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Email's new best practices

One of the great joys -- and great frustrations -- of my job comes from working with clients whose email experience spans from accomplished professional to rank amateur. The experienced pros help our organization blaze new trails in email marketing while each new client gives us the chance to start fresh and enjoy the benefits of having made mistakes in the past. On the down side, however, we often find ourselves repeating some basic tactics over and over again.

While each brand has its own challenges in email and little quirks that make its emails unique, the fact remains that over time, certain trends emerge that generally hold true for all marketers. By now, you have probably absorbed most of the conventional wisdom of email, such as testing subject lines early and often; using short, crisp copy to highlight the offer; and designing calls to action as text to avoid image rendering issues. These basics comprise Email 101, the freshman course. But over the past year or so, new rules have emerged for email's upperclassmen -- let's call these rules Email 201.

Most email marketers welcome new opt-ins with an email or two. Whether introducing new opt-ins to product ownership or to email subscriptions, marketers know that the consumer's engagement with the brand stands at a high point at this beginning. Regardless of the objectives for these emails, they should follow these new rules:

  • Be direct with subject lines. The first time your opt-in receives an email from you, she needs to get acquainted with you. So emailers should make sure to use the brand name in the subject line -- even if it also appears in the from name -- along with words of welcome. Marketers could do far worse than "Welcome to [brand]'s newsletter."

  • Include whitelisting instructions once or twice, then forget it. For years, emailers put "add to address book" calls to action in the headers of their emails and many still do. While this call to action helps improve deliverability over time, the recipient simply begins to ignore it after a while. To put it another way, if the recipient doesn't add the email address to her address book after two shots, she probably never will. By limiting the use of the "add to address book" call to action, the emailer can free up the header for other uses (see below).

  • Let them know what's coming. Use welcome emails to give an overview of what types of content recipients will see in the coming months. If they elected preferences during the subscription process, remind them of their preferences and provide the opportunity to correct those preferences if necessary.

  • Include a welcome offer as well as welcome information. Direct marketers know the power of recency-frequency-monetary segmentation, and emailers know that it works with email too. Turn your new customers into repeat customers with a "can't refuse" offer -- especially if it's dynamically offered based on the first purchase.

The header has only grown in importance over the past few years. For one thing, about half of all consumers use a preview pane to view emails, according to a MarketingSherpa survey from last year. Thus, they will see what's in the header. In addition, an increasing number of consumers view emails on mobile devices, performing "mobile triage" to determine which emails to keep and which to delete. Forrester estimates that 15 percent of consumers do so now and that many more will do so within the next few years. Both trends place increasing importance on the space at the top of your email.

  • Put a "view on mobile" call to action at the very top. Because many mobile email platforms (especially Blackberry) mangle HTML, mobile email users will rarely scroll down to see what lies beneath. So appeal to these users by linking to a hosted page with an all-text version of your email formatted for mobile screens (30 columns wide).

  • Treat the header as a call to action. Since consumers may only glance at the email in the preview pane before deciding to delete or read further, smart email marketers make sure that their entire main offer can fit in the header space. In fact, many marketers put the entire call to action -- link included -- in the space.

Transactional messages
As with welcome messages, transactional messages arrive at a time when consumers are engaged with the brand. Thus markers can use these emails to build on this engagement with smart and timely offers.

  • Announce your brand. The transactional email may represent the first email that a consumer sees from your brand. Thus, the email should carry the brand name in both the from name and subject line. Moreover, both the from name and subject line should indicate the nature of the email. So for instance, the from name might read "[brand] store" and the subject line might read "[brand] thanks you for your order that shipped today."

  • Enhance the email with appropriate offers. Using simple business rules, a transactional email can feature relevant offers. First and foremost, the rules should indicate that all transactional email recipients who are not subscribers to a regular email should receive a call to action to subscribe. After that, offers should be based on the contents of the email. Product purchasers should see offers complementary to the product. Consumers seeking information should see offers for information on related topics. Existing e-store or support data can support these business rules.

Subject lines
The world of subject lines changes constantly. As mentioned earlier, all email marketers should therefore test constantly. However, it's worth noting a few recent trends that have come to light.

  • Don't fear the $ symbol. In the early days of spam filtering, symbols such as $ or ! came to be feared. Simple spam filters scored any emails with these symbols toward the spammy end of the spectrum and thus created many false positives. These days, spam filters take a more sophisticated approach to identifying inappropriate emails. So a marketer should feel free to talk about the price of his or her offers or throw in the odd exclamation mark. References to lengthening bits of human anatomy, however, will still set off alarm bells. Which brings us to our last point:

  • Sometimes, silly works. If subject lines have two hard-and-fast rules, they are 1) keep it short, under 50 characters and 2) be direct: explain the main offer clearly. While these rules generally apply, marketers should test humor or puns in their emails from time to time. Every once in a while, these subject lines draw more opens than the more straightforward examples.

We've learned much more than the few tips listed above. And we have more to learn as email and email users continue to evolve. But try out these ideas for now until we're all ready for email graduate school.

Chris Marriott is vice president and global managing director for Acxiom Digital.

Chris is the President and Founder of Marketing Democracy, LLC. Marketing Democracy provides email marketers with a range of consulting services around vendor selection (RFPs), vendor migration, and email marketing optimization.  Clients...

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to leave comments.

Commenter: Dominique Hind

2009, June 12

Great article. I've reviewed a lot of email marketing programs, what's working and what's not. It's interesting that everyone holds Apple up as being the best marketer, with email they get it so wrong (although most customers wouldn't or couldn't care).

Here is a review of Apple's email marketing, what they are doing, common elements and what else they should be doing: http://tinyurl.com/lvhq7s

Air New Zealand (airline) are designing the best templated emails. Each has its own personality and style. A review of the emails can be found here: http://tinyurl.com/l2spwm

Would welcome any feedback or comments.

Commenter: Michael Daehn

2009, June 10

Good tips!

Commenter: James Riker

2009, June 08

I just got a copy of http://EmailCharger.com and I would recommend to anyone who needs to send out an opt-in email mailshot. Its the best desktop email marketing software I have used so far.