Jun 252008

An Email Marketing Tip Sheet

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:

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.

Sign-up Experience

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.

less is more with email

• Add a visible link to your privacy policy that demonstrates your no spam policy.

• 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

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.

Email Headers

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.

Apple's email marketing is classy

• 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).

Beware of the dreaded "open rate" metric. It's not a metric, it's not reliable, and it can be very misleading. Use it for trending, not for hardcore analysis.

• 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:

To make sure you continue to receive email from us - including order confirmation and special offers - please add email@we-rock.com to your address book or safe list.

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:

• Constant Contact
• Feedburner

For the enterprise, we recommend working with the following companies:

• Acxiom Digital
Cheetah Mail

Delivery Schedule

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

Other Stuff

Testing Procedures

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.

Subscription Management

• 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.

Final Thoughts

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.


22 Responses to "An Email Marketing Tip Sheet"
Adam Audette says:
Thanks to Wiep (who's got a great blog you should check out - http://wiep.net) for submitting this on Sphinn: http://sphinn.com/story/55290
Adam, great tips. The HTML design concerns are particularly dead on.
Adam Audette says:
@Kevin thanks very much for the feedback, great having you here! It's surprising how many publishers forget the design/delivery basics, especially in what sorts of offers and content they're pushing.
Joe Halbrook says:
Adam, You're welcome to reference my free whitelist instructions generator tool at: http://www.cleanmymailbox.com/whitelist.html Joe Halbrook, CleanMyMailbox.com
Alex says:
With PPC and SEO traffic so expensive I feel like going back to good old e-mail marketing. Thank you for this sheet.
Adam Audette says:
That's a good point Alex - and email marketing to the house list is probably the best converting traffic source there is. It can be amazingly effective when it's done right. Thanks for your comment!
Thank you for sharing these wonderful tips on email marketing..^^ I really learned a lot from this one!
Jon says:
Thanks Adam, for the very useful tips. I was wondering if there was a reason why you don't include Aweber in your list of recommended Delivery platforms? I'm fairly new to email marketing, and that's the service I'm using - mainly because so many others use it! Cheers, Jon
Vindia says:
wow! i enjoyed reading your post ...absolutely enlightening.
Crystal says:
Just wondering if you've worked with Campaign Monitor or MailBuild? If you have I'd be curious to know what your take is on them.
Adam Audette says:
@Crystal I can't comment on either one, have used them both but not enough to give meaningful input. Most email solutions will give you demos, I encourage you to try a few out and see what you like :)
Crystal says:
@Adam I should have been more forthcoming because I've been using Campaign Monitor since '05. I was just curious if you had meaningful feedback. The folks at Freshview are great and the service has treated me well but I think it's good to always keep up with what else is out there.
Al Wooster says:
Hi Adam I'm new to all of this found your link great stuff. Regards Al Wooster alwooster@gmail.com
Excellent and very valuable information in this article. There so many good points. Thanks!
Gurpreet says:
Hi Adam, I am fairly new to this and your article will be very useful to do e-mail marketing for us. Do you have any suggestions for landing page building and analytics tools? Regards Gurpreet
In one word I could just say tremendous work..And of course it will work as a reference page for email marketing campaign...I am bookmarking the page and will suggest it to others.
swasa says:
Excellent tips provided.Thanks for sharing.
Thanks for providing the very nice email marketing tips.
Jay Chambers says:
Pretty Comprehensive guide, just tweeted! Jay
senthil says:
Adam, Nice marketing tips. Good point about "rule of thumb" by sending bi-weekly or once in a month.
Great article, Thanks Adam, the html design tips were very useful. Regards, Thomas.

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