When many people think about email marketing, they may think “What’s the big deal…” and not fully understand the role that email marketing plays in the entire marketing funnel or the psychology involved when it comes to getting subscribers to open, click through, and keep from wanting to hit “unsubscribe” or even worse “spam”….or even worse than that, replying to an email asking to be removed in which you then have to scroll down in their reply and click the “unsubscribe” link for them. It happens. I’m pretty sure that’s what makes my 2 month old baby girl cry.
Email marketing, when utilized “correctly” can be the most crucial part of your entire business as it can allow you stay connected to your customers and build solid relationships with them. Aside from actual in-person interaction or phone conversations, email is one of the strongest mediums to stay on customers’ minds and build yourself as an authority in your industry.
The following tips are the email marketing best practices and tips that I’ve seen to be the most effective over the years. I compiled this list before speaking at Digital Summit 2012 in Atlanta on a panel about Email Marketing Best Practices knowing I’d never be able to talk about all of this on a panel in 60 minutes! I’ve broken these tips into five primary areas:
- Email Marketing Foundation
- Increase Subscriptions
- Increase Open Rates
- Increase Click-Through Rates
- Increase Conversions
Email Marketing Foundation
- Put Email First – Many times I have seen massive marketing campaigns or product launches that take weeks or months to develop only to have an email thrown together on the last day just to meet a deadline and get it out to customers. Keep in mind that emails are often the very first impression that customers see of that entire campaign. You only get one shot at a first impression and if your email is it, then it pays to make it count. In fact, email could be considered the most crucial part of the entire marketing campaign. Treat it as such!
- People – Focus on the best people before focusing on the best technologies. You wouldn’t buy a million dollar sports car and stick a kid behind the wheel, so make sure you have the best possible minds driving your email marketing campaigns. A great email marketer can do more with a small, inexpensive email service provider than a novice using a large enterprise ESP.
- Integration – Integrate your email service provider wherever and however possible whether it’s connecting to website registrations, CRMs, social media, etc.
- Build Relationships – Email has been around for decades and has remained an extremely strong interactive marketing channel. Why? Because it’s personal. It’s that last bit of “privacy” that online users have today. With social networks sharing anything and everything, people still turn to email for that “this is my life, and my life only” piece of their lives. Email has a sense of “trust” with a “by invitation only” aspect to it. Because of this, it is crucial to respect subscribers and cultivate a relationship with them. Don’t treat email marketing as a “one-size-fits-all” campaign for the masses. To be truly effective, you must add value for your recipients and give them content that they can benefit from.
- Track Everything – Add annotations in your analytics programs to note the days/times of email sends. Track open rates, click rates, subscribe rates, unsubscribe rates, all the way down to conversion rates (more on that later). Email marketing provides some of the clearest data to help you optimize subject lines, design, calls-to-action, landing pages, etc. Use it to your advantage!
- Split Test – Split testing or even multivariate testing helps to craft the most-likely-to-be-successful email campaigns by optimizing subject lines, design, layout, colors, landing pages etc. You know that whole “track everything” we just mentioned? Well this is why. Find an email service provider that has fantastic A/B split testing tools and use them to your advantage. As an example for subject lines, send subject line A out to 20% of your list, send subject line B out to 20% and then send the one with the highest open rate to the rest of the 60% of your list. Email service providers such as Mailchimp do a great job of taking care of this automagically for you. Really, it’s fantastic.
- Stay Visible – People don’t see your emails unless you send them. I know, newsflash right? It’s easy to get “out of sight, out of mind” when your email campaigns are spaced too far apart. On the other hand, sending them too close together can increase unsubscribe & spam rates. Each industry/niche is slightly different, so keep in mind to just stay consistent with sending emails and remain visible. Don’t, however, send out lame content just for the sake of getting an email out. Make it count.
- Segment – Segmenting is one of those areas that you may not know you need, until you need it. So start off on the right foot by collecting as much info about your subscribers as possible without being annoying. This way you can send emails based on city, state, interests, purchase history, etc whenever you need to. Again, a great email service provider will have numerous ways to segment. Do you want to resend an email to everyone who didn’t open it the first time? How about sending an email to all subscribers who have never opened an email? Perhaps you only want to send an email to subscribers who open emails on mobile devices. Mailchimp offers all of these and more…no, this isn’t a Mailchimp ad…I just use them and love them.
- Scannable – Many people recommend keeping emails short and to the point. I say it really depends on the industry/niche/message/etc. The biggest thing to remember is to keep it scannable meaning it should be easy to read with a clear call to action. Make sure the subject line accurately gets the user started on coming to the resolution or goal you have planned for them. It’s okay to be a bit “mysterious” in the subject line, but don’t make it difficult for users to figure out what the email is about.
- Autoresponders – I hesitate to add autoresponders or “drip campaigns” to a list of “genuine email marketing” tips simply because of the perception they have. Most people think of these as generic campaigns triggered to go out after an action is taken such as someone subscribing to a newsletter. If you implement autoresponders or drip campaigns, just keep in mind the whole “build relationships” aspect mentioned above. Make sure the message builds upon why they first gave you permission to email them in the first place. Don’t hard sell them right away. If you met a girl (or guy) and they gave you their phone number, you wouldn’t get very far if you called them up and asked them to have your baby right away…they’d no doubt unsubscribe…hopefully. Same goes with follow-up emails. Build a relationship…build their trust…earn them as a customer.
- Double Opt-in – This is pretty much an industry-standard by now, but I feel that it should be mentioned anyway. Make sure your email signups require a double opt-in. This is where someone signs up for your email list, they get a confirmation email to verify their address is correct in which they typically click a link to verify it, and it then adds them to the list. This reduces fake signups and spam complaints. Definitely worth doing.
- Thank you and Welcome – Many email service providers have a default “thank you” landing page after a user verifies their email address and sometimes a default “welcome” email that is sent when the user verifies. Take advantage of these and make them personal to your website/business. Give the users more info and value. Perhaps it’s links to whitepapers or most popular articles. Maybe it’s a free download of something. It could be a special discount of some kind. Whatever it is, brand it. Give them a reason to feel happy about joining your list. They just gave you permission into their private little digital world. Cozy all up with them and take advantage of the opportunity to get them to know you better!
- Make Unsubscribing Simple – If you don’t do this, your risk of spam complaints increases, which also increases the risk of your email service provider banning your account. It’s a lose/lose for everyone involved. If someone wants to unsubscribe, don’t hide the unsubscribe link in a faded color in the footer mixed with paragraphs of text with ambiguous anchor text such as “86 me”. No no, make it simple and clear on how to unsubscribe. It keeps people happy and your list as clean as possible.
- Mobile – More and more people are using mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets to check email. While the technology and capability of mobile email clients is improving, there are still ways to enhance the experience of viewing emails on mobile devices. Again, keep in mind the goal you want users to reach via your email campaign and determine the best way a mobile user would get to that goal. Also, see if your email service provider gives data on what email clients and devices users open emails with. Litmus.com is a great provider of this type of info and more (mentioned below).
- “Best” Practices Change – One thing to keep in mind is that “best practices” for email marketing change over time. What worked a few years ago may not be as effective today. Don’t let your subject lines, design, layout, type of content, etc grow stale. People like new things and often prune the old ones…same goes with email subscriptions. If you start seeing declines in open rates and click rates, then you know your email marketing is due for a much-needed facelift.
- Email Calendar – In order to stay consistent, create an email calendar to plan out what content you will distribute and when. This helps to stay consistent and also helps push along content creation and everything else necessary that will support the email campaigns.
- Don’t use Lotus Notes – The only way you’ll find Lotus Notes on a list of Email Marketing Best Practices is to have a line that says not to use it. So here it is. I will point out, however, to make sure you know what email client the majority of your subscriber list uses and to test your emails in that client. The next tip helps with that.
- Litmus – Litmus is an incredible service that is integrated into many popular email service providers. It has many features including the ability to see what your email campaign looks like in 30+ email clients. It also provides spam filter testing and analytics that show you what email client your subscribers are opening your emails with. Super power stuff especially if you’re sending emails to lots of people. Highly recommended!
- Incentives – People love incentives. Period. Better put, people need a reason to give you permission to email them. Maybe it’s to get an exclusive coupon, access to a free report, insider tips, entry into a giveaway or contest, etc. Find ways to offer an incentive that is relevant to your business that people will benefit from. Then over-deliver.
- Provide Benefits – Beyond incentives, how would people benefit from your emails. Will you be giving them valuable resources, tips, inspiration, insights, etc? How will their daily lives benefit by getting an email from you? Tell them that up front. Show them the benefits of what you will be providing them.
- Peace of Mind – Will their email address be shared? If not, tell them that…if so, tell them that too and give them options to opt-out of 3rd party emails. Give the user the peace of mind that their email address will be kept private and not shared by you with anyone else. Gain their trust from the start and honor it.
Increase Open Rates
- Best Day/Time to Send – Each industry or niche most likely has an optimal time to send emails out to increase open rates. For emails that are business related, this may mean sending out emails during the morning early in the week. Emails for restaurants and bars may get better open rates when sent later in the day or on weekends. The point is to try different days/times and track the open rates. If your subject lines are pretty much the same, you should get a fairly accurate idea of when your subscribers are most likely to be opening emails.
- Preview Panes – Many email clients, especially those on smartphones, have preview panes that show a certain number of characters from the email. Make sure to have a handful of words at the very top of your emails briefly stating what the email contains in a way that would make users want to open and get the full details. Do not simply put “view in browser” as the first text…unless you don’t want people to open your emails.
- Personlization – Again, this is something that should be tested and used tactfully. Simply throwing someone’s first name in the subject line has been a bit abused over the past couple of years and users aren’t as apt to open those sorts of emails these days…they’re more likely to be creeped out by it sometimes! However, if you have a type of email that comes across as more personal such as a “thank you” or “welcome” email, then it may make sense to add personalization such as names. Like everything else, test it…but be smart about when you add personalization and don’t do it every time or else it will lose its effectiveness.
- Localization – Just as with dynamically inserting names in subject lines, you can also merge in locations such as city, states, etc. An example would be something like “Check out what we just launched in [user city]”. Again, this should be done tactfully and not often, but it works and can boost open rates when used properly.
- From Address – Use some sort of “realistic” reply-to address…not “dontreply@”. Again, this comes back to the whole “build relationships” bit. Many ESPs have ways to filter replies so that only legit emails pass through to you. Mailchimp’s Replyto is a great example. Utilize these along with an actual reply-to address for a more personal connection to your subscribers.
Increase Click-Through Rates
- Clear Call-to-Action – This goes along with the whole “scannable” tip from above. User scan through emails and quickly decide whether to click or delete. If you want people to click something in the email, make it obvious. No, not flashing, scrolling marquees with animated fireworks, but make it stand out in the email. Whether it’s font color & size, a graphic, or the actual text used just make sure it’s clear. As painful as it may be to grasp, some industries actually see better results from adding “Click here” to the links…I know, facepalm, hello ’90s and all that stuff. But once again, test your links…test the colors, sizes, text, etc to see what works best. If someone tells you that green buttons with size 14 white text works best, by all means give it a whirl but be sure to test it against what you’re doing. Don’t just take it as scripture and roll with it.
- Consider More Options – If your email is about only one thing and links to only one thing, you’re putting all your eggs in one basket and rolling the dice just hoping all of your subscribers are interested in that one thing. Consider adding multiple features in an email, or navigational links to the most popular pages of your website. If you sell products, maybe list the top 5 rated or sold items from your website. People have different interests and some people’s interest changes daily…sometimes by the minute. The key is to not give too many options, but just enough to keep the email easily scannable with clear calls-to-action.
- Scarcity – We’ll dip back into marketing 101 for a reminder that scarcity works. Yes, it’s an old tactic, but it is just as effective as ever. If it weren’t, sites like Groupon wouldn’t be so popular. If you have a limited time offer or limited quantities of something, this can be a major psychological trigger to get people to click-through. Without this, many people will often open an email and think “Hmmm, this sounds interesting but I’ll come back to it later” and chances are they never do. Informing people that something is only available that day or for the first number of people can definitely spur clicks.
- Beyond Opens and Clicks – Pretty much everyone tracks open and click-through rates…but many people stop there. And this is where they fall short of the whole point of email marketing. To truly make email marketing an integral part of your business you have to think and track far beyond opens and clicks. You have to consider conversion rates as well. Is the point of your email to get people to buy something? Then track the number of people that clicked through to your website and actually purchased something. Was the conversion rate low? Perhaps the landing page needs tweaked. Perhaps the subject line or content of the email didn’t successfully prepare the user on what to expect or make a purchase. When you start considering your end-goal and conversions, it also helps you to prepare the most effective subject lines and content for emails. So think beyond opens and clicks!
- Ask “Why?” – Anytime you set up an email, just ask “Why?” What is the point of the email? What is the end-goal? What do you want users to get out of it? How will it benefit them? What do you want out of it? Answering questions like this helps to setup the whole funnel of what you intend on the user to do and will make your email marketing much more successful. Keep the end in mind!
- Establish ROI – When you get conversions rolling and are tracking everything properly, you can accurately evaluate the ROI of your email marketing. You’ll know what an open is worth, how much a click-through is worth, etc. Executives love these sorts of numbers and will pay much more attention to your reports!
- Consider Social – Social media is slipping into email marketing more and more with ways to like features, share newsletters, pin images, etc. More than likely, there’s a way to integrate social media into your email campaigns…just don’t blindly add 50 social sharing icons to the bottom of your emails. Be creative and think like a user. Consider what social media your users actually use and how they use it. Some ESPs offer insight into what social media your email subscribers use based on their email address such as Mailchimp’s SocialPro. This way you can quickly get an idea of what they use and even who is the most influential users in your list. It can be quite powerful stuff!
Final Thoughts about Email Marketing Best Practices and Tips
If you have anything to add to the list, questions, or thoughts about something listed above then please share it in the comments below! Many people approach email marketing in different ways and this just happens to be my take. As I said, if anyone (including myself) tells you something is a “best practice”, it may not work as well for your industry and subscribers. Just test everything and roll with what works best. Even then, continue to test…don’t let your design, layout, content, subject lines, etc grow stale. Stay fresh and interesting to your subscribers and they’ll have that same perception of you. Remember, email marketing is often the first and lasting impression that people will have of you and your business. Earn their trust, give them value, overdeliver, and don’t use Lotus Notes.