When personalisation gets in the way of the message.

A few weeks ago, I had a very nice volunteer for a charity on my doorstep asking me to pledge a monthly donation. He was respectful of my time, seemed sincere and was friendly, starting out by asking my name (“Stephanie,” I said, as I always do) and then making sure to use my name. In. Every. Single. Sentence. Except, he didn’t use my name. He called me Steph, approximately every seven seconds for fifteen minutes. By the end of the conversation, all my good will towards him had evaporated.

Here’s the thing. Research shows one thing; experience tells me another.

Data shows that addressing someone by name gets results. This paper (brought to my attention by behavioural scientist Richard Shotton in his Copywriting Conference talk) gives examples of text message or email campaigns that saw increased response rates when the recipient’s name was included in the otherwise generic message.

We all develop strategies for noting information that may be relevant […] As certain names (like our own) take on significance for us, our attention is drawn to them quickly and effortlessly when they occur. At the same time, personalised messages make it easier for the recipient to imagine the costs or benefits of a particular action – in other words, ‘what this means for me’.

‘EAST: Four Simple Ways to Apply Behavioural Insights’ – The Behavioural Insights Team

And yet, hearing or seeing our name doesn’t always grab our attention in a positive way. Just ask anyone who’s ever been sternly full-named by a parent. Or Steve Howe spoke about the rise and fall of conversational copy, also at the Copywriting Conference, and cited surveys or webforms that (like my doorstep volunteer) use your name in every prompt for every field. It’s annoying and unnecessary, and it gets in the way of the actual message.

Personalisation is a big thing in L&D.

In fact, Don Taylor’s Global Sentiment Survey shows it is the big thing, topping the “what’s hot in workplace learning for the year ahead” tables for the past three years. So the research and the data is worth taking note of. Of course there is more to personalisation than simply using people’s names, but perhaps addressing communications around a new product or offering to each individual recipient would increase take-up, for instance.

But let’s make sure that, if we do this, we do it well.

  • Let’s use someone’s name where we really want to draw their attention and highlight the ‘what does this mean for me’ mentioned above, rather than just to prove we can remember or auto-populate their name more times than they’d ever want to hear it.
  • Let’s not create chatbots that require you to input your name at the start of the conversation, then indiscriminately regurgitate it in every subsequent question or response.
  • Let’s consider the frequency with which you can use someone’s name in speech in ‘real life’ before you start sounding insincere, a bit intense or even a little creepy, and use that as the guide.

And for goodness’ sake, if you make a point of asking someone’s name, at least make sure you use the name they give you!

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