This article will serve as a basic reference sheet for those doing email marketing campaigns. This is primarily aimed at newsletters, but can also be applied to sales messages, transactional emails, or even discussion lists.
There was a time when HTML email wasn't widely accepted, with pushback for anything not delivered in plain text. That's not true today. In fact, companies still using only plain text are missing opportunities in engagement and sales that richly formatted HTML email can provide.
I probably don't need to mention this (but I will). Don't spam. Spamming is stupid and annoying, and companies engaged in the practice don't have a clue about doing business online. There's a gray area of spam too (that I recently found Enterprise engaging in), where you're automatically "opted-in" to receive sales messages when you reserve a hotel, rent a car, or make a purchase. Enterprise forced me to proactively opt-out of receiving sales messages from them, after defaulting me as a subscriber. Thanks, Enterprise, but no thanks.
Another gray area is the inconsipicuous check box or reverse wording (such as click here to opt-out of not receiving our emails) and the form reset trick (for any failures in form entry, automatically re-tick the opt-in box). Shady tactics like these aren't common today, but they're still around. Avoid them, unless you feel alienating and even angering your potential subscribers is a good business strategy.
I've organized the tips into the following sections. Click on any of them to jump directly to that section:
- Sign-up Experience
- Transactional Emails
- Messaging in Headers
- HTML Design Concerns
- Delivery Platform & Schedule
- Other Stuff
Hopefully this article will help with your email marketing campaigns. As always, remember the golden rule: it's all about them! Don't make your subscribers hate you. Offer something of value, and do it less often. Less is more when it comes to email marketing.
You only have one chance to make a first impression. Potential subscribers like to see past issues and credibility signals before they're willing to trust you with their email address.
• Single opt-in without requiring confirmation is the best way to grow subscribers, but the worst way to grow a healthy list. Confirmed opt-in with a confirmation email that the subscriber must take action on is a good choice for building lists, but will definitely hurt sign-ups compared to an open subscription.
• Add a link to the archives for visitors to read past emails and see examples.
• Let users select between text and HTML emails during the sign-up process if you provide those options. If you only deliver in a single format, make that clear.
• Make your delivery schedule prominent and clear so potential subscribers know what to expect before opting in.
• Don't ask too many questions during the registration process - keep it simple. Ideally, only an email address should be required, and other fields such as the name and "how did you hear?" should be optional.
• Put a bold, vivid call-to-action sign-up button on the page.
• While you'll have sign-up boxes all over the site, you should also create a dedicated email registration page. It should be presented without advertising and have a clear call-to-action.
Transactional emails are the confirmation messages new subscribers receive upon sign-up, or in the case of ecommerce sites, the email that's sent at the point of sale to confirm the purchase.
• Include a link to the current issue and to past archives in the transactional email.
• Ask your new subscriber to whitelist your email address. Include information about your From email, IP address, and domain. Important: ensure you're sending transactional emails using the same From email if you do this! If that's not possible, make sure it's made perfectly clear what information they'll need to whitelist you.
• Above all, make your transactionals simple, short, clear and concise.
The Subject line is probably the single most important element that drives open rates in email.
• Subject lines should be brief and concise. Six words or less is an ideal length. Many email clients will cut off a Subject line beyond about 50 characters.
• Perform testing (see below) trying the company brand within the Subject line; you should almost always include the brand name as the only field in the From header.
• The Subject line should contain actionable information. Keep it narrowly focused to match a tight sales message in the body of the newsletter. Pick one or two sales messages and/or products per email, and stick to it.
• If necessary, break your Subject line into sections using colons and dashes.
• Be creative. Fun, irreverent Subject lines can grab your subscribers attention and encourage open rates.
• Test, test, test your email Subject lines.
HTML Design Concerns
Here are a selection of tips to improve the usability and conversion potential of your email.
• Design emails to be viewed in the preview pane. Many users only look at what’s in the window screen, so put the main call-to-action above the fold.
• Beware of wide layouts, no one likes scrolling horizontally; keep your designs narrowed down or create them with a flexible layout.
• Include less calls-to-action and sales messages. Make it easy for your subcribers to know what they’re supposed to do. Concentrate on a single promotion or product per email. That will also help Subject lines match the content.
• Consider using less images (unless you're a strong brand like Apple). Image-heavy email can cause problems with Yahoo, AOL, MSN, Gmail, Hotmail and many other web-based email readers that disable images by default. Some users also have their email clients set to text only, even if they receive HTML email, and toggle the preference on and off (such as with Thunderbird).
• Make the newsletter shorter overall.
• Provide value in the mailings with unique tips, content, coupons and specials. Give your subscribers a reason to open your email messages.
• Provide content available only through the email newsletter (tips, coupons, product recommendations not provided on the website) in teasers with links to the site. That will encourage subscribers to open the newsletter and click through to your unique content, driving very targeted traffic to the site.
• Use a large, bold headline and put action calls, offers, coupons and specials front and center.
• Don't make your subscribers suffer through broken images. Make sure HTML is displaying correctly.
• Add text to the top of emails about once per month to promote whitelisting. Example text to include:
Along with helping you bypass spam filters, this often means their email client or service will display images that were previously blocked in your emails. This can have impact on open rates that are reported through pixel tracking.
Email Delivery Platforms
In the old days it was often recommended that companies purchase their own email server platforms or build their own. Thankfully, those days are behind us. Here's a short list of some great platforms to check out:
For the enterprise, we recommend working with the following companies:
Less is more. Send less often and provide more value. A good rule of thumb is to send bi-weekly if you’re offering links to good content, or once per month if you’re sending a straight-up sales message. Test these schedules against each other:
Tue, Wed, Thu or Fri at 9:30-10am or 1:30-2pm
Fri at 4pm until Sunday 4pm and Tue-Thu at 5-8pm
Test the effectiveness of different subject lines by following Ian Lurie's advice.
Experiment with different conventions in your Subject lines, and with including the brand or not. Some examples:
1: [Brand Name]: Jewelry Sale - 15% Off Everything
2: Now Available: Boutique Lingerie at Brand Name
3: Handbags: Candy-Colored Clutches
Subject lines are extremely important; make sure you're testing what messaging works best.
• Make it easy for your subscribers to opt-out of your emails. Don't force them to jump through hoops, fill out forms, or perform incantations. Just let them go.
• Never create a double opt-out system for unsubscribe requests. Why should your subscribers have to confirm their wish to leave the list? Annoying and unnecessary.
Above all, remember email is more about your subscribers than it is you. To be a truly effective marketing tool, you need those subscribers to stick around. Don't annoy them with too much email, or with sub-par content. If you're using your in-house list primarily for sales, then incorporate great design (similar to Amazon and Apple) to capture attention that way. Companies without brand strength will need to identify other areas to get noticed, such as providing valuable content or giveaways that encourage subscribers to identify their email messages as worthwhile.