The from line as sacred cow: can you change it? Should you?


Latest posts | By Mark Brownlow | 24 Comments | Licence this content

You can change your religion and nationality.

You can change your mind, hair and underwear.

You can even change your gender.

But you cannot (CANNOT!) change your from name.

At least you’d think so based on how most people react when you make the suggestion.

They’re not wrong, but they’re not completely right either: I changed my newsletter’s from line and improved results, as I’ll show below.

What are we changing?

First we need to clarify what exactly we’re changing.

Every email carries with it various bits of information to say where it came from. This includes such things as the sender’s name and email address.

Most email software and webmail services display the “friendly” version of the sender’s identity in the inbox, i.e. the sender’s name:

from lines 1

So viewing, for example, my newsletter in a typical inbox would show a sender name of:

“Email Marketing Reports”

In this post, I’m only talking about changing this friendly from/sender name, not your sender email address: that’s a topic for another day.

Why you should not change your from line

The main issue with the from line is recognition…existing subscribers have got used to associating a certain from line with your emails.

Most people argue that changing the from line breaks this recognition: emails may then be ignored or even marked as spam (eek!), if the recipient decides some unknown sender has sent them unsolicited commercial email.

This argument is perfectly logical. (But see the P.S. at the end of the post for a surprise!)

However, the problem is not changing your from line per se, but how you change it.

Every criticism of a from line change I have read refers to a case where the from line has changed to something largely unrecognizable to most recipients. Like if email from “Email Marketing Reports” suddenly came from “David Macmillan”.

Nobody knows who David Macmillan is.

But it’s not the same as saying you cannot change your from line at all. Who says the new sender name has to be an unrecognizable one?

Why you should change your from line

The from line plays a major role in getting people to give your message attention. Assuming you send emails worth that attention, then you want people to recognize those emails…which starts with a recognizable sender name.

Equally the value of that recognition increases, the closer the relationship between recipient and sender (again, always assuming the recipient sees value in the messages).

For most businesses, there is no personal relationship between sender and recipient. So most marketing emails therefore come from a company or brand name to exploit the recognition factor (see the earlier image for examples).

So why would you ever want to change this from line?

Of course there are times when a brand, company or newsletter name changes…but these forced changes to something potentially unrecognizable are not what I’m talking about and need their own special approach.

My question is this: when would you voluntarily change your from line?

In an ideal world, we’d have optimized our from line on Day 1. Call me a pessimist, but this isn’t an ideal world.

Like me, you may have come up with a from name at the beginning of an email program and then bowed to the Goddess of No Change and left it untouched, even though in retrospect it was not the best choice of sender name. Like some of these ones from my Gmail inbox:

from lines 2

You might want to move from a generic sender name (like “marketing”) to a recognizable one.

Or you might want to use a person’s or personality’s name to try and get a bigger connection to the reader. This could work well in B2B where the sender might be the recipient’s account manager.

The first case seems logical. The second is a little more complicated: in the best case scenario, everyone recognizes the new “human” sender and you get a results boost. In the worst case, the person’s name is meaningless and results tumble (but see later).

So how about we test? We just need to make sure that:

1. The new from line is as recognizable as possible

2. Other recognition elements are built into the email

Let’s see how that looks in practice.

A real-world example and test results

As I stated, my newsletter comes with a sender name of “Email Marketing Reports”.

Now every issue starts with an editorial signed by “Mark” (me) and every landing page features an article written by “Mark Brownlow”. And I try and keep the tone of the emails and the articles fairly conversational.

Could I get a response boost by using my name as the from line, rather than the rather unexciting website name?

Good question.

“Email Marketing Reports” is hardly a household name in its own right, but it’s surely more recognizable than “Mark Brownlow”: plenty of readers won’t have any kind of relationship with me. Will my name simply bemuse people?

Or will the value of a more human from line outweigh recognition problems? Are there perhaps enough people on the list who do know my name?

The only way to know the overall impact of such a change is to test.

But…instead of testing “Mark Brownlow”, I tested “Mark at Email Marketing Reports”.

A name is in there AND Email Marketing Reports, hopefully addressing recognition issues, but also adding that human touch.

I also ensured the rest of the email was helping recognition: the subject line also has “Email Marketing Reports” in it, and there’s a branded logo and text in the area typically revealed in email preview panes.

So…the results:

from lines 3

Oh!

(Unique CTR was up 19% with the new from line, too, but not enough to be considered statistically significant.)

Now this is a very specific example, so you certainly could not say it was a general lesson on what from lines are best. My circumstances (not a household brand name, some name recognition among recipients) are probably different to yours.

Equally, I’m not convinced those improvements will hold in the long-term: there may be curiosity and novelty factors at play.

Also, if the emails don’t carry enough of a personal touch from me, then the new from line may actually start to hurt results by raising expectations that are then not met.

But the results do tell us that voluntary, unannounced from line changes do not automatically mean campaign disasters: they are another potential tactic to use as you look to boost your email results.

Summary

1. Consider a voluntary from line change only when you have good reason to believe it might lift results

2. Avoid changing to something that is unrecognizable

3. Ensure other elements of the email are optimized to keep recognition high – preheader, logos, preview pane, subject line etc.

4. Test

P.S.

Here’s a little spanner to throw into our theory.

If you made the sender the name of a random person, you’d expect results to tank and spam reports to rocket.

A few years ago, a reader noted that their experience suggested the opposite was true: a name (even a fake one) boosted opens and clicks…also over a longer period.

See the original blog post and (particularly) comments for details.

This raises questions like:

Just how quickly do people mark email as spam (people, not email marketers who are more finely tuned to the whole issue)?

Do they really do so without even glancing at the subject line or content, before making their decision? If no, is there less risk than we always imagine with from line changes?

How do from line changes work in the long run?

How often could/should you change a good from line (if at all)? Is there potential to use variations on a *recognizable* theme to keep people on their inbox toes?

What about when people have set up filters based on the sender name: how do they react when these filters break? How many people actually use such filters?

Can from line changes help when people are tired of your emails or have gone inactive (see this post for details)?

I’ll leave those for you to ponder!

What’s your view/experience on voluntary from line changes?

Find related articles:

 
Permalink | October 4th, 2011 | 24 Comments »
Get posts like this: RSS feed | via email | via Twitter | via G+

You can follow any comments on this blog post through the RSS 2.0 feed.

24 comments on “The from line as sacred cow: can you change it? Should you?”

  1. Molly says:

    Now I’m considering changing our From to reflect our President- The Toilet Paper King. Maybe I’ll do a test to see how people respond.

  2. Mark Brownlow says:

    I’d open an email from the Toilet Paper King, regardless of whether I recognized it or not. Seriously – definitely worth a test.

  3. Great insights Mark – along with a whole load of variables that are tough to control or remove as factors.

    I tried not to mention you breaking one of your own absolute rules on content length (http://bit.ly/nYgam3) for this post (curse that memory of mine!)

    It would be a good idea to firstly establish the clients/devices/platform your emails are bing viewed on – to understand how many of them will display the From line (I call it From name) – and remove from any testing those that do not display them.

    I work with some very high volume senders – many of whom have From names stipulated (read controlled) by the people that also provide (read control) content for the emails.

    There is much talk there of “server footprinting” of From lines (along with email prefixes and subject lines) from major ISP webmail providers – it resulting in content related blocking/junking/blackholing/junk folder diversion.

    From our previous discussions on subject line similarity it is easy to see how a high volume of email being sent from multiple senders with near identical From lines would result in a (bona fide) From name suddenly not being as succesful as it had been previously (creating a postive case for change).

    The From name is, to me, one of the most important recognition elements within an email – and I fully support your suggestion for how to approach that change.

  4. Mark Brownlow says:

    Robin – I tore up the rulebook long ago ;-)

    Thanks as always for your insights. I also see the role of the from name changing as mobile email increases. From what I’ve seen, some devices give the sender name much more prominence than the subject line, for example.

    All of which suggests it’s definitely worth exploration.

    Then there’s the whole brand consistency aspect etc.

    Like a lot of things, as you indicate, it’s a lot more complex when you look under the hood.

    This is why I try and avoid absolute rules, funnily enough. Partly because of ignorance of what is right and wrong, and partly because I strongly believe the real battle is to think critically about every aspect of what we do, and filter generic advice through our own experience and unique situation.

  5. Dennis Brown says:

    Good post – and for those sending with a “No Reply” from name, please test anything else, as surely nothing can be as bad as that?!
    And yes, a quick search in my junk folder showed around a dozen from no less than 7 different senders, all using either ‘No Reply’ solely as their friendly (or not) from name, or ‘noreply@….’
    Mind, it amazes me how many regular businesses have their emails set-up so that their outbound emails show as from ‘Info’ or similar, with no inclusion of a company name or branding.
    PS I’m now off to google ‘toilet paper king’… ;)

  6. Mark Brownlow says:

    Absolutely Dennis. Hard to argue that people will stop recognizing your emails if you switch from “no reply” to “our brand name” in your from line…

  7. Sean Duffy says:

    I’m the one that provided some of the examples on the old post on this topic. I’m not surprised by these results – we always find this works. I’m not convinced the people that tell you company name alone is best practice have actually bothered to test it! I’m yet to do a test like this where ‘personal – company’ has not won!

    What we are looking at now though is less thinking about what is the best from name – but what is the best from name for each segment or individual?

    Do some people react more favourably to a personal name or company name? Would ‘Special offers – company name’ work better for some?

    I think there is a lot we can learn from split testing that the immediate answer we get is not actually the best we can find.

    Just because something works for the majority does not mean it is best for everyone – some people/segments that are under-represented in your data (or generally less responsive) may have a different winner.

    And I always love a re-test – if the ‘Mark’ from name is maintained over time, will it still perform best? And if we change it later will it lead to more ‘dis-engaged’ people to re-try the email?

    For one client we actually rotate from names when they fall into our dis-engaged pot until we find one that helps re-engage. Early days on that test yet, and re-engaged volumes are naturally low so it might take a while before I’m confident of reliability of test results. I’ll let you know outcome.

  8. Mark Brownlow says:

    Super Sean – thanks – excellent stuff. I think the “Company name”-fixed-in-stone philosophy has been holding many of us back.

    For years, every article on headers pointed out the importance of the from line, yet we’ve always glossed over the possibility of exploiting that importance better (mea culpa).

  9. Tim Watson says:

    Great post, as you say will be interesting to see if there is a long term effect. Is it the change in name or the absolute from name that is important here…

    Changing the from name to people who are ignoring you can be a successful tactic, though it carries dangers too. It can increase spam complaints.

  10. Andy T says:

    I agree that from name should be given more emphasis than it has done historically in comparison to the subject line, especially due to rise and eventual dominance of mobile inboxes.

    Old direct marketing email marketers are fond of using a random person’s name, normally female, because they think it’ll improve the chance of their legal unsolicited email getting opened; these people tend to miss the fact that this deception also increases their complaint rate.
    The From Name needs to be the name which the user has the rapport with, if Amazon sent me the usual emails from ‘Jane Smith’ I’d be less inclined to engage because I don’t know a Jane Smith but I know Amazon.
    As a brand consistently delivers relevant content, sometimes even remarkable, and thus improves their rapport with the recipient; to an extent the subject line becomes trivial.

    Two Prime examples are your newsletter Mark and the daily email from Seth Godin.

    On the other hand, Amazon for instance, are so consistent but not as consistently relevant as they think they are and subsequently find themselves filtered to a special shopping or Amazon folder/label more often than not – however, they are probably fine with that.

  11. Mark Brownlow says:

    Tim – yes, I often wonder how many A/B test winners are simply winners because they were different. I’m switching to the “Mark at…” version and will retest down the road…what’s the betting the “old” from line then wins!

  12. Mark Brownlow says:

    Andy – I admit to an unhealthy fascination with Amazon. I’ve been THIS close to making a totally unnecessary purchase, just to see how it might confuse their recommendation engine.

    I’m also involved in a long-term project to see how long I can get them to send me trigger emails for “star wars lego”. We’re in our 8th month I think.

    Sad I know. Not a healthy hobby.

    Your point about the subject line is very valid. I talked to a newsletter publisher who had a very strong reputation and he said his open rate rarely changes. Doesn’t matter what he puts in the subject line: people see it’s from him and open anyway.

  13. Andy T says:

    Glad to hear I’m not too full of it Mark :-)
    I too experiment with Amazon (http://bit.ly/nzHyss) although I’m still unable to stop the 3 months of perfume emails I get each year after getting Mum’s Christmas presents from there – it has in fact forced me to go to Superdrug on the high street :-)

  14. Research from MarketingSherpa suggests that 31% test their from line routinely.

    I think the average is actually much lower as the term “From line” isn’t really clear and routinely also isn’t. :)

    I have done some from name testing in the past and with strong results. It isn’t only personal vs company name. You can for instance add the communication type (alert, news, update, etc) and there are many tests to be tried in company / brand / program names.

  15. Good point Jordie – lots of variations which most of us aren’t exploring yet.

  16. Dan Wardle says:

    Good stuff Mark.

    We recently mailed a membership survey on behalf of a client and had the dilemma of what to use for the from name (and subject).

    The message was coming from Surveylab – positioning the survey as independent and ensuring anonymity. But what would the Client’s members respond to?

    “John Kemp (on behalf of Client)” got a 17% response, versus 12.7% for “Client”. I reckon it’s the human element too, and like your email we had the client name in the subject to help.

    It’s definitely worth testing.

  17. Mark Brownlow says:

    Dan – excellent: another vote for from line experiments! That’s a big response increase.

    I’ve had a lot of similar feedback. Summary: from lines are worth testing.

  18. Mark,

    Have you tested male v female names?

    If you changed it to Maria, would you get higher opens?

    Anna

  19. Mark Brownlow says:

    That’s an interesting idea Anna. If you had a choice of named senders, one male, one female, which would you use? Definitely worth testing.

    Not something I can do, since there’s only me here.

  20. Epata says:

    This is an interesting article. I use a lot of email based advertising for my company, which sells log home building kits, and I worry sometimes that the advertising is dismissed as spam.

    http://www.therealestatescoop.com/log-home-building-kit.php

  21. Josey says:

    Good post – and for those sending with a “No Reply” from name, please test anything else, as surely nothing can be as bad as that?!
    And yes, a quick search in my junk folder showed around a dozen from no less than 7 different senders, all using either ‘No Reply’ solely as their friendly (or not) from name, or ‘noreply@….’
    Mind, it amazes me how many regular businesses have their emails set-up so that their outbound emails show as from ‘Info’ or similar, with no inclusion of a company name or branding.
    PS I’m now off to google ‘toilet paper king’…

    +1

  22. Great post, we’ve found that subject header lines that ask a question generally perform better than statements.

  23. Mark says:

    OK,

    but how do you change it? I can’t figure that out.

    • Mark Brownlow says:

      Difficult to say as the answer will depend on what software you’re using to send out your emails.

      All email marketing software should have a from name field somewhere that you can edit.

      Basic email software also allows you to change the from name. In Thunderbird, for example, I click on Tools | Account Settings.