Sellers consistently struggle to connect with their buyers in an overcrowded and noisy sales landscape. Conventional wisdom tells us that the more personal we are in our communications with buyers, the better results we’ll see. But do we know if sales email personalization is truly effective? And if so, it still leaves a lot of open questions about best practices, the amount of personalization to include, and establishing the right time/effort tradeoff to maximize results.

Organizations need to rethink their sales email strategy in the age of GDPR for sales. Many are taking the regulation as the catalyst to focus on authenticity and value. It’s time to build a discipline around sales email personalization.

The movement away from the “spray and pray” sales emails is like Toys-R-Us going out of business. We loved the convenience but you can get better results by going somewhere else. That “somewhere else” for sales emails is personalization. Here is the research that will get you started.

Over the past months, our data science team has been exploring the role of personalization and its impact on key performance metrics. The goal of the research is to answer many of the lingering questions that keep sales leaders and sellers up at night. Specifically:

* Does email personalization really increase performance?
* What is the right “amount” of personalization?
* Is there such a thing as too much personalization?
* Where does personalization show an impact?

The Research

Building on our work examining over 200 million sales interactions and uncovering cadence best practices, the data science team decided to dig a little deeper, focusing solely on email interactions to examine the questions above.

The team analyzed a data set of over 6 million sales emails and explored how the amount of personalization in an email impacted its performance. Email performance was limited to directly attributable metrics – email opens and email replies. While not a perfect measure, it’s one that the team felt best allowed them to monitor the impact of personalization without introducing other potentially “noisy” variables.

They began by tracking the email template used to create the email to send to a prospect and compared it to the final email that was actually sent. To compare the difference between the two versions, a proprietary personalization algorithm was developed. The output of this algorithm was a percentage value – indicating the proportion of personalization used for any specific email sent to a prospect or customer. At its simplest level, email interactions that were vastly different than the original template had a higher percentage, reflecting a higher degree of personalization. Conversely, emails sent with little to no change from the original template earned a low proportion of personalization.

Some examples of personalization that sellers leverage in emails include:

  • Unique to the individual (attended the same college, worked at the same company, know people in common)
  • Aligned to the buyers’ unique challenges (positioned by specific knowledge of the buyer’s pain points)
  • Account or company-based (positioned by the specific company that the buyer represents)
  • Persona-based (positioned by the role of the buyer)
  • Sales stage-based (positioned by where the buyer is in the sales cycle)

While the “type” of personalization utilized was not directly examined in detail in this research, it will serve as a framework for future research.

Insights for Action

Personalization requires both time and effort and up to this point, there has been little solid investigation into the effectiveness of personalization in sales emails. Sales leaders are constantly struggling to strike the right balance between their teams’ time spent personalizing emails and their efficiency in performing sales activities. This research aimed to uncover some of the answers and elucidate insights to improve a seller’s ability to connect with their buyers.

The results of the research demonstrated a number of key insights:

Too Many Are Not Personalizing (It’s Not Personal)
Many sellers are simply not personalizing at all. A majority of sales emails sent contained no discernable difference between the selected template and the final sent email. While this may seem surprising considering the widely held-belief that personalization leads to higher performance, many companies personalize only certain emails in a cadence. Another explanation for the majority not personalizing might be through the use of a highly-targeted template process, matching email messaging to their buyers without the need to adjust the template itself. While both of these options are viable, chances are that most organizations are placing more emphasis on the quantity of email activities over the quality of the content in those emails.

As you’ll see further into the research, even a small amount of personalization can go a long way. Since a large number of emails reaching buyers contain little to no personalization, there exists an opportunity for sellers to drive differentiation from their competitors by crafting messaging directly speaking to their buyers.

A Little Personalization Goes a Long Way. A Really Long Way.
Sellers that are personalizing their sales email communications – even a little bit – are significantly outperforming those who use little to no personalization in their emails. We found that, up until about 20 percent personalization in emails, there were steady increases in both open and reply rates with each percentage increase in personalization. By personalizing 20 percent of email content, open rates increased over 40 percent on average and reply rates increased 112 percent. This is compared to emails with no personalization at all.

The graphic below illustrates the increase in open rate as the proportion of personalization increases. With no personalization, open rates averaged around 23 percent. By personalizing 20 percent of the email content, the open rate increased to 33 percent.

Sales email opens proportion to personalization

Similarly, as the chart below illustrates, reply rates at 20 percent personalization followed a similar pattern. It increased from 3.1 percent with no personalization to 6.6 percent with 20 percent personalization.

Sales email replies proportion to personalization

Personalization – The Secret Formula.
Within the data, pockets of heightened performance or “sweet spots” emerged. When examining email opens, two such areas appeared at 17-20 percent and again at around 80 percent personalization. Performance tails off dramatically with personalization more than 80 percent of an email.

Sales email probability of opens proportion of personalization

For email replies (see chart below), we again see a spike at around 20 percent personalization before entering a period of diminishing returns. There is another slight peak around the 80 percent personalization mark.

Sales email probability of replies proportion of personalization

Personalizing 80 percent of your email obviously requires a significant time investment. As such, the first spike we see in the above chart, at 17-20 percent personalization, appears to be an optimal balance between effort and reward. Many sales teams have begun using a 10/80/10 model. This approach means they personalize the first and last 10 percent of an email while keeping the remaining 80 percent of the template consistent with the original content.

Too Much Personalization May Not Be a Good Thing (More is Not Always More).
We are inclined to believe that an email entirely customized to the buyer will outperform any other. However, the team actually found that emails that were completely personalized (showed little to no similarity to the original email template) did not perform as well as expected. In fact, performance dropped off significantly. One explanation of this is that these “bespoke emails” delivered by rogue reps deviate so significantly from the originally planned template, that the fundamental talking points and clarity of message are lost. Be mindful of going from personalized to personal.

Your Mileage May Vary. 
The team extended their research to examine how individual sales teams performed when personalization was included in their email communications. While there existed a lot of variation in the data, the pattern was clear – including personalization increased reply rates. The average ratio increase between 0 and 20 percent personalization was 1.93x the reply rate. Higher performing teams achieve up to 5.27x the reply rate. This supports the notion that the best teams get more out of their personalization efforts, possibly based on the quality of the content, overall product/market fit for the target company, the quality of prospect/customer data etc…

Start Personalizing Today

Personalization in emails is one small facet of creating better selling experiences for your buyers and improving performance. However, as the research indicates, it can prove to be an important one, and one easy to get started with. Below are a couple of quick ways to think about how your sales organization can get started, or improve upon your existing personalization efforts.

1) Conduct a Personalization Audit
It’s incumbent on every sales leader to have a good understanding of how their reps are sending emails. Are they capitalizing on their knowledge of the buyer? Or are they sending automated emails with little to no personalization? Conducting a quick audit on just a handful of emails should give you a good sense of whether or not reps customize any portion of their emails to prospects.

2) Start Slowly… But Do Start
If personalization is not standard practice for your team, it should be. The barrier to get started is low (read: it’s easy) and we’ve shown above that the reward is well worth the effort. No one wants to feel like a number. Personalization creates a more dynamic customer experience and enables salespeople to better engage prospects. Think about piloting with a single member or small team to assess its impact on performance metrics.

3) Operationalize Personalization
Are you doing everything you can to make it easy for your sales team to personalize? Find ways to integrate the data and insights your reps require into the tools they’re already using for email engagement. This way, they can (almost) effortlessly gain a better understanding of their prospects and customers and personalize more effectively to their buyers.

SalesLoft continues to be the platform of choice for customers looking to personalize their sales communications at scale. It combines relevant personal and company data with proven templates to provide context when communicating. A native integration with LinkedIn Sales Navigator provides the ability to uncover common connections, relevant ice-breakers, and company news directly into a person’s profile. Native integrations with Owler and Crystal provide company-level and personal-level insights that can be used to establish, develop, and deepen sales relationships

At SalesLoft, we are constantly striving to answer the questions that help provide better sales experiences for your buyers. Today’s buyers want – and expect – more than to be sold to. They want to feel understood and for sellers to treat them as a partner, not a transaction. Going the extra mile with just 20 percent personalization can be the first step in building the right relationship for mutual success.

Wondering how much time reps should spend personalizing emails? We studied the optimal intersection of effort (time) to reward here.