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Rethinking Email Marketing

With companies caught up in social media, it can be easy to forget about email marketing. Email marketing gives companies a unique channel to broadcast their company and content.

However, not all companies execute email marketing correctly. One of the biggest mistakes they make is they think of it as a sales channel. They charge right out of the gates with the intention of selling products, instead of providing value to customers and occasionally promoting.

Let’s take a second look at email marketing and dive into some tips and counter-intuitive thinking…

Asking Questions and Having Goals

Like any new venture, it is necessary for a business to ask questions and have goals. Questions like:

Why should we do this? Does it need to be done?

What do we hope to get out of this?

What would success look like?

What is the cost?

What milestones should we set?

Who will be in charge of it?

Once you have questions like this nailed down, you can then figure out if these approaches are right for your company, and if so, use some of the tips provided in this blog post to help guide you through the process.

How to get Subscribers

A newsletter is nothing without subscribers. To build your email list, you’ll need to put a signup form on your website. Many companies will leave this email signup form on a landing page or their blog. Here’s an example from the Hubspot blog:

It’s common for many websites to tell how many subscribers they have. Hubspot says to join over 54,000 subscribers. Copyblogger does the same thing with a shorter message:

Others will tell you how often the emails go out, like this from Flowtown:

Here explains the benefits of signing up for their newsletter:

Notice how they also emphasize the “FREE” in the headline.

Mozilla has a simple layout:

Buffer tells us that their email is free and they don’t spam:

Notice the wording and color of buttons companies are using. They emphasize the word “free”. Check out the wording and coloring for the buttons:

Subscribe (Navy Blue)

Join Us (Red)

Join (Green)

Yes, Sign Me Up (Blue)

Sign me up (Blue)

Sign Up (Light Green)

Details matter, so it’s important how you choose your words and colors that you use. Test combinations and see if one converts better than the other.

Some websites have multiple newsletters. Here’s an example from Dr. Weil:

In my opinion, it would be beneficial for companies to tell how often emails go out. It’s helpful when the prospect knows what to expect. You can also show what previous newsletters look like. Here’s an example from Honest Tea’s newsletter signup page:

Whatever message you choose and wherever you choose to place the newsletter signup (preferably homepage and/or blog), the key is to get the emails opened. That’s what we’ll get into next:

Email Open Rates

Many factors can influence email open rates, some of which are out of your control. One factor you can control are your titles.

Most people receive over 100 emails a day (including email from work). Needless to say, it can be difficult for people to open your newsletter if it has a boring title.

Here are a few tips to keep in mind when crafting your email titles:

Don’t make it about you: “It’s not all about you” may be frustrating to hear, but it’s important to keep in mind. Subscribers probably like your brand, but avoid sending out your latest press release. Product launche emails are a good idea as long as they’re not sent out too often. You should outline some kind of benefit for the reader in the email subject line.

Here is a bad title with no benefit for the reader:

“Our company, XYZ Widgets, just passed Widgetry Inc in Sales”

A title like this will likely garner a less than stellar open rate because it makes the email about the company, not about the reader.

Here’s a better one:

“How Widgets Inc increased sales by 5% with this simple greeting”

The reader will feel compelled to open the email because it’s about benefits for the reader.

I frequently subscribe to newsletters, here’s a few I recently got:

All of these titles ensure some kind of value if I open and read the email.

Tell a story: People love to hear stories. Many of the best newsletters will lead with a story as the headline/title. For example, if you sell nutritional advice or supplements you wouldn’t want to write “How Jim lost 100lbs in 2 months” as that would wind up in the spam box and/or be totally ignored. Instead, go for “How Jim’s 2 week vacation lead him to lose 10lbs.” This sounds much more like a casual story and less like a spammy “magic pill” weight loss story.

Here’s a few I recently received in my inbox:

Copyblogger has some great tips for writing a great story. Of course, a story in and of itself isn’t helpful. You have to have takeaways or some teachable moment from the story to make the email stand out.

Make it exciting: Part of having a helpful email means giving the reader actionable advice. It all starts with the topic. When writing the topic, ask yourself “Will the user know what they can do?” Maybe pass your title to a few colleagues and ask, “Without opening it, do you know what you can do in this email?” Give descriptive words when writing your title. For example:


“How XYZ company increased their email open rates from .5-2.0%”


“How XYZ company tripled their email open rates.”

“What XYZ company did to improve their email open rates by 300%”

1.5% is not an exciting number. In fact, it’s rather depressing to think of such a small open rate. By giving words like “tripled” or “300%”, you’re polishing the title up a little bit.

Here’s another example:


“Why I like the new Ford Taurus”


“How Ford just made Toyota’s job much tougher.”

“Why the Ford Taurus will become America’s best selling car.”

“Why the new Taurus will add $10 billion to Ford’s bottom line.”

“Why I like…” is not exciting. Unless you’re really important, no one is going to care what one person thinks about a car. These improved titles think bigger and beyond the writer.  It makes you think there will be real analysis in the email instead of just an opinion.

Keep it short: Almost everywhere you have to keep your message short. Billboards shouldn’t be more than 7 words, slogans shouldn’t be long, Twitter has their 140 character limit and SMS limits you to 160 characters. So what about email? The rule of thumb for subject lines is 50 characters. Remember, people get a lot of emails everyday and long subject lines may not get read. Do your best to keep it as short as possible.

Avoid spammy words: “Free”, “Act now” & “Limited time” all should be avoided in your email subject. Not only do people see these words everyday, they also correlated with spam. If you’ve ever seen a late night infomercial, you’ve undoubtedly heard these words many times. Be more creative and thoughtful with your titles. Hubspot has a great list on spam trigger words.

Consistently have great content: A great title helps, but if your email has bad content then that reduces the chances that they’ll check out your newsletter next time. Or worse, they could unsubscribe. We’ll get into how to write great content later.

Rethinking the Welcome Email – A Case Study

MarketingShepra featured a company that increased their CTR by 450% by changing their welcome process. Instead of one long welcome email, Savvymom sent three welcome emails spread over ten days (one email every 10 days). They also did a few other tactics which increased engagement. Here’s a quick synopsis:

1)    Savvymom gathered user feedback and found that moms (like most people) tend to experience email overload. So they decided to send three welcome emails. All three messages gradually introduce them to the Savvymom website. They had a list of the latest content that Savvymom spent the most time working on. From there, they narrowed it down to get the content that was most enjoyable to the Savvymom readers.

2)    They personalized the content to fit with how the user signed up for the newsletter.

3)    Savvymom made it pretty and emphasized important elements of the email.

4)    Had a format fit for scanners and; kept the call-to-action above the fold. They also kept the design similar to their website, knew who their audience was, portrayed the correct images to them and made sure the email was viewable on all devices.

5)    At the bottom of the newsletter, Savvymom had a few visual links that went back to their website. These links were not related to the email subject, but rather general advice and content in their niche. To give a separate example, if you sell outdoor equipment and your email subject is about water bottles, the bottom links would be links to content about surviving in (enter season) months, instructional videos, or any other content on your site. These links make one last attempt to get the reader to click on something in your newsletter.

In short, doing three welcome emails improved their CTR and on one of those three emails, improved their open rate versus the original welcome email. They also improved their long term engagement.

Segmenting Your Email List

Segmenting your email list is important because it works. By segmenting your marketing emails, you are sending out more relevant emails. You can segment by geography, interests, behavior, Klout score and more. Typically you should use segments based on your business goals. For example, if your company is holding an event or speaking in Chicago, you can segment your list to just let people in Chicago know, instead of emailing your entire list. Or if you see a trend that 5% of your readers click on a certain item or download a white paper, you can segment to those people and send them content similar to that.

Segmenting takes a lot of time and work, but it can pay off in the end.

Writing Great Content

You must be helpful in your email newsletters. Think about email newsletters as a book or a movie. Rarely does someone read or watch a movie to hear promotions or information about a company (unless it’s corrupt). Your newsletter is the same. Provide some kind of benefit for the reader. Helping them can go beyond their personal finances; think about the unique value that you as a brand can provide.

For example, if you’re a social media consultant, you’re newsletter should consist of tips for engaging with users, answering recent FAQ (i.e.: is Pinterest right for me?) and the latest stats and research on social media. You could also feature a company or two that are using social media in the right way.

The content must also be relevant. You must also know your audience. Markingsherpa reports that 4 out of 10 subscribers press the spam button on newsletters simply because the content is irrelevant. One survey showed that 63% of respondents unsubscribe from e-mails to avoid irrelevant messages that were sent too often.

Having a Call-to-Action

Your call-to-action should be above the fold and clear. Here’s an example from Amazon:

On top, they show recommendations.

Then there is “Learn More” button featuring organic snacks. All of this is kept above the fold, so I don’t have to scroll down to see it.

Here’s one from the environmental group called 350:

There are four links, with the middle one telling the user to “click here”. All four of these links direct to the same website. The author of the newsletter is hoping readers just click on a link, he gives multiple options, all of which send the reader to the same site.

When writing your call-to-action, you have to tell them what you want and give them a reason why. Don’t be vague. Political organizations are very good at this when emailing supporters. Here’s one from Barack Obama’s presidential campaign:

This well-formatted newsletter gives two bold sentences, both of them asking to donate money. It’s very clear what they want from the reader. A call-to-action near the top and a call-to-action near the bottom.

Here’s one from Mitt Romney’s campaign:

Romney’s campaign has to call-to-action, one button that asks to donate, clearly well above the fold. The other one, below the fold, asks for a donation.

Here’s the two campaigns next to each other, both viewing above the fold:

These emails make it easy to spot what the sender wants from the reader.

Political organizations generally want money or activism. What does your brand want from readers?

Best Time To Send Out Emails

best time to send out emails

The best day(s) to send out emails appear to be Tuesday or Wednesday. The best times appear to be a little after noon. You’ll always hear conflicting info and advice, so it’s best to test it for yourself.

Click on the infographic above to view The Science of Social Timing Part 2: Timing & Email Marketing. There is a lot of awesome information about the timing and frequency of email marketing. For instance, did you know Saturday is a great day to send out emails?

What To Do When People Unsubscribe

When people unsubscribe, this is a great opportunity to get feedback.

When a reader unsubscribes, ask why and get their feedback. If it’s because you email too often, that may be a hint that you should give readers an option to receive email a little less frequently. You should give readers this option at the bottom of every email you send (i.e. link that says, “Send me these emails less frequently”) and on the unsubscribe page. This could help save you from losing them as a subscriber. One survey showed that 41% of respondents are open to receiving less email rather than totally unsubscribing.

If it’s because the emails they were receiving were irrelevant, then you may want to start segmenting and ask them what kind of content they were looking for.

Should You Bother A/B Testing Email Headlines?

Since most email campaigns use a different headline each time a campaign is sent out, how beneficial is it to test headlines? The only thing you really get out of testing email headlines is you get an idea of what language leads to more opens and conversions. It’s not like testing a home page headline that will be used throughout the year. And you don’t really need to A/B test headlines to get a good idea of what language works with what email.

What’s probably more important, is to A/B test your email layout, call to action text and button colors. Chances are you will be using the same layout and button styles in each email you send out. So testing these elements will give you much more beneficial insights. This is obviously a more effective use of your “testing time”.

Don’t Just Test, but Compare

Here at KISSmetrics, we constantly urge you to test every marketing activity you engage in. But that can lead to very microscopic, laser focused analysis. At some point, you need to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. How are all your marketing campaigns doing? For instance, is email marketing as effective as Pay-Per-Click advertising or SEO? Do you have the budget, and perhaps even more importantly, the time to continue to run email marketing the way you are currently doing it? Is it even producing a return for your business?

We would never advise to completely shut down your email marketing activities, but sometimes it might be wise to scale it down or make adjustments as to how you are going about it to make sure it’s beneficial for your business.

When NOT To Do Email Marketing

For years marketing experts have been pitching the benefits of email marketing and how to get more out of your campaigns. But the real question is: Are you ready to commit to a regular email marketing routine? One of the worst things you can do is start an email marketing campaign and then stop it, returning to it at random intervals throughout the year. Your email marketing list will hit more spam boxes and become much less effective if you don’t keep a regular frequency.

One easy way to see if your business is ready for email marketing is to start blogging. If you can keep a regular blogging schedule, chances are you can keep a regular email marketing schedule. If you can’t keep a regular blogging schedule the effects are far less damaging than losing steam on an email marketing initiative. Another nifty thing about blog articles is that they can also be used as content for your email marketing campaigns (or as backup material). In essence you can kill two birds with one piece of content!

Email marketing is not something all businesses should do. As mentioned, you must start with what you want to get out of it. If you’re only goal is to push sales, you have the wrong intentions and won’t be successful. Focus on making great, relevant content first.

In your years of email marketing, what have you found to work better?

About the Authors: Zach Bulygo is a blogger for KISSmetrics, you can find him on Twitter here. You can also follow him on Google+. Sean Work is the Director of Marketing at KISSmetrics. You can follow him @seanvwork

  1. I don’t offer e-mail marketing or do it myself but this is definitely a great guide. Saving this for when I start a blog.


  2. Great examples and great guide, will definitely use it!

  3. Implementing and optimizing a Welcome Email and Welcome Email series always works great for me. It is when a subscriber is must likely to engage and therefore the email shouldn’t just be one text only message, but be a series of well designed, segmented emails that offer real value.

    Great guide!

    • Glad to hear that works for you!

    • Yes, you are right. E-mail service is must when you want your reader to subscribe to your newsletters.The better it is engaging, the better the chance of it to complement your post and chance of subscription. Also, as explained in the post, E-mail marketing was the norm for online promotion and connecting with the online users. With social media in the limelight these days, it had taken a back seat. But i must say, that with this beautifully crafted post, online users who still love to go with e-mail marketing, it will be a good helping guide to them.

  4. Great article. Thanks a lot for sharing!!!

  5. Great post with lots of useful tips. Thanks for sharing!

    I’d like to add a few thoughts on increasing the number of subscribers:
    1. Add a bonus. Make your bonus even more effective by showing the value of the bonus (e.g. free report worth $150) and adding a picture of the report.
    2. Increase the number of sign up forms on your website – have a sign up form on your “about page” and at the bottom of each blog post (if you have a blog).
    3. I like your examples of social proof by showing the number of subscribers; another idea is adding a brief testimonial.

    I’ve heard many times that email is dead, but I strongly believe it’s more alive than ever. Email offers a great opportunity to develop a relationship with (potential) customers, increase trust, build authority, educate and sell.

  6. Hilario Alvarez Jun 07, 2012 at 1:54 am

    Really a great post. You know what you talkabout. Thanks a lot. From this moment I’m follower.

  7. Wonderful stuff. Super detailed. Great examples. I’m going to feature this in tomorrow’s Waldow Social Weekly email.

    One thing I don’t agree with however, is the words to avoid. It’s not longer the case that words like “free” in the subject line trigger spam filters. Most online retailers use free quite often with no issues. ISPs are looking more at domain & IP reputation (as well as engagement – opens, clicks, etc.) to determine if an email is spam.

    • Thanks for the feature!

      “Free” may not be sent to the spam filter, but it may be viewed by the person reading it as spam. It can be really subjective. “Free Shipping” is good, but “Free Prescription Drugs” or “Enjoy a Debt Free Life” are viewed as spam.

  8. We have recently launched and are wanting to start an e-newsletter for our clients. Very helpful and insightful article.

  9. Great article….Really liked the examples. Now will have to start experimenting with them!

  10. The Generate theme on Genesis has a great static box at the top of the blog specifically designed to help build your email list. Worth checking out if you are interested in building a list for your blog.

  11. Rachel McDermott Jul 18, 2012 at 8:18 am

    Thanks for taking the time to share such a thorough & valuable guide to better email marketing! This post is gold. Saving.

  12. Jackqueline Gramza Sep 06, 2012 at 2:46 am

    Ok so I am thinking about removing my site from Tumbler and get it to a WordPress site. I think this is a wordpress site right? If it is, may I ask where you got the theme? Thanks a bunch!

  13. Hi,

    Nice post man!
    Really great points,i ll defiantly use it.Thanks for sharing.


  14. I think other web-site proprietors should take this site as an model, very clean and fantastic user style and design, as well as the content. You’re an expert in this topic!

  15. Georges Fallah Sep 29, 2014 at 11:12 am

    Good article. Inbound marketers should know the best Email marketing practices in order to implement it the right way.
    Vbout is a great software tool for email marketing and automation.


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