10 Proven Email Marketing Best Practices
Email may look like an artifact beside digital advancements and trends like social media, text messaging and mobile applications, but the decades-old technology remains a communications pivot point for as many as 2.5 billion people worldwide.
The best marketers know this, incorporating email as an integral part of their campaigns year after year while avoiding the temptation to ditch the practice altogether for greener, more dazzling pastures. In fact, a 2014 study by GigaOM Media—a San Francisco-based technology research and analysis firm—found that professional marketers depend on email marketing more than any other practice, including social media, mobile and display advertising, paid search and search engine optimization, referrals and several other applications.
Email is direct, showing up on the digital doorstep of customers. It can be personalized, not just generalized to a broad user base. And it’s cheaper than most other commonly-used marketing tactics. It’s critical for small business marketers to understand more than just the function of email campaigns; they must also recognize its power and seek to harness it.
1. Get personal
If you have a customer’s email address, you’ll more than likely also have their corresponding name. Use this to your advantage and catch their eye with a direct address.
A recent industry study looked at 24 billion emails and found that personalized messages had the highest open rate behind timely news and affiliation emails. Such personalization, of course, can come in the subject line or in the salutation, but the same cited study recommends staying away from uses of “Dear,” especially in the subject line, where characters are limited.
Let customers know they’re more than a pair of eyes or a prospective sale. To you, they’re a name, a person.
2. Connect the dots between first line and subject line
You want to make sure to write email subject lines that make people want to click. Aim for brevity in the subject line, but don’t let that dissuade you from being descriptive. Tease your email’s content without being too cryptic (e.g. “You won’t believe this!”) or too general (e.g. “February Newsletter”). And then deliver on that tease and do it quickly.
There’s no need for detailed back story in emails. Small business owners should carry a sense of urgency into their email campaigns, always remembering that they have a limited amount of time to communicate value before the reader sends the email to the trash.
Remember, too, that first lines will appear in the preview text in the interfaces of most email platforms.
In action, say your organization has an upcoming event. You could craft your message in the following way:
Subject line: Join us this Friday in Midtown
First line: We’re partnering with Such and Such Organization for a stellar event this Friday at 7 p.m.
If John is interested, he’ll keep reading about your stellar event. And if he’s not, at least he got the message to him before he dumped it.
3. Time it
It takes a lot of work to create a good email marketing campaign, from content generation to user targeting to crafting a subject line and then editing it all. How depressing is it to picture your customer giving that work nothing more than a glance –– seeing it pop in their inbox and instantly pressing delete.
Remember: email marketing is like door-knocking. If you arrive at the wrong time with the wrong message, you’ll probably be turned away if the door is even opened to you.
But there’s no universal answer to what time, exactly, is right. That’s specific to your customer base.
Here are some basic guidelines to keep in mind as you embark on that discovery.
Open rates across the board are highest early in the morning. One study found that users open approximately 53 percent of emails that arrived in inboxes at 6 a.m.
Users respond well to emails that arrive after they get off work –– between 7 and 10 p.m.—according to the same study.
Avoid the middle of the work day and weekends. If customers are looking for a distraction in the middle of the work day, they’ll seek one out; don’t expect your marketing email to provide that. On the weekends, the majority of your customers are likely enjoying being unplugged. Cutting into that might cause a negative association with your business.
Avoid Mondays. Your customers are sizing up the week ahead, probably stressed, and they likely don’t want to spend their time reading an email that doesn’t have bearing on that.
4. Keep it short and sweet
Like your subject line —which should be 6-10 words, according to one oft-cited study—your email should be concise. If you’re like most marketers, your big picture strategy probably revolves around your website. Keep that in mind when making email content decisions. House the majority of your content on your site and tease it in emails to drive traffic to your hub.
With this strategy, think of your email as a menu describing the meaty content available on your site. Be sure to get your key message across, but don’t serve it as a manifesto. If readers want to know more, they’ll click through. Be sure that every word has a necessary function in communicating your message.
5. Be clear, personal, and non-salesy
As we mentioned above, bad timing can put all of your effort to waste. And so can a lack of clarity.
If you’re not careful to make sure your message is coherent and free of ambiguity, it doesn’t matter how well-worded the subject line is, what time the message arrives, or how dazzling your layout is. It won’t be understood.
When writing the message, too, be sure to make it more personal than general. Emailing is personal, after all. It’s not a billboard, it’s a doorstep conversation. Make it conversational.
And with that in mind, don’t make your doorstep conversation the kind that would make you want to hang a “no soliciting” sign on the front of your home. Believe in what you’re selling, yes, but be respectful. Use tact; don’t diminish your brand’s reputation by intruding inboxes with something readers may deem spam.
6. Ask questions
Your email message is meant to generate a response –– whether a click, a visit to your site, an R.S.V.P., a subscription or otherwise. Remember this as you craft your content.
One way to engage readers is a simple conversational tactic: Ask questions. Perhaps you’re looking for real feedback on a new product or maybe you’re simply looking to tease a page on your website. Asking is a simple way to accomplish both.
7. Remember mobile users
It's critical to make sure that your emails will show up well on mobile devices, as recent studies have shown that 54% of all email opens happen on a mobile device. Make links clickable and use a responsive sending program, which will cater to mobile users. Direct users to pages on your website which work well for mobile browsing and keep the HTML in the message simple for fast loading.
8. A/B Test for real-deal analytics
Test. Study, analyze, repeat. The best marketers live and die by testing in all they do. As a small business owner, testing may feel like a pipe dream. Keep in mind that it is far less costly to expose a poor email in a test than it is to use that email long-term and miss out on potential revenue.
Use A/B testing as you hone email campaigns. See which subject lines get the best open rates. Use alternate first lines to see how users respond to preview texts. Try capitalization variations to see how your readers respond. Everything in your campaign should be studied and refined through testing.
9. Dress up sharing
Making it easy for readers to share your content –– whether via email forwarding or social media—is an easy way to increase your customer base and number of subscriptions. But they’re unlikely to do it of their own volition. They’ll need some prodding and, more to the point, some kind of incentive.
Offer a promo code or a giveaway to new subscribers and to those who share. “Share” buttons are ubiquitous nowadays; simply dropping those at the bottom of a message won’t do the trick. Make them more prominent than status quo would dictate. Dress them up. And if you have nothing to offer or give away but believe in your campaign, fine. Sell it. Don’t be afraid to ask readers to help get the word out through forwarding and sharing. You’ll be surprised at their receptiveness to light prompting.
10. Measure engagement and tweak, tweak, tweak
As we urged when discussing A/B testing, metrics should mean everything to the modern marketer. Compile as much data about your readership as you can and hedge your bets.
Measure all of the above against your subscription list. What subject lines get you the most opens? Do first-person, conversational tones help you to get click throughs?
Email marketing is nuanced and requires attention to detail and clarity. Follow these best practices to get your email marketing machine humming!