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Monday, July 28, 2008

Taking It Personal When Spam Lands

The first rule of online marketing is that the more personal you can make a pitch, the better. Turns out the opposite may be true: A recently published study found that the more personalized a message, the less likely a recipient is to respond.

Researchers from the University of Illinois and Northern Illinois University studied the way people responded to emails from a fictional film-review Web site.

The volunteers wrote a review for the site and filled out an online profile. Only people who gave the site permission to contact them with future promotions were included in the study.

The researchers found that there is a fine line between helpful and creepy.

While some degree of personalization, like addressing someone by name, made people more likely to respond to emails from the site, messages that used more information -- something like "as an action-movie fan, we thought you'd be interested in joining others in San Francisco" -- was the email equivalent of a pushy salesperson, says Debra Zahay, one of the study's authors.

The study found that over time a business could start to personalize emails, but not until it had a longstanding relationship with a customer. Otherwise it is like talking about marriage on the first date -- while it shows you are serious, it is also a little freaky.

"As academics we like to have really technical terms," says Tiffany Barnett White, another of the study's authors. "But really it's just the creep-out factor."