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5 often-overlooked email rules of thumb

5 often-overlooked email rules of thumb Chris Marriott

In matters of email and mobile messaging, we always want the best practices -- the approaches that bring the highest degree of success. While experience has allowed us to codify some sure-fire best practices (keep subject lines under 50 characters, make sure offers are visible with images turned off, etc.), we still have to make decisions without the benefit of best practices regularly. In these cases, we turn to rules of thumb -- anecdotal evidence in the form of simple directions that allow us to act with some degree of confidence. In time, we may generate enough results from these rules of thumb to consider them best practices, but for now, they remain mere plausibilities.

Today, I'd like to share with you some rules of thumb I've used for a while. As always, your mileage may vary. If your experience differs from mine, or if you have your own rules of thumb to add, please share them in the comments section below.

The 24-hour rule for SMS
SMS, or text messages, offer a terrific opportunity for immediate communication. Consumers who use text messaging tend to give these messages priority over email, often reaching for their phones as soon as they hear the message alarm.

As a result, marketers must choose to employ SMS selectively for outbound communications. We employ the 24-hour rule, which means that if a text message would have the same value 24 hours from now, then it doesn't merit sending as an SMS. For instance, announcing a four-hour sale today has immediate import; a consumer might miss a sale like that if she doesn't check her email frequently enough. However, announcing a new product to be launched next month does not come with the same urgency.

By abusing this rule, marketers run the risk of crying wolf. Consumers don't want their SMS inboxes filled up with irrelevant and potentially costly messages.

The reputation rule for "share with your network" (SWYN)
Just as consumers associate SMS with urgency, so too do they associate the social networking channel with trust. Consumers will often pass along information or offers that they believe their friends will find useful. As a result, most email service providers offer a SWYN functionality in email, the ability to share content or offers directly from the email. Although relatively new, this technology has proved useful; when deployed properly, it can boost clicks by 20-30 percent.

Note the phrase "when deployed properly" above. Some marketers might feel the temptation to put SWYN links in every email or even with every link in every email. This practice tends to strain the usefulness of the technology. Before employing SWYN links, marketers should think about reputation -- the audience's as well as theirs.

When a consumer clicks on a SWYN link, he is personally endorsing the content within. In effect, this consumer is telling his friends, "Hey, I think this is cool. Check it out." Naturally, consumers will not think everything they see in an email rises to that level of importance.  Marketers, then, should ask themselves whether any particular offer or piece of content looks like something that a typical consumer might consider worthy of sharing.

One exclamation point per message
A few years ago, ISPs employed relatively crude spam filters that looked for keywords (we're looking at you, Viagra) and/or combinations of words and symbols that they associated with bad email. While spam filters have gotten exponentially more sophisticated, consumers have developed their own personal spam filters. They tend to disregard anything that looks like it might be spam, even if it comes from a legitimate sender.

So, among other things, marketers should enhance the look of their email and text messages by using a professional tone. Among other things, this tone means very limited use of the exclamation point. Nothing looks more like a Ronco commercial than multiple exclamation points. While some parts of messages might need emphasis, over-use of the exclamation point looks and feels loud. Use it once. Choose wisely.

Images push the eye down and to the right
In eye-tracking testing, a camera watches consumers as they read emails. In our testing, we've found that images -- not just pictures, but also bright color blocks -- tend to move the eye around the page. A few years ago, we sent two holiday emails for an online retailer that both had a free shipping offer. Despite the similarity of the products in the email and the free shipping offer, one email generated four times the revenue per email as the other. Why? A large picture of a model drew readers' eyes away from the free shipping offer right on top of it.

It follows, then, that when designing an email with graphic elements, marketers should make sure that key elements, such as the offer and the call-to-action, should have plenty of space around them. Moreover, the designer should put these key elements below and/or to the right of the graphic elements. Unseen elements equal lost opportunities.

Signal what's below the fold
For email newsletters or any email that extends below the fold, marketers must take care to ensure that recipients know that something lies down there. Any number of visual cues can inform the recipient:

  • Anchor links for below-the-fold content

  • Content sliced in half by the fold, which encourages the recipient to scroll down

  • Table of contents up top to ensure that recipients know of other items

While it nearly goes without saying that designers should put the most important content at the top, we must add that less important content can drive clicks too.

These five rules of thumb certainly do not comprise the entire body of knowledge developed about email and mobile messaging. I'm sure that many of you reading this piece have your own favorites. So, as I said above, share 'em below!

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

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

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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