persuasion.

In comparing the two conditions with independent-samples t-tests, they found an effect on the evaluation of the newsletter but not on any attitude or behavioral outcomes.  Or in other words, those with personalized newsletters liked the newsletters more, but didn’t like the subject of those newsletters any more (i.e. the Sports Centre).  The effect was rather small (eta squared = .05).

The authors also examined a variety of two-way interactions, but approached the questions in a non-standard way.  Typically, we would use hierarchical multiple regression to determine if interactive effects provided incremental prediction above and beyond main effects.  Instead, the authors did some sort of convoluted analysis of those interactions using ordinary multiple regression, followed up by simple slopes comparisons.  It’s hard to tease apart, but it seems as if they examined the effect of the interaction alone on the outcome, which would be blatantly incorrect, if true.  But it is difficult to tell.

So what can we reasonably conclude from this article?  It does seem that personalizing a newsletter e-mail results in the recipient liking the newsletter somewhat more.  This might have other long-term effects; for example, recipients might be more likely to stay subscribed to the newsletter.  But it does not seem to affect how the letter-receiver acts on the information it contains.  At least when it comes to advertisement of on-campus resources to undergraduates, anyway.  These implications are, of course, not tested in this article.

Would I personalize a newsletter?  Sure!  There seem to be few if any negative effects, and it’s a very easy change to make.  Mail merges are not that complicated.  So even if the positive effect is limited, any benefit at all makes the cost-benefit ratio quite good.

Footnotes:
  1. Maslowska, E., Putte, B., & Smit, E. (2011). The Effectiveness of Personalized E-mail Newsletters and the Role of Personal Characteristics Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking DOI: 10.1089/cyber.2011.0050 []
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