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The “From” Name: Perhaps Your Most Important Email Marketing Decision

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by: Loren McDonald (@LorenMcDonald)
20 September 2010

Email marketers spend plenty of time worrying about the quality and effectiveness of their subject lines (and they should), but I believe the "From" line is just as important, if at times even more so.

The "From," or sender name, is the inbox field that tells your recipient who sent the messages. Some marketers use a company name, others a brand, publication or person's name, while others simply use an email address.

It seems like a minor item, especially because it occupies less space and prominence than the subject line. The “From” name is critical, however, given that most recipients look at the "From" name first and will discard or mark as spam messages from senders they don't recognize.

What's More Important: “From” Name or Subject Line?
I asked a potentially controversial question in the title of a recent Email Insider column: "Does the Subject Line Matter Anymore?"

The short, best-practices answer is, "It depends." But unlike with subject lines, I'm not a big fan of testing "From" names, although there are times when it makes sense. 

As with the slogan "Volvo = safe," I usually recommend that people go with the obvious choice, the one that makes sense and which recipients would expect to see. Then, stick with it to establish instant recognition and trust.

But even something as simple as a "From" name is more complicated than it looks and deserves consideration in selection and use.

An effective “From” name:

  • Forms the foundation of your recipients' trust and email relationship with you
  • Is the email brand they use to recognize whether to ignore, delete or open your messages
  • Stands out in the sea of subject-line sameness
  • Helps readers find your message if it gets routed to the junk folder
  • Differentiates individual message streams such as promotional versus transactional
  • Is what the recipient uses to sort or search messages
  • Embodies your ability to deliver on the recipient's expectation of value

The "From" name and subject line clearly go hand in hand. Anybody can write a catchy subject line, but a vague "From" name can doom the email to be deleted unopened or to provoke a spam complaint.

When that happens, you don't pass "Go"—and you don't collect clicks or conversions.

Why the “From” Name Matters More Now
Several changes in the email environment have made the "From" name more important:  

  • Attention spans and time spent on email are shrinking. People aren't less interested in email, they're simply spending less time on irrelevant email. 
  • Consumer inboxes are getting flooded with commercial messages—many bearing repetitive or undistinguishable subject lines—as well as transactional messages and social-network notifications. With the holidays looming, many retailers will add to the noise by doubling or tripling their normal frequency.
  • Some inboxes on mobile devices cut off the subject line after only eight to 10 characters, or about 35 characters on iPads.
  • Many email recipients use mobile devices to triage their inboxes and then read what they've saved later on their laptop or desktop computer.
  • ISPs increasingly factor in relevance to their junk filtering algorithms and are adding prioritization features (see my thoughts on the Gmail Priority Index, “Gmail Priority Inbox: What's The Big Deal?” or enabling users to sort and view email according to whether the sender is a contact or connection.

When “From” Names Go Bad
The worst mistake marketers make with the "From" line is not to specify a friendly “From” name at all, instead using a “From” address such as "edeals@bigbrand.com."  

An email address as "From" line provides poor branding, is harder to recognize and therefore trust, and in an inbox full of well-branded “From” names, simply looks like spam. Check your junk folder and you'll see what I'm talking about.

Although almost any email address is bad as a "From" name, the most heinous of these is the "no-reply@XYZ.com" address. Brrrrr! Almost any "From" name is better than "no-reply."

However …

When a sender does specify a "From" name, my biggest pet peeve is using a person's name, or worse several different individual names. Unless that person is your brand, it’s likely one of the biggest email mistakes you’ll ever make.

Every day I receive emails from some variation of "Mary Smith"—I have no idea who "Mary Smith" is or what company she is with.

It's even worse if the company or brand name is so widely known that having a stranger's name attached to it makes it looks suspicious. Think of all those pitches in your junk folder for Viagra, computer software and Rolexes.

Even if you can show you have built up some brand equity or recognition by using a person's name, what happens when that person leaves? General Mills doesn't have this problem with Betty Crocker, but your email program will suffer if you’re changing your “From” name every time your "Mary Smith" leaves the company.

Why do companies do this?

  • They don't know any better.
  • They believe the urban legend that says that ISPs filter emails that come from companies but not individuals. This is perhaps the most illogical reasoning ever. Check your inboxes, folks.
  • They believe some unknown person's name will stand out in a sea of popular brand names. Yes, it might stand out—but as a spam indicator.  
  • "We've always done it this way. We aren't going to change now." This may or may not make sense, depending on how you handle a transition to "Brand X" from "Mary Smith."

Don't Confuse the “From” Name with the Signature
If you choose a personal name over an institutional identifier as a way to get your email noticed, you can end up just confusing the recipient. This happens when you change your "From" name to reflect a one-time or occasional change in message content.

I see this on messages where the content appears to be written by an individual: a message from the company president, brand manager or publication editor; an invitation to attend a live event; or other mass content written to look like a one-to-one message.

Resist the temptation to switch out a perfectly good "From" name, such as the company, brand or publication name, for the name of a person the recipient probably doesn't know.

Keeping the same institutional "From" name builds trust and recognition. Don't change as a gimmick or attention-getter.

Do, however, "personalize" the actual content within the email, written in a letter style and "signed" by the appropriate individual from your company. You can even incorporate a scanned image of the person's signature to give it a more personal feel.

When Does "Mary Smith" Make Sense as the “From” Name?
In two situations, using a person's name in the “From” line does make sense:

  • The person's name is your brand or is so recognizable, especially in your business domain, that it actually makes sense (e.g. Guy Kawasaki, Martha Stewart, Seth Godin).
  • You’re a B2B company deploying lead-nurture emails, and the prospect has already had direct contact from a specific sales rep. Although ensuing emails might be automated, adding the sales rep's name to the "From" line works because of the direct relationship the prospect now has.

 Other Do’s and Don'ts of “From” Name Usage

  • Do pick the most logical, recognized brand that would make sense to subscribers and that they would most likely expect to see in their inboxes.
  • Do use different "From" names to differentiate among newsletter brands or email streams. However, incorporate a common style, such as the brand or company name, to promote continuity.
    As an example, Delta Air Lines uses multiple "From" names, each of which clearly signals a different kind of message stream:
    • "Delta Air Lines" is the "From" name on promotional messages and frequent flyer account status notices.
    • "Delta Messenger" is the "From" name on flight-related triggered messages, such as check-in reminders.
  • Don't change "From" names repeatedly on the same publication. Once you choose a name, stick with it.  
  • Do keep the “From” name as short as possible, while still conveying your brand correctly. 
  • Do test a few “From” names (over a few sends to increase confidence in the results) if you’re starting a new email program or if you’re planning to change your “From” name and are unsure of the best name.

How Gmail Priority Index Is Changing the Game
Just as Google changed the email landscape years ago when it introduced Gmail, a new twist on the Gmail inbox is presenting marketers with another challenge to get messages seen and viewed.

Gmail has rolled out its new Priority Index, which divides the inbox into several categories (turned on or off by the user): "Important," "Important and Unread," "Starred," "Unread" and "Everything Else." Gmail categorizes messages into these levels according to user settings and its own algorithms based on how you acted on senders' previous messages and keyword content in the message.

The marketers' challenge now is to get their messages categorized as "Important," not to languish in the "Everything Else" category. Having a highly recognizable, trusted and consistent "From" name is an essential factor in prompting users to mark your messages as "Important."

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